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Iain Cunningham
8th November 2021 • My Family, Mental Illness, and Me • Bespoken Media
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Film director Iain Cunningham’s acclaimed documentary Irene’s Ghost is about his search for information about his mother, who died when he was three. Iain grew up not knowing anything about his late mother, who had suffered postpartum psychosis before her death.

If you would like to support children and young people living with parental mental illness, please donate to Our Time here: https://www.justgiving.com/ourtimeuk. To find out more about Our Time, please visit www.ourtime.org.uk/.

If you are affected by anything you hear in this podcast, there are people you can talk to for support. You can contact your GP, www.samaritans.org or www.childline.org.uk. If you are a young person, you could also talk to a teacher or other trusted adult.

Transcripts

Dr Pamela Jenkins: This is My Family, Mental Illness... and Me.

[Intro music]

My name is Pamela Jenkins and I’m a researcher at the Mental Health Foundation. My mum, Irene, lived with a mental illness. There were voices only she could hear and she could quickly switch from feeling very high to very low. No one ever talked about it with me when I was young, even though I knew my mum was often unwell. When I was in my 20s, that’s when a psychiatrist told me that my mum had schizoaffective disorder. Sadly, I lost her quite recently to Covid-19 but even though she’s gone, her mental health will always be a huge part of my life.

In each of these podcasts, I’ll speak to someone else whose parent has or had a mental illness. In the UK, there are at least three million children of parents with mental illness. If you’re one, it’s really important that you know you’re not alone.

My Family, Mental Illness... and Me is a podcast series from the charity Our Time with support from the Mental Health Foundation. Our Time champions and supports children of parents with mental illness and their families. We’ve put links to more information in the show notes.

This time, I’m speaking to a director and producer whose acclaimed documentary film, Irene’s Ghost, is about his search for information about the mother he never knew.

Iain Cunningham: My name is Iain Cunningham. I’m a documentary filmmaker. A couple of years ago, I made a film called Irene’s Ghost which is about my journey to understand the life of my mother who had postnatal psychosis and subsequent bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Thank you so much for being here and telling us your story today. My mum was also called Irene, so I guess just to start off with, could you tell me a little bit about your Irene?

Iain Cunningham: Well, my Irene was my mum but to me, she was called Irene and she wasn’t my mum for most of my childhood. When I was just coming up to three years old, my mum passed away and a few years after that, my dad remarried. I guess the family was remade in that way and nobody really talked about Irene. She wasn’t mentioned in our family. It was a bit of a taboo subject. I had knowledge that she’d existed and I had that kind of memory of her but there wasn’t really any way to express that. So it was only really when I got a bit older that I started to learn a bit about her. When I was 18, I was given a box of her things which had photographs in it; the first photographs that I’d seen of me as a baby and of her. I was told a bit about her but, like I say, she was always Irene to me. She wasn’t Mum at that point. So really, as a child, I didn’t know anything about her and the film that I made really was my documented attempts that I made to get to know her, to find out about her and to learn about her. I can tell you now, with the benefit of that experience, what she was like but it was something that I didn’t know very much about until relatively recently.

I know she was a very fun-loving person who was kind of shy but not scared of trying new things. She loved dancing and she loved holidays with her friends. The journey that I went on to get to know her was about collecting those stories from friends and that kind of thing to fill in those gaps about what she was like.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Do you have any memory at all? I realise you were only three and so likely not but do you have any recollection of her at all?

Iain Cunningham: I’ve tried so many times to find her face but I couldn’t really see her. I just knew that she was there. As a kid, you have this kind of slightly wild imagination and so I used to see her in the full moon or a thistle seed which is like a dandelion clock and they kind of blow on the wind. I used to think that was her. All of this peopled world that I lived in stayed with me to adulthood. I guess some of those things you just leave behind in childhood but for me, because I guessed that was my mum to me, I kept them. So that was the sort of sense of her that I had; of this presence really rather than a proper memory.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: When you then, as an adult, went on that journey that you document in Irene’s Ghost, what did you discover in addition to the fun-loving mum? What else did you discover about her?

Iain Cunningham: Just to say, the thing that I guess sparked it was having my own daughter and having a child, I think, makes you really look at your own childhood and those experiences. I started to wonder what it would have been like to lose a parent at that age and started to see what a three-year-old could see. They’re quite fully-formed individuals really at three. So I went to try and find friends of my mum at first and family members just to try and ask them about her and I knew nothing about what had happened really when she’d passed away either. People had said it was a coma. So a lot of it was shrouded in mystery really and so I guess, in the first instance, I wanted to find a lot of those things that I’ve already mentioned about her as a personality and then I wanted to know really what had happened because it seemed a bit strange. Everybody had a different story. Some people said it was something to do with her blood, or she’d had a stroke, or a heart attack. There were so many different versions of it that it didn’t seem to make a great deal of sense to me.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Was that what made you want to do the documentary in the first place? Was it more the suspicion or was it more about wanting to know her as a person?

Iain Cunningham: I think there were a couple of things. One of the main things why I wanted to do it was that I felt like somehow she’d been unfairly treated. She’d not been given her due. She wasn’t talked about. She wasn’t remembered. So I wanted to make something that was almost a memorial to her. I wanted to find out who she was and tell people about her which is what a film can do and then as I started to discover more about what had happened, I felt like it could be something that might help people because the more I looked into it, the more the mental illness started to become something that seemed quite prominent but was something that people found very difficult to talk about. I had an aunt who started to tell me a little bit about some of the things that had happened to my mum when I was born; that she was seeing things, writing notes and that kind of thing. So then I started to look for some of her medical records myself and bit by bit, I started to unpick some of this. Myself and my dad never really talked about it and we started to have conversations about it. Yeah, eventually, that led to this discovery that she’d had an illness called postpartum psychosis which, at the time, I knew nothing about but which is a quite serious mental illness that comes on very soon after birth and involves hallucinations, delusional behaviour, lack of sleep and lots and lots of different effects. It can induce catatonic behaviour where you’re very, very still, or you don’t respond, or you don’t communicate. I guess that’s partly why people thought there was a coma or something like that related to it.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Did her mental illness play a part in her death in the end?

Iain Cunningham: She was in hospital for a good nine months or so in a psychiatric hospital and treated with what were called heroic doses of drugs which were kind of cardiotoxic and and ECT which was all part of the same sort of first line of treatment at the time for that kind of thing. She was well for maybe a year and a half where she was looking after me and then had a relapse of her illness and went back into a psychiatric hospital. She passed away from cardiac arrest in the psychiatric unit of the hospital. As far as I can understand it, the illness, plus the drugs, plus the physical and mental stress of it all led to that outcome. I think it’s something that can happen a lot. I guess you would know that mental illness is associated with much higher rates of physical ill health and cardiac ill health as well.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely, and the side effects of the medication have a lot to do with that. My mum had chronic renal failure because of the... now let me get this drug right – lithium - and that was why she went into hospital in the end but sadly got Covid in hospital. It’s odd to me to have gone through all of that and had the mental illness, gone through all the physical side effects of that as well and the medication and then for Covid to have been... flamin’ Covid, honestly! [Laughter] Yeah, I understand what you’re saying and she also had postpartum psychosis. She had schizoaffective disorder since before I was born but the pregnancy and the birth really made that quite significant and she was also in hospital for the first six to nine months after I was born. Yeah, I understand and it’s just interesting for you to learn that so much later on and nobody spoke about it with you at all. You said that everything was shrouded in secrecy. Was that just surrounding your mum’s condition and her illness or just your mum, full stop, and nobody spoke of her at all?

Iain Cunningham: Both of things. Yeah, everything to do with my mum. It was something that I had attempted to talk about a couple of times but it was very clear that it wasn’t something anybody wanted to talk about and it was very painful for my dad to talk about. I got on very well with my stepmum but she didn’t want to talk about it and there were no other family members from my mum’s side. They all kind of left the picture a little bit. I’ve talked to my nan a little bit and she used to tell me some snippets of things which only fuelled my imagination really. The only couple of things I heard from my nan were that she used to pull the heads off my soldiers and laugh about it [laughter]. Toy soldiers. So as a kid, I think I had this idea of her as this very fantastical figure and actually, when I found about her, she was just a very ordinary person like we all are [laughter]. I think all families have these things where you build up walls around certain subjects and you all know not to go there for whatever reason because of sensitivities and it might not even be mental illness. I think it was just one of those things that was just very clearly taboo.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Do you think you had an understanding, when you were young, of what mental illness was?

Iain Cunningham: I think it’s hard to say because I’ve learnt so much recently over the course of doing this and through my own issues as well. I’ve had some problems myself with health anxiety and things like that. So I don’t really think I did have much understanding at all when I was a kid. Ironically, my stepmother used to look after people who were living in the community with quite serious mental health problems and so I was kind of aware of, I guess, bipolar illness and schizophrenia through that but I don’t think I really had much of a picture of it. I certainly had never heard of postpartum psychosis or the kind of trigger that birth can be for mental illness in women or any of that either, I don’t think.

Sorry, I really feel like I need to talk to you about your mum...

Dr Pamela Jenkins: No, not at all [laughter].

Iain Cunningham: So it must be very fresh. You’ve lost your mum quite recently then.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, that was in February.

Iain Cunningham: Oh, I’m sorry.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, so where are we now? June. Yes, thank you. Gosh... yeah, it was hard. It’s funny actually speaking to you [laughter] particularly, as one of the contributors. It’s a lot closer. I guess your mum’s condition... even just the fact her name was Irene [laughter]. I know it sounds really silly. It’s just a lot more... in terms of the illness itself, I can sort of relate to and... I can’t even begin to imagine learning about that after the fact. Obviously, I learned a lot as I grew up and as I got older and nobody spoke much to me about it at all. In fact, nobody told me what my mum’s illness was but I experienced the illness. You’ve not experienced the illness first-hand. You’ve learned about it latterly. So what sort of effect has that had on you do you think?

Iain Cunningham: I think it’s something I’ve always carried. There was a baby book in the box of things that I got and there was writing on it that was a bit kind of muddled, things about god and baby god... very kind of muddled writing. So I guess I’d had a suspicion but I didn’t really know anything about mental illness to sort of patch together what that might mean. I’d always carried this idea of my mum as being slightly different in my head. I knew there was something that wasn’t right but I wasn’t really sure what it was. I guess learning it later explained a lot of things to me and I think although I didn’t experience it as a child to the extent of having a memory, the memories that I have are memories of losing her which are very, very strong. That period from four to five, most people can’t remember anything from that but I can remember it vividly. I can remember nightmares about hospitals, and about things being on fire, and my family dying in hospitals, and very vivid things about that period. When my stepmum went in to have my sister, I cried. I was eating mince and potatoes. I could tell you what I was eating because I remember that moment because I was worried she wouldn’t come out again when she went into hospital. I think children need a way to express those feelings because otherwise, you do carry them into adulthood and that’s not necessarily a terrible thing but it can become something that then morphs into something else and I think in me, it did slightly. As an adult, I did develop a lot of worries about health because of what had happened to my mum with this unknown element of it, so it would have helped a lot to have known earlier. As I was saying, she looked after me as a child and when I started talking to her friends, they were saying, ‘Well, she used to leave you in the cafe and forget that you were there. She’d take you on these long walks that she shouldn’t really have taken you on.’ So I think even though you don’t necessarily form a memory of that, she clearly was still a little bit unwell at that time and that goes into you as a child. You kind of feel that even if you don’t have a direct memory of it.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, they’re the formative years. That’s what they call them, isn’t it? I think children do have memory from a very young age. I was speaking to somebody previously about that and I was about three when I first started to develop anxiety coming from anxiety around my mum. Even though she was very loving towards me, as I’m sure your mother was towards you, children pick up on that sense of things not being quite right and the parent not being quite well.

Iain Cunningham: Absolutely.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I really remember worrying a lot and health anxiety, interestingly enough, which has hung about [laughter].

Iain Cunningham: It’s not the best thing to have during a pandemic, health anxiety [laughter].

Dr Pamela Jenkins: No, it’s definitely not. It’s interesting as well that the anxiety can often come up when certain situations maybe stir something up. It’s interesting when we started the call and we first spoke and I said to you that I had my vaccine on Saturday, which I did and I’m not feeling fantastic after it, which I’m not. Now that we’re talking, I feel a lot more relaxed but I wonder if knowing that my mum might be a bigger feature in our conversation than she has been in previous ones [laughter] maybe was making me feel a bit anxious and if actually, some of that feeling a wee bit ropey at the beginning of the call was maybe being influenced a wee bit by this conversation [laughter].

Iain Cunningham: If there’s anything that you feel uncomfortable talking about, just let me know.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: No, not at all. I am asking people to come here and share their stories. I am very open. The whole idea is to talk about it. It’s just... [laughter] it’s hard.

Iain Cunningham: Absolutely.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: It’s hard.

Iain Cunningham: Of course it is. One thing that you’ll have had to deal with in a different way is that conversation in your family about things happening when you were a child and dealing with that and learning about it. That conversation for me has happened over the last sort of five to ten years; my first conversations with my dad about it and what it was like for him to experience that and how difficult it was and why that - it’s stigma really - why that stigma exists and why we don’t talk about these things. I think for my dad, it was very much a protective thing for me and for him. He just wanted to protect me from it and so he thought the best way to do that was to not talk about it because there’s this strange fear about mental illness that somehow you’ll catch it if you talk about it [laughter]. I think that spread a little bit in the family, so it was a very therapeutic thing to start to talk about it with him and with my other family members and then for them to talk to each other. That, in itself, helped my anxiety I think, just as an adult. It helped me understand because I think understanding is partly how you can help those things, isn’t it? The more you understand, the less anxious you become.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely. Not talking is what makes anxiety worse and sometimes I think it’s really difficult to know what is making you anxious and what those worries are without talking about them. That’s especially important for children. I loved my mum very much and we had a great bond but the relationship was very stressful for me and it wasn’t until I was a bit older that I was able to articulate that. That anxiety got to a point where I couldn’t cope with it and I was about 13 or 14 at the time and I spoke to a psychologist, somebody completely objective. It was only through conversations with him that I realised that the anxiety was stemming from constantly worrying about my mum. Whether that was worrying directly about her or whether that was worrying about other people’s reactions to her, it was just all-consuming and I hadn’t really spoken to anybody about it. I didn’t understand it myself. My dad had passed away when I was just turned 11 and so I wasn’t living with my mum but I was seeing her at weekends. That sort of contributed even more because I wasn’t seeing her every day and so I was worried about her when I wasn’t here. It builds up and so often, I think for people, it gets to crisis point and what I’d really like is for that not to happen with children of parents with mental illness. We should speak about it more.

Iain Cunningham: Absolutely.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Like you were saying about your own experience, even though you didn’t see your mum when you were an older child with her illness, you were aware of it on some level and having been spoken to about it might have alleviated some of that underlying anxiety and all those thoughts you were having as a young boy.

Iain Cunningham: I definitely think it would have. I catastrophised a lot and used to imagine if I accidentally walked in front of a car. Whenever I was in a situation, I would always look at the danger and I think all of that is partly because of that very heightened sense of trauma that you get from being in those situations as a young child. If I’d understood more about that, then I could have done something about it a bit and I didn’t really. I think it can lead to slightly more reckless behaviour when you get into your teenage years because you’re trying to deal with something you don’t really understand. So absolutely, talking about it helps and it’s a strange thing but when I first started to understand what the illness what that my mum had, was told about it and then I met mums through this charity that I was working with called Action on Postpartum Psychosis... when I met children of those women, I did suddenly feel a kind of kinship and thought, ‘Ah, these are people who understand things about me that other people don’t.’ That’s probably a huge inflation of what is happening but it did feel like a kind of really helpful thing to talk to other people who understood and who had been through similar experiences.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely. What age were you when that happened and you spoke to them?

Iain Cunningham: I was in my 30s [laughter], so I was very old at that point but it was enough to kind of know. I was talking to adult children and it just really helped for some reason I think.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: It’s been wonderful talking to people on this podcast, including yourself. It definitely does help and I just wish, I guess, that that had been an option sooner. I’m going to have to go and get a tissue. I’m so sorry. I’ll be two seconds.

Iain Cunningham: Don’t apologise. This is cool. I just don’t want you to be upset.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Sorry...... probably why I’m finding it a wee bit more emotional is that it isn’t spoken about. I think it’s the not speaking about it that contributes to that. So having this level and depth of conversation and hearing somebody else share about their mother, in a similar situation, I’ve never really done that. That’s why I’m emotional. It’s... it’s wonderful to hear. I’m so keen to talk about my own experience as well because I never have and I think it’s important to talk about these quite serious and acute mental illnesses. When you haven’t done it often, it can be just emotional and make you a wee bit teary.

Iain Cunningham: Absolutely.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: But you chose to do that through... well, I guess you didn’t know what you were getting into at the beginning. You didn’t know what the outcome would be and so talk us through that a little bit about the process of the documentary and the impact that that’s had on you.

Iain Cunningham: My background is in documentary and so I just always felt like I wanted to make something about my mum to sort of tell people about her, even if it was just that she was an ordinary person but that she deserved to be remembered. I wanted to capture these memories that people had because we all live on in other people’s heads in different ways, so there’s a sort of facsimile of us out there in the world. That’s I was trying to get. I met her best friend who I’m very close to now and my kids are as well. I met family members of mine that I’d never met that were related to my mum and that I’m close to now. So that experience was really very, very powerful and the experience, as I’ve mentioned, of talking to my family was also quite a therapeutic thing and to be able to tell my dad what had happened because I don’t think he really, even now, understood until we went through this process together what had happened. At the time, I don’t think he had a full understanding of it and...

Dr Pamela Jenkins: What do you think he thought? Oh sorry, I just wondered what you thought he thought.

Iain Cunningham: Yeah, I just don’t think that doctors told people in the same way then as they do now what is happening and I think he just thought something very bad had happened to his wife and he just hadn’t got a clue what it was. She wasn’t making sense, she was talking all the time and she wouldn’t sleep. When I spoke to my dad first about what I thought it was, I went back to his house and I saw he’d written down the name, postpartum psychosis. He’d never heard it before, so it was something he was learning as well. I think as the process of filming went on, I started to understand how people just don’t talk about these kinds of things. All of the people I spoke to seemed to have their own story of mental illness somehow and their own connection to it. I think we’re all an arm’s length from it really without talking about it. Once the film was finished and started to be shown in cinemas, that was quite a powerful thing because a communal experience in a dark room with people is a good way to start conversations and after every screening, people would stand up and talk to me about something that had happened in their family that wasn’t spoken about or an issue with mental illness that they’d had trouble articulating and often about their dads and that issue of communication because I think men find it particularly difficult to talk to each other about this kind of stuff as well. I really found a lot of joy in that really, strangely, and just that idea that you could create this network or you could reach out to people through those conversations. So many people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’ve got to go home and talk to my dad about X, Y, Z,’ or ‘I need to call my mum.’ I felt like it was having this kind of quite positive effect because sometimes you do need a film, a book, a thing on telly that you see; somebody talking to you about something to give you permission to start that conversation because I think that is the difficult part. It’s the beginning of the conversation. We all know it would be helpful, in some way, to talk about things but it’s very easy to not go through with it or to say, ‘Oh well, I’ll leave that to another time.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I think there’s a reticence about that conversation because until you know - I think there’s the fear and it’s the stigma that you spoke about before - there’s that fear of talking and opening up and what if that person doesn’t understand or can’t relate? So it’s almost like you need somebody to show their hand first before you can then show yours and relate [laughter]. What would be fantastic as well is to get to a point where we can have these conversations openly with people even if they don’t share the experience. Sometimes, that’s where a lot of the pressure comes from.

Iain Cunningham: I think partly because the conversation around things about mental illness is changing, it’s slightly easier but it tends to be less around the more difficult end of the mental illness spectrum and more about the touchy-feely end of the spectrum. So it’s still hard talking about psychosis, schizophrenia and those kinds of things. The stigma around that seems a stronger thing. The great difficulty in communicating about mental illness is trying to get people to be empathetic about something they can’t understand. It’s only through representation that that will change and through people seeing what it’s really like through either talking to people or through representation in films and things and that’s still miles off.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Honestly, some of the films, even children’s films, the language and the portrayal of people with mental illness... I don’t know how they get away with it. I don’t know how it’s not more of an issue and how it’s not spoken about more because I don’t see any change in that actually.

Iain Cunningham: Yeah, and the history of it, the asylum, the short-hand and all of that is too strong in that kind of representation. Just as a little aside, when I made the film, I lived on an estate that was built around an old asylum which has now turned into flats. The last scene of the film is where Isla, my daughter, is riding a bike around the fields there and there’s a sign which says there are 3,000 unmarked graves there in the meadows. That’s 3,000 people whose families... I’m not going to say abandoned them but the society deemed them to be not part of the rest of us. That history still exists. That has a knock-on effect, I think, in some ways. We haven’t really dealt with that properly.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: No. My mum was still very much part of my life after my dad passed away. She wasn’t able to take care of me by herself and so I lived with aunt and uncle and I would see my mum at weekends. She would come there for tea and she was still involved but there was also still a separation where I lived this separate life with her at the weekends and during the holidays, and the stigma, and not talking about it so much. As time went on and I got older, it’s just that feeling of that she somehow was forgotten even though she was still here. I guess that’s a guilt I carry. She just sort of lost... I feel like... I don’t know, she just deserves... she was such a good person. She was so wonderful and I just feel like she really deserves to be spoken about which is also partly the thinking behind doing this and talking with other people. She was forgotten for a really long time and I feel like I was part of that and it wasn’t right because she was really spectacular... and I feel really sorry for anybody who didn’t meet her [laughter] because she was a real gem. She was a real gem and I’m so sad for her the way that things panned out. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to remember people because so often, I think with mental illness, people are forgotten when they’re still here. They’re not completely forgotten but they’re not afforded the same identity because they become their mental illness...

Iain Cunningham: Absolutely.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: ...and they’re treated as though that’s who they are and that’s just not fair.

Iain Cunningham: Guilt is another thing that everybody seems to feel around this. My dad felt guilty and I think I felt guilty and somehow there’s this idea of responsibility somehow that you pull onto yourself that just isn’t really a thing. That’s a difficult thing to let go of. The memories of my mum that meant the most to me I think were of her as vibrant, funny, enjoying herself and all of those things that people still do when they have mental illnesses [laughter].

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, exactly. Maybe it’s in the name Irene. My mum was apparently always the life and soul of any party. She was a right hoot. It sounds like your mum was as well [laughter].

Iain Cunningham: Yeah, definitely. I must be the Irenes.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, my mum used to laugh a lot because she could hear what she was hearing. Well, often it was god. It’s interesting you said about your mum’s diary or the baby book and talking about god. I think that might be quite a common voice to hear. My mum would talk about that often but she also used to laugh a lot and sometimes I would just laugh with her. We would just laugh. I didn’t know why we were laughing but we would just laugh.

Iain Cunningham: That’s the sense that I got from my mum from nan talking about it. I don’t want to cast any... my nan was lovely and I loved my nan but she had quite a hard upbringing in Scotland and she called a spade a spade. She used to say that my mum was funny and I think she meant it in various different ways but all of the stories that I was told about her were about her being funny and I guess that is how it comes across to certain people.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Was that your dad’s mum then?

Iain Cunningham: Yeah, it was my dad’s mum. My mum’s mum and her family were not around really. After she’d passed away, they all seemed to disappear and actually, once I started to research, make the film and get to know those people a bit more, there’s been a lot of mental illness in that side of the family and people who’d found it quite difficult to cope with certain circumstances. I think that it was just a big catalyst for that family to break it up a little bit.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Were they close with your mum? Did they have a good relationship with her?

Iain Cunningham: Her family?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah.

Iain Cunningham: Yeah, she was doted on by her dad but he’d been quite a violent man and so I think some of the childhood experiences she’d had were maybe not great and may have contributed to her later illness. Her aunty had been in an asylum, as it was then, for 30 years and there were other episodes of postnatal illness of certain types. That’s another part of having familial mental illness; that fear that you have of what effect it will have on you. I think it’s only really understanding and conversation that can explain that and help you feel less anxious about that because it’s not a directly hereditable thing. It’s a much more complicated picture than that...

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Exactly.

Iain Cunningham: ...but I think as a child, you might be worried about that kind of thing. So having good conversations with people with knowledge is a useful thing.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely, and starting that conversation early like we were saying before because that worry can be about the parent themselves, as we spoke about, or about developing anything yourself, like you say. If everybody just keeps quiet, like parents, family and doctors, I just think a child’s mind can just run away with itself.

Iain Cunningham: Absolutely.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s so right. Just because a parent has a mental illness does not mean that you will have a mental illness. Now that you’re a father, how does the knowledge of your mum’s mental illness affect you now?

Iain Cunningham: It’s helped a lot to just inform me. Like I said, it was when Isla was born really, I guess, that I started to think about it because I knew something had gone wrong when I was born. As I started to learn about it... Isla was really involved in the film because I wanted to tell her because, at that point, she didn’t know. She didn’t know until she was about six that I had another mother. My mum deserved to be remembered, thought about and talked about in the same way that anybody else was and I felt, in some ways, that her mental illness had contributed to the reason that she wasn’t and bringing that into the light, talking to my daughter about it, taking her to some of the places we went, talking to her about my mum and who she was and what she did was all part of that process. She talks about her now as Grandma Irene and Irene’s best friend writes to Isla. There are all these lovely connections that came out of it and my dad has pictures of us in his house now that he didn’t have. All of that stuff doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a very difficult thing but it’s about not erasing those lives I think. The charity for the families who have been through postpartum psychosis did a family day and so she was just playing with other kids. Just that, in itself, allowed us to start those conversations. It’s not anything heavy and you don’t have to go into huge amounts of detail. I just think it’s good to equip children with the knowledge that these things can happen and to try and build a bit of resilience, I suppose.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely. I might actually have to separately bend your ear about how you did that because I really think I might be feeling terribly at doing that with my older son who will be eight on Saturday. He has been asking questions about it since my mum died and so we did talk about the fact that Gran had mental illness and what that meant. It’s a very tricky conversation to have with a child and actually, then give some insight into why it might have been so tricky for my dad and for my family to have it with me and to have it in a way that doesn’t then generate anxiety in them. He will now occasionally say, ‘Oh, I’m worried I’ll have mental illness. Will I get mental illness?’ It’s just such a delicate balance of being open, and being honest, and trying to normalise it a little with not making it something that then gives them the fear [laughter].

Iain Cunningham: Yeah, well, I absolutely don’t want to give the impression that I know exactly what I’m doing with that because none of us do really with parenting, do we? But I think just having the conversation in itself and just that exposure to people in their family is enough to give them that knowledge and, yeah, it is a fine line. The more that they understand that these things can happen and the reasons why, then I think that’s partly... of course, you can’t answer all of those questions either but it just equips them with a bit more knowledge then.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Iain, thank you so so much for being here today, honestly, and for coming to talk to me. Your documentary was amazing. That you’ve agreed to do this has just been an honour, so thank you so much.

Iain Cunningham: No, I really appreciate it and I think these are the kinds of conversations that I think can be really helpful because sometimes you do need to hear someone else talking about it to sort of set something off in your own mind, so thanks for sharing as well.

[Outro music]

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Iain Cunningham, director of Irene’s Ghost. Thank you so much to Iain for coming to speak with me. It was absolutely wonderful and if I’m honest, quite emotional. You can find Irene’s Ghost on lots of different streaming platforms: Amazon Prime and all the usual places. Just google Irene’s Ghost to get lots of different options.

ct your GP, the Samaritans on:

Thank you so much for being with us today. Subscribe to our feed so you get future episodes automatically downloaded and if you know someone who’d benefit from hearing these stories we’re sharing, please let them know we’re here. That’s really important. We really want people to know that they’re not alone. This is a Bespoken Media production with music and sound design by Joel Cox. See you next time.

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