On the whole life has been good to Stephen Fry. He is a successful and popular actor, TV presenter, comedian and writer, is now happily married and lives a comfortable life. But he has also had to live with and manage his bipolar disorder and depression from a young age.
A well-known advocate of mental health awareness over several years, his documentary: Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, won him an Emmy and brought significant coverage and debate around mental health, long before the subject was talked about on national television or in the media at all on a regular basis.
Speaking recently as part of the Braincare series of podcasts about his experience of living with and managing bipolar disorder and depression, Mr Fry said there was no handbook or best approach for dealing with mental health disorders, but they are manageable and there is always hope of improvement.
He said there were two important points to remember when considering how to deal with mental health disorders; never underestimating how serious they can be but also, it isimportant to remember that some of the most ‘remarkably fulfilled and inspiring people’ suffer from mental health disorders too.
He said: “There are two opposite points of view you have to have about a mental health disorder like bipolar. The first is you should never underestimate its seriousness. It has, whatdoctors call a high morbidity-that can lead to serious ill health and death-we all know the suicide figures are alarming in this country and the around of the world. It is not something to take likely. It can cause people to spin out of their family and work and go right down to street level really become end of everything that is hopeful in life. So, you must not forget that’s the truth about mental illness. At the same time, you must also bear in mind that some of the most remarkable, fulfilled and inspiring people that have ever lived have had mental illness. It is not a death sentence, but it is serious.”
He said some people are extremely ill with the disorder but manage to achieve ‘astounding’ things such as one of his heroes, Kay Redfield Jamison. She is both Dalio Professor in Mood Disorders and Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is an Honorary Professor of English at the University of St Andrews. She also suffers from severe bipolar disorder and has to have almost ‘toxic’ levels of lithium to enable lead a normal life on a daily basis.
Asked how people should try and help people suffering from mental health disorders, Mr Fry replies: “Its trickly. Almost by definition if you are having a real episode you are unreasonable and therefore sometimes even the most delicate and tactical question can irritate. But generally, don’t look for a reason when trying to help someone. Depression isn’t as simple as that. It is lowered down on your mind like a great force. Often, I say it’s just like the weather…it isn’t you fought because you didn’t create it and it won’t last forever. The best thing you can do is ask if there is anything you can do to help and don’t be offended if not. Try not to play the doctor and try and cheers people up because you will often feel a failure for doing so and the person suffering will feel pressured into doing so for your sake and that often goes against the natural flow of their illness. It’s a sensitivity thing really-and most people are good at that.”
“The most important thing to say is I don’t have a system because there simply isn’t one. Everyday is different if you are suffering and I wouldn’t want to lay down a grid of behaviour for people to follow because it just wouldn’t work. You are the captain of your own sole, so there is never a wrong way of going about it. Each day is a new start and a new opportunity to recalibrate and if that’s a bad day as wellthen tomorrow could be better,” he adds.
Mr Fry also says trying to care about yourself more effectively often helps although whatever approach is taken isnot a cure and works differently for everyone, he says. For him, its more walking and exercise and drinking far less. But he says, that wont work for all.
“If you don’t care about yourself, if you have given up on yourself, you naturally let your body and mind slide. Rewarding your body easier than being able reward your mind. So, exercise helps and in my case walking etc but that isn’t the right way for everyone.”
For almost as long as his parents can remember, Stephen was a hyperactive child to the point where he caused disruption and was manic at school and eventually became ‘unmanageable’ and was expelled when he was 14. He had periods of what he describes as ‘extreme distress’ and couldn’t be spoken to at all while these episodes were occurring. Interestingly, a psychiatrist who was asked to assess the young Stephen wrote down on a piece of paper; bipolar? This was almost unheard of in those days. But no official diagnosis was made at the time.
But things got worse, not better and Stephen ended up in prison as a result of his behaviour. After two years of probation he worked ‘extremely hard’ to get into university and won a scholarship to Cambridge. “After that I managed to have a successful early career and discovered how to work hard and concentrate to the point where people asked whether I was on drugs during periods of being manic because I would talk very fast and be almost bouncing off the walls at times,” he says. “But towards my 30s, I started to feel a real change-my mood change in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Sometimes I would feel complete emptiness, feel like all energy was being drained from me along with all hope and possibility.” This led to him walking out of a play he was in at a theatre in the West End in 1995.
And that’s when he tried to end his life…
After that he sought proper help and bipolar was officially diagnosed along with the necessary medication. “And then the medication really started to work, and I started to learn more about his condition, and it went and came back and went and came back again and that’s when I decided to make the documentary which was important as the subject was very taboo at the time and it helped spread awareness and create debate on the subject.”
Mr Fry came off medication about four years ago after a long period of using it to help to manage his disorder. He got married, exercised more and felt better as well as stopped drinking which he says helps him too. He still has episodes and keeps his medication on stand-by for those times, butreports to be in a much ‘happier cycle’ these days. And long may that continue.
For those struggling with mental health Safer Highways have partnered with One Million Lives to offer individuals a self help tool to enable them to better help their own mental health - for more information visit www.oml.world