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Witsie fights the stigma of mental illness


Merryl Hammond shares her experience of bipolar disorder

A “wild ride” – that’s how Dr Merryl Hammond (MA 1983, PhD 1989) describes her “travels in bipolar country”. Having fought her way back to mental health, she has written a memoir, Mad Like Me, hoping to help people who suffer from mental illness and from the stigma so often attached to it. 

“Each year, one in five people will experience a mental illness of some kind,” she says, quoting the results of an analysis of 174 surveys across 63 countries. “In most cases, symptoms first appear in adolescence or early adulthood, when they may be overlooked as hormonal changes of puberty or be missed because youth move away from home and their new friends and contacts have no prior knowledge or baseline against which to measure abnormal moods or behaviour. Many people – both those experiencing the symptoms and their loved ones and contacts – choose denial rather than facing up to the uncomfortable reality confronting them.”

Merryl Hammond

In her own case, mental illness emerged later in life. “Menopause and a family drama combined into a perfect storm that triggered bipolar disorder. Ten years ago, I disappeared from the stage of my own life for two full years, from the age of 51 to 53. I was exiled, lost, shocked, confused and ashamed.

“Why ashamed? Well, even though I’d trained as a nurse (at the University of Natal and Unisa) and got my doctorate in community health at Wits, I had internalised all the negative attitudes towards mental illness that existed in the larger society. I secretly felt ‘superior’ to the psychiatric patients I worked with, and I couldn’t wait for my stressful rotations in psychiatric hospitals to be over, so I wouldn’t have to examine my thinly concealed prejudices at all.  

“I had no idea that my turn would one day come; that my own brain would misfire and render me absolutely powerless.”

In depression, Merryl felt hollow and joyless, separated from everyone else and unable to focus. In hypomania, she had endless energy and self-confidence. Nothing seemed impossible. “For my poor, exhausted family – having to chase after me as I ran down the street at all hours, looking for new adventures – this was the ultimate nightmare. They did their best, taking turns to soothe me and rein me in, but eventually they ran out of resources and had to call an ambulance. I was carted off to the psychiatric hospital. When I emerged some weeks later, I was on heavy doses of psychiatric meds.

“Luckily, my academic training kicked in, and I kept copious notes throughout the hospitalisation and beyond. These became the basis for the detailed recollections I share in my memoir.

“Now that I’ve lived on the ‘other side’ and fought my way, step by dogged step, back to mental health, I have made it my mission to share my story, and to encourage others to share theirs, so that together we can break the stigma surrounding mental illnesses of all kinds, in all age groups.”

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Merryl lives in Montreal, Canada. She and her husband, Rob Collins, are public health consultants and work to help indigenous communities where smoking is epidemic.

Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country is available from Exclusive Books, The Book Depository and Amazon.

Mad Like Me book cover