Sunday, 1 December 2013

Why Bipolar? Pete Millington interviews Declan Henry about his latest book


Irish author Declan Henry has recently completed a new book which looks at the myths of bipolar disorder, a mental illness which Henry describes as being currently both topical and widely misunderstood.

In this interview with Pete Millington for The Harp, the newspaper of the Irish community in the West Midlands, Declan Henry talks about his book, Why Bipolar? and offers some challenging and at times controversial views about the treatment of  people with the bipolar diagnosis.    

Declan Henry has been an active social worker for over 20 years, dealing with people with a wide range of social and mental issues, including bipolar. What inspired him to write this book though was witnessing the intense suffering of a personal friend over many years of ‘treatment’ for bipolar.

In Why Bipolar? Henry pushes back against the catch-all mythology of a condition for which, he says, there is no scientific evidence. He reveals the convenient collusion between the psychiatric profession and big pharmaceutical companies as they claim, in his view, to treat an ‘illness’ so poorly and vaguely defined that its list of symptoms is “entirely self-contradictory, endorsing and prescribing the suffering of millions while they themselves grow rich and re-write not just history but the bounds of medicine in the process.”

Henry’s collection of 26 life-stories illuminates the world of people diagnosed with bipolar, and heartbreakingly show what the author describes as the cavalier treatment deemed acceptable for those with this diagnosis.

But Henry also offers hope to those with a bipolar diagnosis, claiming that by becoming better informed, both about the condition itself and the alternative treatments available, and by practicing self-management, the dream of living drug-free with bipolar is not only a possibility, but an inspiring reality.

PM:    Can you tell me a little more about your background Declan and what led you to write a book about Bipolar Disorder?

DH:    I have worked with vulnerable adults and young people for the past 20 years with many of them suffering from bipolar or depression, but the reason I decided to write a book on the subject was because an Irish friend of mine has ‘bipolar’. I have witnessed her decline rather than improve over the years. Hospitalisation after hospitalisation, drug after drug along with several suicide attempts. She has gone from being an intelligent, assertive and highly functioning woman into a lethargic and withdrawn state owing to a never-ending and constantly changing plethora of medication. She has been part of a system that has not helped her get better over a thirty year period. It is abundantly clear to me that psychiatric intervention has destroyed her life. Surely that can not be medically, morally or ethically correct?

PM:    For those readers who are not familiar with the term bipolar, can you tell us broadly what it is?

DH:    In straight forward terms - bipolar disorder consists of periods of mania where the individual experiences increased physical activity, high levels of energy, distractibility and irritability. They are unable to sleep, display grandiosity and have high sexual desire. On the opposite end of the scale to manic episodes is recurring cycles of depression, where people stay in bed for days or weeks. They experience a total lack of interest in life, lack of energy/motivation to do even the simplest of tasks, coupled with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.

PM:    Is bipolar the same thing that used to be known as Manic Depression?

DH:    Yes. It was clinically known as Manic Depression up until the 1980s. In fact, some people still refer to it by its old name because for them it clearly states what the condition actually is in straightforward words. The term is plain and simple and its definition is self-explanatory. 

PM:    Many of us will have heard stories about famous celebrities described as having bipolar or a similar type of mental health condition, such as Spike Milligan, Ray Davies, Russell Brand and Stephen Fry. Many of these people are known for having both a very creative and also a more depressive side, in other words extreme swings of mood and personality with terms like ‘genius’ being commonly used to describe a person in the ‘manic’ end of the spectrum. How typical (or otherwise) are these famous examples of people who reportedly have (had) bipolar?

DH:    Celebrities have increased its profile tenfold. But bipolar is saturated with myths, with some people believing only artists, writers and musicians experience it. In fact, millions of people from all walks of life experience these abnormal shifts in mood, from deep depression to elation, from thoughts of grandeur to thoughts of hopelessness, from an abundance of energy to lethargy. Yes, some celebrities become bipolar but they also get cancer, heart disease and a multitude of other illnesses. I do not subscribe to the myth that only people with creative minds get bipolar because there are millions of people in the world with creative minds who do not have bipolar. In my opinion, by merely linking creativity to bipolar is quite frankly nonsense. 

PM:    There has recently been a debate on news programmes on the media about the diagnosis of both bipolar and schizophrenia, some experts in psychiatry even suggesting that they may not even exist or at the least there is too broad a range of mental health symptoms being grouped under these labels. What do you think about this? Is it useful to identify and thereafter treat mental health in such defined categories, in the same way a medical physician treats diabetes or multiple sclerosis?

DH:    Miscomprehension surrounds bipolar disorder, with many people wrongly thinking that it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The truth is there is no medical research that has proven this is true. Neither is there any scientific proof that bipolar is genetically linked. It is diagnosed, often wrongly, by the viewpoint of a psychiatrist who checks signs and symptoms from a check-list in a manual where they are poorly and vaguely defined. There is no doubt though that bipolar is a serious emotional disturbance, most probably caused by a traumatic life event, something which Why Bipolar?, explores in great detail. 

PM:    Leading on from that question, how much do you think the psychiatric profession is hand in glove with the pharmaceutical industry? Are we in safe hands or is this a case of the Emperor’s new clothes?

DH:    I am of the opinion that the psychiatric industry is linked with large pharmaceutical companies who are driven by profit and controlled by greed and deception. Furthermore, the masking of the symptoms of bipolar disorder with medication without finding out the underlying cause only exacerbates the problem. We live in a ‘chemical age' where psychiatrists dole out psychotropic drugs as if they were sweets. Bipolar is treated with a plethora of medications ranging from antidepressants, antipsychotics to Lithium and other mood stabilisers and Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  Everything you should know about the harmful and debilitating side-effects including the serious damage it causes to the central nervous system is featured in the book. The link between suicidal ideation and certain antidepressants is also mentioned.

PM:    Without expecting you to reveal too much about what is in your new book, can you tell readers of The Harp a little more about what we can expect to discover in its pages?

DH:    There is hope offered in my book for those with a bipolar diagnosis. I believe that by becoming fully informed of all the facts, both about the condition itself through to medication and alternative treatments, and by practising self-management along with the avoidance of alcohol and illicit substances, the chances of having a better quality of life are greatly increased. My book encourages people to take a fresh look at their emotional health and to look for solutions beyond medication, whilst fully appreciating that this often requires much motivation and determination.

PM:    Given your own background Declan, do you think there is a cultural dynamic to mental health issues generally and bipolar specifically in terms of the Irish community in either Britain or Ireland?

DH:    Pete – statistics indicate that a third of the Irish population suffer from depression. You have to ask what is behind this? Is it because of financial concerns owing to the economic downturn or child clerical abuse and disappointment in the Catholic Church? These factors combined with issues like bereavement, domestic abuse and an alcohol problem puts much pressure on people to keep up appearances. The psychiatric journey often begins at the GP surgery where antidepressants are prescribed. Whilst people have every right to go down this route, my book encourages people to explore other alternatives beforehand including talking therapies and non-drug treatments.

PM:    Finally Declan, can you give us a few more details about the book’s publication, when will it be published and where can readers get a copy?

 DH:    After a very successful launch in London last month, Why Bipolar? is now available to buy directly from or Amazon. You can also purchase it at Waterstones or any other good book store (ISBN number 978-0-957689305).

Author’s Profile:

Declan Henry was born in County Sligo, Ireland. Educated at Goldsmiths’ College and King’s College, London, his third book Why Bipolar? (Squirrel Publishing, 2013) dispels the myths surrounding this serious mental illness. His other two books are Buried Deep in my Heart (The London Press, 2010) - an enchanting childhood story about growing up on a farm in the west of Ireland and Glimpses (The London Press, 2007) - a collection of true-to-life stories about disaffected teenagers.

Declan’s other publications have appeared in magazines and newspapers in both Ireland and the UK including: The Clare People, Ireland’s Own, Sligo Champion, Community Care, The Kent Journal of Mental Health and Medway News.

Declan holds a Master of Science Degree in Mental Health Social Work and a BA (Hons) Degree in Education and Community Studies. He has dual vocational qualifications in Social Work and Community and Youth Work. He is a registered social worker and has worked in the profession since 1993. He currently works with young offenders, many of whom have multiple and complex needs. Declan lives in Kent, England.

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