We were delighted to hear that OE Sam Swidzinski has recently published a book on living with bipolar disorder, which he hopes other sufferers might find useful as a self-help guide. Sam is a real inspiration and is currently studying for a PhD in the area of mental health at King’s College. This recent interview covers his academic work and personal circumstances.
Your time at Emanuel was obviously impacted greatly by your bipolar disorder. Taking that into account, do you have fond memories of your time at school?
My fondest memories of Emanuel were when I was hanging out with my great friends, Daniel Paget and Matthew Elliott. Dan is still my best friend to this day, and I feel very grateful that Emanuel provided me with such a great and long-term friendship.
What sort of things did you enjoy/get involved in at school?
I loved the school gym. I was always the skinny kid in school, so the moment that I was old enough to start lifting, the school gym became my second home. Weightlifting was an escapism for me and it helped me to get rid of the stress that I was feeling during my illness. The sports staff were very accepting of me and welcoming. They even let me play my own music!
What sort of support did you get at Emanuel? It is worth noting that the level of mental health support for pupils has dramatically increased since your time in the school.
My head of year, Chris Labinjo, and my head of sixth form, Kate Bainbridge, were very supportive of me during very difficult times. My bipolar disorder became very hard to manage and my sister was diagnosed with Leukaemia. Both teachers were incredibly supportive. They may not feel that they did much, but I could tell that they genuinely cared about my situation. That was enough for me. Feeling care from others is sometimes all that’s needed to make an impact. Without their care, I doubt I would have been able to finish my education at Emanuel.
Could you outline your educational timeline from Emanuel to PhD?
Shortly after Emanuel, my mental health became too extreme for me to be able to function. I could hardly leave the house or do the dishes, let alone study or work. After receiving the right treatment, I began a BSc at the University of Sussex, and from there was offered a studentship at King’s College for a 1+3 ESRC PhD scheme. I’m now doing my PhD under Dr Allan Young, Vice Dean of Academic Psychiatry in the UK. I’m very happy to be able to work with someone who is a real game-changer in the field. I hope to be like that one day.
Do you think having bipolar initially drew you to the broad area of psychology?
My passion for psychology and mental health comes from my desire to help others. I feel fortunate that workers in the mental health field have helped me develop a love for life, from someone who struggled to function, to someone that is able to pursue a PhD and write a book. I want to be able to provide similar support to others who are suffering.
What made you decide to write the book Winning the War with Bipolar?
I feel like bipolar is a unique disorder that many find it hard to relate to. When I meet other people who have this disorder, I feel a sense of connection. I feel fortunate that I have been able to manage my illness. Many aren’t as lucky to have the support I’ve had. I want to be that support to others.
Tell us a little bit about the book and its target audience.
This book was originally written as a self-help book for those with bipolar disorder. I wasn’t expecting people who didn’t have a vested interest in bipolar to read the book. However, many who haven’t got this diagnosis have reached out to tell me that they find the book interesting and inspiring. I’m glad that it can touch the lives of a wide range of individuals.
In the longer term do you envisage working in the field of mental health?
There is nothing that I would like to do more. Without a doubt. I have found my passion and my calling in life.
You mentioned you were potentially going to work with your former head of year Chris Labinjo concerning mental health in schools. Can you tell us more about that?
Chris and I plan to work with schools in Croydon, helping them to improve in the techniques they use to reduce risk of development of mental health difficulties and in interventions for individuals who are currently experiencing mental health difficulties.
From reading the book it is obvious that your family have provided you with tremendous support. Without this support network, how do you think you would have coped?
Without their support, I wouldn’t be alive today.
If we jump ten years into the future, where do you see yourself?
I aspire to be a world-renowned mental health advocate, academic researcher and author of a couple more books on mental health.
Supporting mental health at Emanuel School
At the heart of Emanuel’s pastoral care is the emphasis we place on the role of the form tutor: they are the individual who sees the pupil on a daily basis and offers support and guidance on a range of issues. The form tutor liaises with the head of year and head of section as necessary to ensure all pupils are best supported.
We have a team of counsellors who offer support across the week to those pupils who wish to access it and they also produce bespoke presentations and assemblies to address specific elements of mental health, to prompt discussion and to encourage matters to be shared. Our senior pastoral staff have all undertaken the mental health first aid course and a whole staff INSET on mental health was run earlier this year.
A focus on mental health and mental health initiatives is very much part of our Life Education programme. In the Lower School this includes our annual ‘Mind your 5’ week, where pupils are encouraged to try a range of different practices which support good mental health, to ensure they have a tool box of practical actions to take. This is complemented by sessions on mindfulness and, further up the school, sessions from external speakers who promote the importance of mental health. The aim is to have a proactive approach to addressing mental health concerns, but to also equip our pupils with an awareness of how to identify such issues and to ensure they have range of strategies to address them, as well as the full support of the pastoral team.
Sam, pictured, and 'Winning the War with Bipolar', published in August 2020.