By Michael Hansen
Michael Hansen is a Sacramento County resident living with Bipolar 2 Disorder. From a young age, he faced extreme mood swings that took a toll on his relationships and life. Unfortunately, he wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until age 59 after decades of struggle. Now as a member of the Stop Stigma Sacramento Speakers Bureau, Michael hopes to reduce stigma and discrimination, promote mental health and wellness and inspire hope for people and families living with mental illness.
How was mental health talked about or considered within your family and community? Was mental health a priority?
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s mental health was not talked about in a positive way. In my house you were expected to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be self-reliant. Asking for help was discouraged and the community support mechanisms were few. As a male, there was also a lot of pressure to be strong and handle your own stuff. My Dad actually used to say that people who had to go to a psychiatrist couldn’t be trusted to be dependable in any way. The only portrayals in movies or TV of mental illness were negative; suicides, violence, etc. So that really colored public perception of mental illness. When I did relate that I had a problem (i.e. depression) I was simply told it was all in my head or just get over it or everybody has bad days, tough it out.
What were some of the main influences you had on how you thought about mental health? Were there any specific barriers to your understanding of mental health and getting the support that you faced?
My early influences on how I thought about mental health were the times (60’s and 70’s) and my parents. Things were not as open then as they are now (even though stigma is still a huge issue, it is better) and the general opinion about folks with a mental illness was negative. The media generally sensationalized the negative aspects of mental illness.
The most specific barrier at the time was a general lack of information that was available and/or promoted treatment, assistance, and support for mental health issues. And there was a pervasive societal lack of awareness of all the ways mental illness could manifest.
What drove or inspired you to seek mental health care?
My younger sister’s death in 2014 precipitated a steep descent into a depressive episode and after a full week of barely getting out of bed, not going to work, feeling like there was nothing left to live for, I found the internal motivation to seek help. This led me to an internet search, an evaluative online survey for bipolar disorder, and finally an evaluation by my healthcare provider.
After a very literally up and down life, chasing ways to feel better (from sexual promiscuity, to alcoholism, to huge successes and huge failures) I was finally definitively diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Even though my past was a convoluted mess, this diagnosis made it all make sense.
Was there any pushback from your family when you sought care?
In my earliest attempts to seek care (late 70’s to mid 80’s) my family did push back. “It’s all in your head, it’s just stress, there must be some other explanation.” They totally marginalized and minimized my situation. It wasn’t until 2015 (shortly before my bipolar diagnosis) that my family could clearly see my struggle and actually encouraged me to seek care.
How has getting care impacted your life?
For the most part, getting care has improved my life greatly. Although on the downside, I have lost some friends and family members due to my high-profile stance on my illness. These are folks who see mental illness and openness about it as shameful. On the upside, I have gained the respect and support of so many new people in my life that it makes the negative things inconsequential. Getting care and maintaining a high profile about my illness has also allowed me to influence people who may be struggling to seek care.
What drove you to start sharing your story?
Shortly after my diagnosis, I saw a billboard promoting the message of Stop Stigma Sacramento (Mental Illness, It’s not what you think) which prompted me to look at their website. It was there that I found out about the speaker’s bureau. As a long time Toastmaster, trainer, and award-winning speaker, I contacted the organization, and the rest is history. My main motivation as I continue to be involved with Stop Stigma is to bring hope and awareness to those who are struggling but have been reluctant to be “out” in seeking care, treatment, and support.
This edition of My Mental Health Journey is brought to you in collaboration between the Steinberg Insititute and Stop Stigma Sacramento, a Sacramento County project to reduce stigma and discrimination of mental illness by providing mental health information, resources and support to individuals and families.
Learn more about Stop Stigma Sacramento at: https://www.stopstigmasacramento.org/about/.