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Going public for greater good

After years of mulling over an idea, Robyn Yousef finally decided to seize the day and take a step into the unknown. In 2013, the Auckland-based freelance writer wrote an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald about living with bipolar disorder.

Robyn, whose father also had experience of the mental illness, says she felt the time was right to share her story.

“I thought, ‘I’m 60 now. I think my chances of a dream job are pretty slim’,” she jokes.

Her decision to talk candidly about what can be a very private issue is simple – it might just make a difference.

“It’s the old cliché – if it helps and if it has any impact on anyone, then that’s great,” she says.

“For years I did my darnedest to conceal it because I know people do judge. But at this stage of my life, if people are judgemental, well, I don’t really give a damn.”

Praise from friends and strangers

Since her story ran in print and online, Robyn has received a number of comments. Many applauded the writer’s courage in telling her story, while others related their own experiences with mental illness.

“My GP said it helped one of the other GPs in the practice who has a family member suffering with bipolar,” says Robyn.

“It helped him to see there was light at the end of the tunnel and there was hope for a good life.

“I was really pleased with my kids’ reactions too. They said, ‘everybody knows you’re barmy, Mum. It’s not a problem’.”

Wellness an on-going journey

Symptoms of bipolar disorder first came to light for Robyn when she was a teenager. Determined to keep her personal struggles under wraps, she told her classmates she had glandular fever.

“Physical ailments are so much easier to explain. I did everything within my power to conceal the fact that in my seventh form year I had two stays in a psychiatric unit.”

Down the track, Robyn enjoyed a number of years of “feeling great”, which included a newspaper cadetship she loved, life in England and newly wedded bliss in Egypt.

However her mental state deteriorated after the birth of her first child.

“When I had him, I had a massive breakdown,” she explains. “I had ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] and I was there [in hospital] for about six weeks. You come out and you feel like shit because you think everyone is looking at you like you’re a loony, but people are kind for the most part.”

Support networks and self-care

Having an “absolutely fantastic” husband, kids and friends are key ingredients in Robyn’s recipe to keeping well.

“The most important thing is to get really good support from your friends and family,” says Robyn.

“Talk about it and realise you’re not alone.”

Her other strategies are simple, though not always easy to follow.

“It’s important not to get over-tired. I also try to be as healthy as I can with my food. I’m not a great exerciser, but when I do, I notice the difference.”

Taking the right kind of medication and keeping stress at bay also works wonders, along with keeping up with one of her greatest loves – writing.

“It’s my sanity,” she says. “I love to write so much.”

Progress made, but some stigma remains

Since she was first unwell back in the 1970s, Robyn has noticed a positive shift in attitudes to mental illness. However she still gets a jolt when she comes across prejudice.

“Even people that are well-educated and intelligent – sometimes they just don’t understand.”

With this in mind, despite choosing to speak publicly about bipolar disorder, Robyn believes a person should consider disclosing their mental illness strictly on a case-by-case basis.

“Nowadays, many people – the vast majority – would be enlightened enough to help. But still, sadly, there are people that will hold it against you. You’d have to think carefully about the situation.”

Look for the light

Robyn’s advice to people experiencing a down period in their mental health is to take heart, because things will get better.

“If you’re in a lull and in a low period, you’ve got to know that chink of light will come. You will get through it.”

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