April 21, 2024
Health

Adam Deacon on living with bipolar: ‘Mental health isn’t as scary as you think’


Adam Deacon knows he’s a bit misunderstood. “People feel a certain way about me because of the things they’ve read, or their perception of mental health,” says the Kidulthood star from a hotel room in Durham, where he is due to cheer on a fundraising walk held by the charity Bipolar UK. “But mental health isn’t as scary as you think. I’m not as scary as you think.”

The actor, writer and director also knows he’s played a lot of tough kids and hardmen in his time, and will forever be linked to tales of teenage hustle and urban London life – 2006’s Kidulthood and its sequel Adulthood cast him as a sketchy gangland upstart, someone you wouldn’t like to bump into down a dark alley. But that’s just a single part of him, he says. “I’ve always been professional. I’ve always been on time. I have to remind people that I’ve been acting since I was 12. The only issues I’ve ever had are when I got unwell.” He fixes his gaze down the lens of his camera phone. “And you can get better,” he emphasises. “Your mind can heal.”

Deacon is one of an estimated million-plus people in the UK with bipolar disorder, a condition characterised by mood swings that can include manic highs and depressive lows. Anyone can have it, and more of us do than have conditions such as dementia and schizophrenia. But bipolar is also chronically misunderstood, underfunded and under-discussed, fuelling the necessity for World Bipolar Day, which falls today. All of this is why Deacon is happy to talk about his experiences of fame, struggle and rebirth. That, and to wrestle control of a story that, years ago, many decided wasn’t his to tell.

“There’s still such a stigma,” he says. He remembers a headline from 2015, after he was admitted to hospital amid a severe mental health crisis. It read “Adam Deacon sectioned under the Mental Health Act”, and he thought how differently his situation would have been framed if he’d been admitted to Roehampton’s famed rehabilitation clinic The Priory instead. “I don’t think it would have been looked down upon as much,” he says. “It would have just been a case of, ‘Oh, he’s an actor who’s gone to sort out his head.’ We hear about actors and Hollywood stars doing this all the time.” The only difference between The Priory and the hospital in which he was sectioned, he jokes, was the quality of the food.

“I always said to myself that when I do get better and I’m out the other end, I want to be someone that’ll talk about this and not shy away from it,” Deacon says. “I didn’t really have a choice in it being so public, so I feel like I have to own it and talk about it on my own terms.”

In the early 2010s, Deacon was anointed “the new face of youth cinema” by Time Out London, won a Rising Star Bafta, and was comfortably ensconced as one to watch on stage and screen. He stuck out, too – in a way that was both great but also wildly depressing. Deacon was born in Hackney and raised on a council estate, therefore making him one of an increasingly small pool of young Brits from ordinary backgrounds who’d actually managed to make it as an actor. Privately, though, the depression he’d experienced all of his life was getting increasingly harder to manage. When Deacon reached out to a doctor for help, he was prescribed antidepressants – the idea that he had any other condition wasn’t on his doctor’s radar. This is incredibly common: it takes an average of nine and a half years for a person to be diagnosed with bipolar after first telling a healthcare professional of their symptoms.

Rising star: Deacon with Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston at a Bafta event in 2012

(Getty)

“If someone was to have clocked a bit earlier on in my childhood that maybe something wasn’t quite up, maybe I could have learnt about the illness a lot more and dealt with it a lot better,” he says. “Rather than just leaving me to my own devices.”

There’s a lot of coulda-woulda-shouldas to mental health, particularly when answers and support only arrive once someone experiences a crisis. Deacon’s was incredibly public, involving legal clashes with co-stars and high-profile run-ins with the police. It was only after being sectioned that he finally received an explanation for why he was doing what he was doing.

“When I first got diagnosed with bipolar, it did explain a lot,” he says. “But I also heard so much about ‘the highs and the lows’ that I was confused by being on a low for such a long time. How come I wasn’t getting these highs? How come I wasn’t being manic? I went through a phase where I started to think maybe they’d misdiagnosed me. Maybe I didn’t have bipolar. Maybe it was just depression. But then I did go through a manic stage, and then it all sunk in.”

He admits that it was frightening. “You’re talking about a lifelong illness,” he says. “But knowing that it’s something I’ve got to live with, I had to learn everything I could about it. I needed to be stacked with as many tools as possible just to be able to communicate to myself, to my friends and family, how I’m feeling so they – and I – can spot the signs of a bad patch, or a bad episode.”

Eve Mair, who serves as the senior public policy officer at Bipolar UK, tells me that a delay in diagnosis is the biggest crisis faced by people with bipolar. “People are not getting access to care, or to a psychiatrist or psychologist, unless they’re actually at the level of being suicidal or completely manic,” she explains. “And there needs to be continuity in a person’s care, and some assurance that the same person is there each time to be able to spot the warning signs and help a person avoid being in that state and avoid hospitalisations.”

It’s one of the key findings in Bipolar UK’s Bipolar Commission, an extensive collection of recommendations for governments and the NHS on how to treat and care for people with bipolar. Mair says that MPs from across the political spectrum have been receptive to the commission’s findings, but that incentivising real change remains an ongoing fight – particularly when it comes to creating clear care pathways specific to bipolar. As it stands, bipolar is treated under an umbrella of “severe mental illness”, which doesn’t adequately represent the unique challenges posed to those with the condition.

Deacon got involved with Bipolar UK in 2020. Before his diagnosis, he acted as an ambassador for numerous UK charities, all of them eager to latch onto the optics of his journey from a Hackney estate to the Bafta stage. “But slowly, as these articles came out about me being sectioned, there was just silence,” he sighs. “So to get an email from Bipolar UK, asking if I’d like to be an ambassador, it was like, ‘Wow – people will still accept you, you can use your voice, it’s not all doom and gloom.’”

Comedy sequel: Jazzie Zonzolo and Deacon in last year’s ‘Sumotherhood’

(Paramount Pictures)

In the years since he was diagnosed, Deacon has found his feet again as an actor. Kathy Burke cast him in a play, 2017’s The Retreat. He’s worked on a litany of British independent films. Last year’s Sumotherhood – a sequel to his earlier London gangster spoof Anuvahood, and which featured cameos from Ed Sheeran and Jeremy Corbyn – drew strong reviews. In his personal life, he’s a changed man. “I’ve got this inner confidence now that I didn’t have before,” he says. He’s eating well, sleeping more and is on medication while receiving regular counselling and therapy. He’s a fan of taking long walks with his dog.

“Yes, you can go through a really bad patch of mental health, and a bad bipolar episode, but you can get better as well,” he says. “I feel more creative than ever. I’m working again in an industry that I love.” There are stories, he says, of bipolar being defined as something deeply sad, or a condition synonymous with chaos. “But with the right medication, the right therapy, and through just changing small things, you can go on to live a really successful life.”

After Deacon was sectioned, he says he became nervous about the idea of walking around Hackney, where he grew up. It was his happy place – his roots. He didn’t want it to change. “I always had a lot of love from the community,” he remembers. “But I was worried that people were gonna look at me differently.”

To his relief, they didn’t. People still approached him. Hugged him. Talked about their own lives. He’s still inundated by messages from young men who know his films, know his story, and tell him that they’ve experienced similar struggles. “Sometimes when you go through something, you think you’re the only one who’s gone through it,” he says. “That no one else can understand or relate. But people do. And it’s what makes me feel like what I’m doing is so worthwhile.”

For more information on bipolar and World Bipolar Day, visit https://www.bipolaruk.org/



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