I thought I knew about my mental illness. But the truth shocked me | David Harewood
It’s been nearly two years since I tweeted that when I was in my early 20s, I had a breakdown and was sectioned. I didn’t know it at the time, but that early morning post would have a profound effect on me, and challenge me to re-evaluate just about every area and aspect of my life. I expanded on the tweet in a piece I wrote for the Guardian about my experiences, and was actually pleased that I’d finally told the story publicly, as I’d wanted to do for a long time.
But shortly after the article was printed I heard through the grapevine that a good friend, who had spent time with me at the time of my breakdown, had read the article and remarked: “That’s not how I remember it.” Hmm … I thought. Was it possible that I had somehow been mistaken? Had my recollection of events faded over the years? I needed to find out.
I made a call to a producer friend and pitched him an idea: “Why don’t I do a documentary in which I find out what happened to me 30 years ago when I lost my mind?” “Great idea!” came the reply. “Let me make some calls.” By complete coincidence, at the same time the BBC was thinking about a season of mental health programmes, and after some wrangling a deal was done.
However, the filming did not go as I’d planned. This was without doubt the most difficult thing I’d ever done, and at times during the shoot I actually thought history might be repeating itself. I found myself under intense pressure as the reality of what had “actually” happened to me came flooding back, while at the same time I was doing my jaunty professional best to present a television programme.
Some people say it’s never a good idea to rake up difficult or emotional moments from the past, yet here I was with a camera pointed at me, face to face with the facts of my own breakdown. After 30 years I was finally confronted with the truth. Gazing down at my medical records, stored on microfilm by the Whittington psychiatric hospital in north London, I got my first glimpse of the truly disturbed mind of my young psychotic self.
Everything I’d said while sectioned in hospital had been written down; every drug I’d been administered had been recorded; it was my breakdown in black and white, and it wasn’t pretty to look at. Psychosis affects roughly one in 100 people every year, and each case is different. You will believe things that aren’t real, and possibly hear or see things that aren’t there, all the while getting further and further from reality. Thoughts become disordered and the excessive dopamine racing around your brain can give you a euphoric sense of your own capabilities, keeping you awake for hours and making sleep and rest seem boring and unnecessary.
As I slowly settled into this new realisation I began to ask questions, and the amazing professionals I met during filming began to give me answers. Suddenly things unexplained for three decades were laid bare, and I realised it wasn’t that I’d been mistaken in my recollection of the past; it was that I’d buried the painful memories of the distress and trauma my younger self was experiencing so deep that I would never find them … and now I had.
It was an uncomfortable couple of days. But my head cleared, and at a drop-in centre in Birmingham, I took inspiration from the youngsters I met, all of whom were recovering from psychosis and were on the long, slow path towards putting themselves back together again. They were at first wary of me: “You can’t understand unless you’ve experienced it,” came a voice to my right. “Well … I know because it happened to me,” I answered. Suddenly I was no longer the bloke off the telly; I was one of them, and we began to open up to each other.
I’d never met anybody who’d gone through what I had: 30 years ago support groups like this didn’t exist. Sitting in on the class that day was a turning point for me and, as I gazed at the slides and diagrams being projected on to the classroom walls, I realised I’d never once been given this information. Three decades ago I was handed a bottle of pills and told to “keep taking the tablets”, but here I was being educated on the chemical and biological reasons why psychosis occurs – and it was a revelation, as I hope all the films in this mental health season will be for people unfamiliar with the realities of mental illness.
I began to investigate why I’d had my breakdown, and my understanding was further expanded when I found out that black men in Britain are 10 times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness, and four times more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Young black men are one of the most overrepresented ethnic minority groups in inpatient mental health services. The reasons are complex, but discrimination and cultural differences do play a role. Personally speaking, I simply wasn’t prepared for a world full of sharp objects: as an actor not black enough for some and a novelty elsewhere I found myself lost, unable to set my own course, spiralling out of control and hitting the rocks only two years out of the safe harbour of drama school. Perhaps not the best way to start a career, but in a sense I’m glad I got all the shit out of the way early!
I’m extremely lucky to have got through my psychotic breakdown, and the term “post-traumatic growth” seems apt when I think of where I am today. It has deepened my understanding of myself, and certainly made me far more robust than I was as a younger man.
I’m proud to have made this film alongside the other contributors, each in our own way shining a light on a subject that has for far too long remained in the shadows and been shunned for fear of shame. Mental illness attacks indiscriminately, no matter your age, race or creed. The more we talk about it, the better – dragging it into the light can only deepen our understanding, and maybe even save a life or two.
• David Harewood is an actor
• Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, hosted by Mental Health Foundation, takes place from Monday 13 to Sunday 19 May
Mind, 0300 123 3393
Rethink Mental Illness, 0300 5000 927
SANE, 0300 304 7000