ITV star shares her bi-polar household trauma with Labour deputy Angela Rayner

Shadow Deputy Prime Minister Angela Rayner is full of admiration for the way in which her mother Lynn Bower navigated life with bipolar disorder.

It is a situation ITV News’ deputy political editor Anushka Asthana knows only too well as her brother, who died 12 years ago, also had bipolar.

Here, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Anushka writes movingly about her decision to interview Angela and to speak for the first time about her brother, and the need to reduce the time taken to diagnose the condition.

Anushka writes…

“It’s just nothing. It’s just pain… She can’t move… She doesn’t want to live. It’s just real, deep, deep sorrow.”

Anushka has interviewed Angela about her mum's bipolar disorder - after her brother died 12-years-ago

Anushka has interviewed Angela about her mum’s bipolar disorder – after her brother died 12-years-ago
Publicity Picture)

I was sitting opposite Labour‘s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, in the middle of an interview quite different to those I would normally be expected to carry out.

We were not sparring over workers’ rights, or questions of tax and property. Instead, in this conversation for ITV News, she was describing the sheer depths of depression suffered by her mum.

In between painful anecdotes, including the anger she sometimes felt as a child, Rayner kept reminding me how proud she was of Lynn Bowen. “Even in her darkest hours, she tried her best,” she said.

Anushka's brother had bipolar disorder

Anushka’s brother had bipolar disorder
Publicity Picture)

Bowen suffered with bipolar disorder, and ever since I heard Rayner talk about it, on the Leading podcast with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, I’d been desperate to discuss it with her myself. There was one thing she said that made me stop in my tracks.

If her mum had received support earlier, Rayner thought it may have transformed her life. The comment immediately turned my mind to my brother – who also suffered with bipolar disorder, but sadly died aged just 37. Had he been diagnosed much earlier – would things have been different for him too?

My experience of watching a loved one ride the rollercoaster highs and lows of this illness was not always bad, by any means.

My brother was highly intelligent and one of the most brilliantly creative people I’d ever known. He won a place at Cambridge University, as well as being a wonderful musician, talented artist and the type of friend from whom love just poured out.

But his mental illness also brought huge pain and confusion, leaving him and us feeling – at times- utterly helpless. Through him I met others with bipolar disorder too, who would try to describe the sheer disconnection of the psychosis they experienced – arguing that their highs could trigger behaviour just as life-threatening as their suicidal lows.

Angela Rayner and her mum

Angela Rayner and her mum

At one point I witnessed the sharp end of mental health services, immediately followed by the most critical side of physical health provision – and I was shocked by what I saw.

The gulf between the two when dealing with similarly serious conditions felt extreme.

In one case it took a week to see a consultant – in the other, we received that level of care within just minutes. When I wrote a letter of complaint to the mental health unit after my brother died, they called me in for a meeting. I walked nervously to the end of a plain, clinical corridor and sat opposite them, behind a desk.

I told them I was shocked by the lack of provision. To my surprise, they agreed and pointed to my job (back then chief political correspondent at the Times). “You are a journalist; can’t you write about it?”

In truth, I’ve not felt able to talk about my brother until now, but something in Rayner’s interview made me change my mind. Maybe my experience could help me highlight some of these issues.

In the decade since that happened, there has been a lot of talk about parity of esteem between physical and mental health – but I still see many of the same challenges.

Bipolar UK tells me that over a million people live with this illness in Britain – and yet it still takes, on average, 9.5 years to get a diagnosis.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists call that delay “unacceptable”.

They warn of a “lost decade” in which people can lose jobs, relationships, homes and even lives. For some that is down to suicide – for others – like in our case- it is more complicated. Now the College is calling for that decade- long delay to be urgently cut in half.

My brother had the wonderful support of medical parents who knew how to get him to the right care- but even in the most acute settings, that bipolar diagnosis and, therefore, the most appropriate treatment was delayed. In the end, he died of a physical, lung-related disease, but we don’t believe he would have fallen ill if it weren’t for the risks he took as a result of his bipolar.

As a child, Rayner told me she did not have the words to describe what was happening. She said: “For me, it wasn’t a title or condition. It was more, why is my mum different? My friends, their mums were able to have their clothes ready in the morning for them for school, they would make their breakfast.”

Jauhar Sameer is a leading expert on bipolar disorder

Jauhar Sameer is a leading expert on bipolar disorder
Publicity Picture)

She described asking friends if she could go round for tea, and if their parents said no (because it was the second day in a row) she would sit on the kerb and wait. “I always remember feeling hungry as a child,” she said.

Bowen also struggled to read and write, resulting in her once bringing home a can of dog food that she thought was stewing steak – and, another time, shaving foam instead of cream.

I ask about any regrets she might have – as I know I have plenty, and then turn to that delay in diagnosis, wondering – would my brother be here if he’d had that information ten years earlier.

“My mum spent weeks in hospital when she didn’t need to be in hospital. If she had got the intervention early on, and the support early on, she would not have ended up in that crisis point,” admitted Rayner.

Sameer Jauhar – one of the country’s leading experts on Bipolar disorder, said one of the big problems is that the delay in diagnosis can stretch from the late teens to the early 30s – a critical time in which people are developing relationships and life. “The rates of self harm, suicide are tremendously increased,” he said- adding that the treatment for Bipolar depression differs to other forms.

One mistake can be giving a person with Bipolar – antidepressants that can actually drive their mania. But with an early diagnosis, he said there were now effective treatments and interventions. That is why he is suggesting much earlier screening for Bipolar and even the use of AI to scour medical records to look for clues.

  • The full report was aired tonight 6.30pm on ITV News and available on ITV X.