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How to ‘be a man’ living with bipolar – from relationships to dealing with male stereotypes

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What does it mean to be an Aussie man living with bipolar and navigating relationships?

We ask Matt and Mark, two SANE Peer Ambassadors, about their experiences. They share how they deal with stigma, harmful stereotypes, and what they find helpful from the people close to them. At the end of the day, they say speaking up about their mental health (as hard as it can be) allows others to do the same.

Matt is passionate about the difference early intervention and education can make to a person's mental health recovery. Mark has come from a background playing with the AFL to being an advocate for Victorians experiencing addiction and mental health issues.

SANE: So many people with complex mental health issues experience stigma in their relationships with friends, family, or partners. Has stigma around bipolar shown up in your relationships?   

Matt: I think when I first told some friends or work colleagues I trusted that I had bipolar some friendships discontinued. Some people did view me differently or did not know how to react, mainly due to a lack of education or understanding about this very treatable illness. If I had said that I had depression or anxiety, then I think people would have been more accepting as compared to my bipolar condition.

It really hurt losing friendships because people found out that I have a complex mental health issue, even though I had not changed from the person they had come to know in the first place for my unique qualities and talents.

Mark: Yep, recently I lost a relationship because of it, it’s affected me forever. When I’m going through not being able to move and sleeping all day, I often don’t talk about it. It’s too hard to explain what you’re going through so sometimes I just shut up. Then when I do talk about it it’s too heavy for the other person.

There’s education for people with mental health but not for the people around you or close to you. So when you reach out they don’t know what to do.

SANE: What has helped you cope with that? Do you have advice for others with bipolar experiencing stigma in relationships? 

Matt: I have learnt to accept other people’s attitudes and opinions for the most part over the years. I know that most of the relationships that I have with friends, family and my partner lack the level of education and understanding to truly know what bipolar is and how it can impact a person’s life.

I think this stigma that people experience provides a great opportunity to start educating those people we have close relationships with. One great resource for families, partners and friends to learn more about bipolar is the website Bipolar Caregivers, which was developed by Lesley Berk. A really good book for partners and couples to read together is “Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder” by John Preston and Julie Fast.

Mark: A lot of the time I just battle through myself, which I have done pretty much all my life. But I’ve got a few people that understand that I trust, so I speak to them. My friends come round when they’re concerned. Another friend, Mary, who helped me when I got out of rehab visits me and I visit her when I can. So, speak to the people you trust is my advice.

SANE: What language do you find works to communicate your diagnosis, or where you’re at with symptoms, to help people understand?  

Matt: It’s a good idea to keep the words simple; explain how it is different to the usual mood changes that everyone experiences when something good or bad happens in their life. I’d advise people to be genuine and open about bipolar and try to normalise the illness just like if someone has high blood pressure or diabetes.

Talk about how a person with bipolar can either sit at the low end with depression or at the high end with mania/hypomania but that most people will often sit in the normal mood range. Provide examples of what your usual behaviour or personality is like and how it is different when you are either manic or depressed.

Mark: I’ve only recently told my sisters and my friends that I’m struggling at the moment. I tell them what’s happening: I’ve said, ‘I can’t get out of bed, I can’t move.’ I told them why, that it was because of losing opportunities through COVID, like the opportunity to travel and tell my story.

I tell them I feel like I’ve got this ‘red devil’ inside of me, that I don’t know how to get rid of it or how to explain this feeling, this depression, this anxiety. But I always emphasise that I’m not going to suicide. I say, ‘It’s hard to explain but one minute I’m out doing some shopping and one minute this feeling comes over me and I have to go home. I’ll be at the gym training like Rocky, then I’m home and feel like I’m walking on a minefield.’

SANE: What have you found most helpful from friends, family, or partners when you are having a conversation about your mental health?

Matt: To see me as the expert of my own illness and that I have good knowledge to share with them about some of my early warning signs and triggers. It’s important to be there, to listen and be empathetic towards me about some of the things that I have been through and what I need to do to stay well with the condition.

It is important to let my friends, family and my partner know what I can do to stay well and how they can also minimise stressful situations for me, while being supportive.

Mark: When I’m not doing well my friend Simon Madden says, ‘where were you 5 years ago? Where were you a few years ago? Where are you now?’ Then I look back where I was, where 14 and a half years ago I was a few days off dying, and I see how far I’ve come.

Mary reminds me of the opportunities I’ve got now, that I’m helping people, that I’ve got an apartment, I’m writing a book, I’ve started a foundation. Also, I know the tough days will go away in 1-2 days, then I’ll be alright. It’s just a pattern I’ve got that I sit there and I take. I tell myself and Mary tells me this sometimes. 

SANE: Our culture can stigmatise men talking about their mental health, it shows real courage to challenge this! Have you found being open about your mental health helps other men do the same?

Matt: Most definitely. There really does seem to be a culture in Australia that men cannot open up, talk about their life challenges, or show emotion. For anyone to talk about their own personal experience, it can potentially be traumatic and unsettling. But it’s important to communicate and express oneself. The benefits for doing this are so important in helping to educate others in the community and to show that personal and human side of the illness.

When I have spoken openly about my own mental health issue, especially when I have spoken at schools, young males have come up to me and opened up about their own mental health challenges and problems. Also having opened up to male friends they have been more comfortable in talking openly about their own feelings and showed that fragile side to their personality.

Mark: To this day, every time I might say I’m struggling, I think I’m whingeing, because that’s what I was always told: ‘stop sooking’ and ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’ and that was before games when I was crying in the stalls getting ready to play for 50,000 people. 

But, I get up there and tell my story on television on radio. People come to my talks, then they open up. That’s why I missed my talks so much during COVID, because perfect strangers open up to me, but they won’t open up to their family. Because I’ve had messages from people who’ve gone to get help from a psychologist, and they’ve gone there because I’ve got up there and told it how it is.

SANE: Do you see an Australia one day where people with bipolar don’t experience any stigma in their relationships? What needs to change?

Matt: Personally, I think that there will always be some stigma unfortunately. I think that it will improve over time as people become better educated about the low prevalence mental health issues such as bipolar and schizophrenia. I think better media reporting and community education will help inform the public.

Mental health promotion courses are needed in all schools beginning from primary school to educate people from a young age. Less prevalence of stigma will only encourage people in early help seeking which will benefit the individual and community as a whole. It is crucial that people are more exposed to people with bipolar to see them for their personality and unique talents and skills that they have, rather than seeing or focusing on the mental health issue.

Mark: I think there’s always going to be stigma but it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be. The awareness out there and education is amazing compared to what it used to be. And it’s got better with the government pouring millions into mental health and the COVID thing. But I can’t see it completely going. Especially with men.

At the moment there’s so much awareness out there, so much information, so many places to go to find information, but the big thing is there are still people still that aren’t educated about it. I don’t know how we do it, friends and family need education on how to look after people. What’s got to change? Got to listen to more people like me

Do you find it helpful hearing from others affected by mental health issues?

Check out People Like Us for more real stories and videos of our Peer Ambassadors. Or visit our online forums to start connecting with people who get it, both people with experience of mental health issues and people providing support to others.

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