Volume 19 Number 3
Overcoming the Stigma
01 June 2006

Richard Shrubb describes his battle with mental illness and public perceptions.

I AM RUNNING toward the end of a media course in Cornwall, England. My tenancy in my student house is coming to an end, but nothing to worry about since a top news organisation has shown great interest in taking me on. Life rocks and the music is getting louder.

I’ve been doing a large part of my thesis in a coffee shop in Falmouth. The day I get the dizzying news of acceptance at the news organisation, I tell the coffee shop owner that at last someone with paranoid schizophrenia has made it into a position where he can publicly fight the stigma against mental illness. Rather than congratulations I am made to feel extremely unwelcome. In short order the news organisation finds out about my history and finds an excuse to renege on the offer.

Although by attaining my degree I have broken through the glass ceiling over Britain’s untouchables, I gash my neck on the shards all too often.

I was in a stressful situation from about 1982 to my breakdown in 1996. I was eight when I started to commute to school in the UK from the US. Dad left Mum and took a posting in the Falklands in ‘86. A year later he returned with the RAF doctor who would become his new wife. I started at a military school that I recall with jaundice, and returned to the States in ‘93 to misbehave for a year aboard a US sail-training ship. The only thing I didn’t do out there was take drugs.

So, I took drugs at university in Southampton. Smoking and eating cannabis, taking LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Having good trips—but also bad ones.I completed my first degree in ‘97. I almost went to jail at the time of my finals, and moved to Bristol whilst facing weekly court adjournments in Southampton. In March ‘99 I was in my second bed-sit, and had found it impossible to get work for six months....

I told Dad that I had been running the air war over Serbia via my special radio set, which could broadcast across Europe. Two days later I had a longstanding appointment with my GP—Dad managed to speak to her without me knowing. Consequently I thought she was sent by the government to offer me a career in the secret service!

She set up a meeting with two psychiatrists and a nurse—the quorum of professionals required, I was later to find out, to admit me into residential hospital under the Mental Health Act. I negotiated a compromise, and began seven months at a day hospital there, visiting five days a week and undergoing drug and talking therapy.

The mental health system looks after one’s welfare too. A social worker helped me apply for halfway-house accommodation and I was put on disability benefits. For the first time since the age of 16 I started to put on weight from being relaxed and, though not happy, I was certainly on the up.

I moved into a shared house for psychiatric patients. The organisation that runs it is now one of the biggest social and sheltered housing providers in Bristol, Second Step. Though living independently, we had two hours of talking therapy a week with a Second Step employee. I had two hours a month with my psychiatric consultant, one hour a week with my community care worker and spent time at the NHS alcohol rehab unit.

Another organisation was a great help—Fairbridge (see FAC Apr/May 2006), which helps socially excluded young people. It taught me something fundamental—not to be afraid of obstacles.

Second Step and Fairbridge encouraged me to look for something that I could achieve. People told me I could write well. I drifted from a writing circle into an A level in journalism, and onto the MA at Falmouth.

I stopped drinking. I convinced my psychiatrist to take the risk and put me on disulfaram, a medication that makes you violently ill if you drink booze. The risk was its side effects—psychosis. I completed the MA with full-blown schizophrenia. Like all side effects this has worn off.

Mental illness, of which I have suffered most ‘types’ in my time—whether being happier than a lottery winner, suicidally low, hearing voices or having extreme paranoia (and thus delusional beliefs)—is extremely complex. Like most sufferers I could not say, ‘It was cannabis’. Yes, it played a part and triggered a gene inherent in my family—but so did the stress in the years leading up to the psychosis. The stress of having never lived in a city before. The stress of that public school, which caused fits of vomiting for days before term started. My poor relationship with my military, nomadic family.

Attaining the position to be considered ‘well’ by society? I have some tips—listen to your professionals, do not refuse treatment. But also be determined to get well. Initially, to my dismay, I was told recovery would be a three-year programme. It took seven. Schizophrenia, it was explained to my father on my diagnosis, affects one per cent of the world population irrespective of their genes, race or life experience. One in four will have depression.... The statistics are there, yet the press, ever desperate for bad news, always focuses on the dangers of people like me. I have considered suicide as a serious option more than 20 times. Of my friends, four have committed suicide—and in five years in the house for psychiatric patients I was attacked once. Surely this points to the fact that we are more dangerous to ourselves than others?

I am discovering that I can listen to the inner voice of reason and conscience, now things have quietened down enough for it to be audible. It’s quite different from the voices heard in schizophrenia, and has become my best guidance.

I am now working in radio as a journalist. My friend who runs a community radio station did a deal with me—she accepts my illness, I work professionally. I teach radio to the mentally ill, so that they too may find their voice on this most public of spectrums. I am writing for a variety of publications, and am meeting new people through my trade union and other places in which I work. As a freelance writer I am able to work my own hours be they Sunday nights or Monday to Friday, as I feel. I am my own boss, and in charge of my own destiny. Mental health for me is a challenge, I am not challenged by mental health.

To listen to Richard Shrubb’s historical documentary on the treatment of the insane visit