Real Questions About Mental Illness — Interview with Brandon Gregory
I recently had an opportunity to speak to a group of young adults at my church (United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas) about my struggle with bipolar disorder. There were great conversations, but I didn’t get a chance to answer all of the audience questions, so I’m recording and answering the questions here.
How does someone get past the “tough guy” mentality of the military, police, and fire department to get help if they need it?
This is a tough one because I don’t think there’s one answer that’s going to apply to every situation like this. Even though I’m very open about my disorder, I don’t tell everyone, and I make sure it’s not the first thing people know about me. The fact is, some people will judge you, and some will be very accepting and accommodating. But you don’t have an obligation to tell anyone who isn’t really close to you. I would recommend reaching out to a professional privately and only telling people on a need-to-know basis to start. You can always fill people in later, but once you’ve told someone, you can never take it back.
How should someone who thinks they may have a mental illness but doesn’t have insurance go about getting assistance? What do you suggest?
I’ll admit, I’m not the best resource to answer this, but the church counseling team would have access to some better resources on this than I would. I found my current psychiatrist (who is great) through a church referral. There are medications for which generics can be had for as little as $4/month even without insurance, and a general practitioner doctor can prescribe them (although a specialist will be much more helpful in picking the right medication and figuring out the right dosage).
How do you handle or make sense of moments where there is a relapse of what you are being treated for?
Even though I’m “stable,” I have these moments from time to time. I’ve learned how to create a safety net for myself whenever I see it happening. When I’m depressed, I make sure to get plenty of sleep, not to overcommit myself, and tell my wife about it so she knows I may need help. When I’m manic, I avoid making decisions without running them by someone else, I think twice about any potentially risky behavior, and I make sure any grandiose notions I have are grounded in reality before acting on them. Relapsing and even falling down completely can be frustrating, especially after months of stability, but now that I’ve learned to recognize the symptoms and create that safety net, the impact isn’t as bad as it was before.
Did you ever consider suicide? If so, why did you choose to live?
Yes, I have several times, and that’s actually what tipped me off that there might be something wrong with me. It was very hard to reach out for help because I felt like a major burden on everyone around me — I honestly thought the world would be a better place without me in it. It was a combination of support from my friends, my faith, and dumb luck that kept me going. There were a few times that I knew I couldn’t be alone and had to go spend time with a friend until the feeling passed. I did fall prey to some self-harm, but thankfully had no serious attempts.
Also, if you have a friend who is having serious suicidal thoughts, it is not enough to say, “Call me if you need me.” There’s a good chance they think the problem cannot be solved, so they probably won’t reach out for help. If a friend is a suicide risk, you may need to go to them. Don’t feel like you need to do it alone, either. Professionals or even suicide hotlines can be a great help and may be necessary whether you help or not.
Do you want others to talk about your story or refer to you as someone with a mental illness, or would you rather just be known as a wonderful human being? Does it matter either way? In general, does it help the cause to talk about friends with mental illness or does it upset those because that mental illness defines them?
This differs for every person, and even in different environments (I’m less open at work than I am in my personal life), so I can answer for myself, but not for everyone with a mental illness. I personally prefer talking about my story because it can help people. There have been times when people have judged me and it came back to bite me, but the good outweighs the bad. There are still times I won’t share — for instance, at my last job, there was a supervisor I wouldn’t tell about it because I didn’t trust him not to hold it against me and my career. But for the most part, I’m pretty open about it.
If someone commits a sin (murder, rape) as a result of a mental disorder, is it still a sin? Why or why not?
This is a difficult question. Is it a sin in the sense that God will hold it against them? I have my opinion, but honestly, that’s not for me to decide — that’s between God and the person. Is it something that has consequences that a mentally ill person will have to deal with? I personally don’t believe that mental illness is a get-out-of-jail-free card, but there needs to be some level of sympathy there as well. This is a complicated question without an easy answer. For a theological answer, you’d probably want to talk to a pastor.
As a young adult, did you have a friend that knew about your bipolar disorder? If yes, were they someone you confided in and someone that kind of held you accountable (checked to see if you’re taking your meds)? If no, do you wish you would’ve had someone and why?
When I was diagnosed at 21, yes, I had several friends who knew, although also many who did not. They were fantastic about keeping me in check as I learned to deal with the new normal of life with medical treatment. I honestly think I wouldn’t be as well-adjusted today if I hadn’t had them in my life then.
What advice would you give teacher about interacting with students who have a mental illness?
Disclaimer: I’m not a teacher, so take this with a grain of salt. There’s a big difference between treated mental illness and untreated or poorly treated mental illness. If you’re noticing problems, it’s probably one of the latter. Discussing the problems and pointing at patterns with the parents may be appropriate, as you may have insight into the child that even the parents don’t have. But there will probably also be times when it’s a bad move to suggest that a child has a mental illness.
All that said, there may be some accommodations that can be made. Most mental illnesses are classified as disabilities for employment purposes, meaning employees can request reasonable accommodations from their employers. I don’t know the legality of students requesting accommodations, but familiarizing yourself with some of the more common disorders and their accommodations may provide some insight into this.
Is it possible to have a healthy and thriving dating relationship or marriage while dealing with mental disorders? What if only one person has it? Or if both people have it?
Is it possible? Yes, absolutely. I have a very healthy relationship with my wife, and had several healthy dating relationships earlier in life (although, admittedly, some unhealthy ones as well). Simply having the disorder is not a guarantee of how relationships will work. There are definitely some unique challenges that come along with mental illness in a relationship, whether it’s in one of both parties, and it’s something that merits conversation in a relationship, but they are surmountable challenges.
Now, that said, if you are personally having trouble maintaining healthy relationships, it is not necessarily your fault. You’re probably dealing with a lot, and rocky relationships are no indicator of failure — only struggle. If this is you, have hope — things can get better.
Can traumatic events in one’s life cause mental illness or is it just a chemical imbalance?
This is where that blurry line of nomenclature can be confusing. It depends on how you define a mental illness. That said, whether trauma constitutes mental illness or not, it’s a real problem that needs to be looked at and can probably be alleviated with professional help. The depression and anxiety from trauma can be just as bad or even worse than a chemical imbalance. If an antidepressant helps you live a normal life as you go through a bitter divorce, does the technical classification of your malady really make a difference? Don’t ever feel bad because your pain doesn’t look like someone else’s.
Do you think mental illness is portrayed accurately in the media? Is it shown too much or not enough?
Mental illness is sometimes portrayed accurately in the media (Silver Linings Playbook standing out as a recent example). Where media really falls short is in how to deal with mental illness. Think about the various mentally ill people you’ve seen in movies. How many of those movies ended with the person getting effective medical treatment and being able to live a normal life that way? I can’t think of any. How many of those movies ended with the person rejecting the false wisdom of doctors and learning to be happy and normal through sheer willpower and inspiration? Pretty much all of them. The sad truth is that a person finding the inner strength to conquer mental illness makes a better Hollywood story than someone seeking legitimate help, and that’s making the stigma against treatment way worse.
What do you do now when you experience one side of bipolar, since you mentioned that you are stable?
I’m mostly stable. I still definitely have swings, they’re just not as bad as they used to be. I’ve gotten a lot better about recognizing the signs in myself and taking objective measures to help myself deal with them. A good example would be a recent depressive spell I had at work. I was struggling with the work I had and assumed I just wasn’t up to par with the position I had. I suffered in silence for a few weeks before I began to suspect that it might be the depression. I talked to my supervisor about it, and it turns out I was just really overworked. The supervisor got me the support I needed and things got better. But it never would have happened had I not recognized the state of my mind and reached out for help.
What are some coping mechanism that you’ve used to become more stable with bipolar?
Bear in mind that what works for me may not work for everyone. Every case and every person is unique, so there are tons of different methods out there. For me, consistency is a big one: consistency in schedule, sleep, diet, and exercise. Even when I’m depressed, forcing myself to get out of bed and take a shower on days when I don’t have a pressing need to can keep me on track. Sleep is a huge factor for both sides, and messing too much with my sleep schedule can actually make me cycle pretty badly. (I’m by no means great about this one — for instance, this past Saturday night, I just didn’t go to sleep until Sunday afternoon.) Diet and exercise, while not total solutions, do have a big impact on mental health — don’t underestimate these.
An outlet for all of those thoughts is also essential when things start getting rough. I’ve actually never been to therapy, but that’s a great way to deal with the hard and sometimes erratic thoughts that mentally ill people deal with. For me, writing is very therapeutic and helps a lot. And don’t underestimate the power of friends who understand. I have a friend at work who also has bipolar disorder. Being able to tell him, “I’m manic and I bought three pairs of shoes at 2:00 this morning” and not be thought of as crazy is great.