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Telling Admissions 6

The purpose of this series has been to focus on the impact, for good or ill, of admission as a psychiatric inpatient by looking at autobiographical accounts written between 1975 and 1995. Not all who ‘went public’ with their story was well-known outside the immediate circle of their acquaintance, and the stories of ‘ordinary people’ are featured alongside those of ‘celebrities’. As readers of In the Spotlight (the thread we ran on the blog in 2011) or Illustrious Company (the e-book that grew out of these and other blogposts) will know, we see no good reason to privilege celebrity accounts of mental distress. In fact, we understand that it remains an open question as to whether the rest of us find such accounts inspiring or actually disempowering.

Nevertheless, this month we feature the story of an actor, well-known in his time, who passionately hoped that his story would prove inspirational, both to those who suffered in the manner he did, and to those supporting them. On 3 September 1995, Jeremy Brett, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV series of the same name, spoke on behalf of the Manic Depression Fellowship (the predecessor to Bipolar UK) on BBC Radio 4’s The Week’s Good Cause (still running under the title the Radio 4 Appeal). As he explained, his interest was as much personal as it was philanthropic:

“I started my acting career in repertory and have over the years appeared in many plays in London and New York and the National Theatre under the banner of Laurence Olivier. Now, why am I telling you this in The Week's Good Cause slot? Because this week's charity is the Manic Depression Fellowship and I myself have been diagnosed as manic depressive, so I know what I am talking about and I need to remind you that I am a successful actor before admitting to having a severe mental illness.

“When I was admitted to the Maudsley Hospital in 1986, I…I was so confused I couldn't relate to anything or anyone around me. All I could do was lie face down with my fists clenched in my face. I believe I have been coping with these severe mood swings for many more years than I like to think, but being a member of a profession where being a little mad helps, my moods were tolerated far more readily than if I worked in a bank or a school.”

“And it is my success which gave me the courage to admit publicly that I had this illness, as an encouragement to others that it had not stopped me from being employed and leading a fulfilled and successful life. It is an illness which can be treated and managed. It comes and goes, and in between the bouts of illness people are well.”

Sadly, Brett died a matter of days after this radio broadcast, of a cause not directly related to the state of his mental health. The courage he showed in putting his own story at the service of a mental health support charity may have been equalled by that of others since, but it has not been forgotten.