Life, recovery and barriers to wellness

Writer Richard Willis looks back on his experience of mental illness and asks what helped make him better, what made things worse and whether recovery is possible.

Yes, I did feel better after that first injection of Clopixol in Woodcote Ward at the Mayday Hospital in London back in 1987. I sat down at a table in the communal area and the trees seemed to relax their branches in the distance. Peter Beresford, the academic and campaigner for mental health, is opposed to much of the medical literature espousing the advantage of psychiatric drugs. Nevertheless, they helped me to recover, even though I experienced weight gain and could well endure intolerable side-effects later on in my life.

It was the combination of being on the right medication, sticking to it, rest and family assistance that saved me. But I think there is a lot of room for talking therapies, and it has only been recently that I have undergone professional counselling. The missing link in my development has been found and with the combination of medication and the suggestions made by a local counsellor I can now say I have recovered.

In the past I was subjected to many obstacles around me in society that were trying to stop me from achieving what I wanted to do. My early mental health was put to the challenge when at a Catholic school; I was bullied in a big way by those who attacked me for being Jewish. My main fault was that I did everything in my power to conceal my illness, but I was never consciously aware that I suffered from the illness in the first place. In junior school, a teacher verbally abused me for what he saw as my shortcomings but they were brought about because he was unaware that I was suffering from schizophrenia.

When I was an advisor to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority, I campaigned for teachers to become aware of the symptoms of mental health in schools. Measures were subsequently taken to make more teachers able to recognise the symptoms. People who knew that I was suffering from mental illness probably should have intervened, but they did nothing about it. Perhaps they thought it was too sensitive an issue to do anything about? One teacher pulled me to one side, and asked me whether I was gay. He was gay himself, but he failed to realise that my problem was that I was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and severe depression. My autobiography deals with these matters, and extends to my early work experiences and other problems where employers, teachers, lecturers discriminated against me because of my illness as for example when I took my PhD. My study does not come from a social model perspective fully, but all the data reinforces the existence of many of the societal barriers I was facing.

Increased symptoms of schizophrenia were therefore caused by my teachers not realising that I was unwell. My parents divorced when I was at school and this did not help either. My mother did her best and was no doubt in denial about my illness as I was too.

I worked as an accounts assistant at Guy’s Hospital for 18 months, starting in 1980. While there my delusional thoughts were like nothing I had experienced before. I was really ill and was entering a phase of madness. The job was far too difficult for me to come to terms with. The previous occupant had been sacked and I was left to pick up the pieces and I became totally psychotic. The phases during which I thought I could control people’s minds were difficult to endure. I experienced intense headaches and at the end of the day I would feel fit for nothing.

After hospitalisation, I continued to receive the injections, and I was free from anxiety and trauma. I began a part-time PhD on the history of the teaching profession, and at this time the Conservative Party contacted me and requested that I attend Parliament to give advice to David Cameron’s team on the General Teaching Council. It turned out to be a great day. I was questioned by Baroness Perry on issues relating to teachers.

At this time I was also a Senior Research Fellow for 11 years. I worked as a research associate in the Department of Education, University of Cambridge for 3 years.

I have been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, and I am currently Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Education, University of Adelaide, South Australia. I have the equivalent of 5 degrees, including a doctorate, and I am a prolific writer of books and articles, engaging in work as a freelance journalist, the published writer of 5 books, and a historian.

I still hear the inner voices, and the medication still prevents me from becoming psychotic. It is my goal to become an MP or a champion to those afflicted by mental health.

Recovery from Mental Illness by Richard Lewis (pen name), USA/Singapore: SBPR, 2015 (available on Amazon).

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