AT her most psychotic, Kate Richards attempted to cut off her own arm. During another incident, she soaked towels in acid and wrapped them around her legs, causing horrific burns.
These harrowing episodes of self-harm are detailed in her acclaimed 2013 memoir Madness: A Memoir, which chronicles 15 years of depression and psychosis.
‘‘I was terrified about revealing details about myself [in the book] because of the stigma that surrounds serious mental illness and what effect that would have on me in a professional sense and a personal sense,’’ Richards says. ‘‘In the end I suppose I wanted to get people thinking more deeply about the causes of mental illness and also give people a way of seeing mental illness from the inside.
‘‘A lot of literature has been written by therapists and family members, but not in the present tense by a sufferer. It’s really hard for people who haven’t experienced it to really have a sense of the horror of it, the isolation and the loss of control of your thoughts.’’
Nothing prepared the Melbourne-based medical researcher for the widespread and positive response to Madness. A year after publication, she still receives letters from sufferers and their loved-ones thanking her for her frankness.
Without intending to, Richards has become an advocate for those who struggle through life with mental illness. And her new book, Is There No Place For Me? Making Sense of Madness, cements her new role. In her new offering, which is part of the Penguin Specials series featuring books slim enough to read in one sitting, she used four case studies, or ‘‘stories’’, to explore misunderstandings about mental illness and to explore changes that are needed within the health system, and more broadly.
‘‘Over the years of illness, I sometimes needed weeks in hospital – a place of containment and relative safety – until the medication took effect,’’ she writes in Is There No Place For Me? ‘‘After that I removed myself from myself. I couldn’t be trusted. I was dangerous [to my body] and malformed inside, monster-like. The sickness took my whenever it chose. There was no such thing as future ...
‘‘If I hadn’t found the right support to take that long, honest look at myself, if I hadn’t come to accept the nature of my illness, if I hadn’t learnt how to take responsibility for its management, I would not have been long for this earth.’’
Articulate, fiercely intelligent – she is a trained doctor – and unflinchingly honest, Richards is determined to give a voice to mental illness sufferers who are often marginalised, even within the health system that is supposed to provide support. She despairs at the gaps in the provision of care, especially for public patients.
‘‘The tragedy is when an illness is not being managed properly and that can often be because people find it so difficult to access crisis services, and that’s when the symptoms of the illness can take over the person,’’ she says. ‘‘To me that’s a societal tragedy – that we’re allowing people in our communities to get so sick. The emergency response needs to improve.’’
The 40-year-old knows well the complexity of mental illness and its treatment, but believes that key things can happen to help improve the delivery of services, including more effective communication and education. By sharing what it is like to hear voices or to be so swamped by depression that death becomes welcoming, Richards hopes she can help break down the stigma and shame that surrounds mental illness.
‘‘There’s so much shame and blame,’’ she sighs. ‘‘It’s as though you’re somehow supposed to be held morally responsible for your condition. You don’t look at someone with leukaemia and say, ‘You’re not trying hard enough to get well’. It takes time to find the right medication and treatment and the path to wellness is not straightforward.
‘‘The biggest myth about mental illness is that it is not a biological disorder, which, of course, it is, and if that was widely understood, I think the blame and shame might occur to a lesser extent, and then those of us with mental illness could feel more accepted.’’
‘‘I wanted to get people thinking more deeply about the causes of mental illness and also give people a way of seeing mental illness from the inside.’’
Shockingly, Richards attributes her recent period of wellness to luck. ‘‘There was luck involved in finding Winsome [Thomas, her psychologist], and luck involved in finding my GP, and luck in finding the right medication, and also I am lucky coming from a family who could support me when I couldn’t work or live on my own.
‘‘I was also lucky to be living in a country where everyone speaks my language and also in a large city; regional and country areas often miss out on services.’’
She wants young people to be educated about mental illness, its impact and the services available. ‘‘A lot of the fear [about mental illness] starts in our teenage years,’’ she explains. ‘‘I don’t know about you but I didn’t do one minute’s education about mental illness when I was at school and I know things are changing, but I’m not sure it’s happening in a co-ordinated way.
‘‘Part of education is expressing hope that you can find the right treatment, you can find the right support and you can live a good life. Even if all that happens is that education changes the way mental illness is talked about, that’s a big step.’’
Is There No Place For Me? Making Sense of Madness by Kate Richards is published by Penguin.