New Zealander Christopher Banks is a man of many talents. He’s a chart topping song-writer, producer and musician.
He’s also a prolific writer and journalist as well as being a writer, producer and director of several acclaimed short films. Banks also has experience of living with bi-polar disorder and chronicles his personal experiences of living with mental illness in his blog:http://bipolarbear.co.nz/
You’re blog has been a huge success. What was your intention when you first started the blog?
The intention was firstly as a way of sharing my own experiences as a gay man with a mental illness. I knew from talking to friends and acquaintances that I wasn’t the only one, but no-one was speaking openly about it, much like HIV status. At the time I started my blog, I was working for New Zealand’s most high-profile mental health organisation, so I felt I was in a safe space to ‘come out’, as it were.
Were you surprised by the response you got and how much resonance your writing has for people?
Firstly, I was happy with the support I received from my employer, the Mental Health Foundation, in launching the blog. They announced it with a press release, and the support was right there at CEO level [you can see the release here: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/page/904-2011-media-release+bipolar-bear-blog-provides-mental-health-insights]
Secondly, the speed with which the blog took off and created a community around itself was staggering. People connecting through Facebook, Twitter, and through the blog page, and using my experiences as a catalyst for sharing their own stories. Those stories would then lead to other people sharing theirs, and it snowballed. Independent conversations started, and I could not have hoped for a better response than that. Blogging, particularly this kind of blogging, is not a one-way transmission.
Until recently, it was often the norm that people in the public eye hid their mental health issues. Has being open about your mental illness hindered your career in any way?
Sadly, there have been a few occasions when this has happened. A former employer once turned me down for contract work and told others in that organisation not to contact me because I needed “to be left alone to rest”. I was in perfect health at the time, with a full work schedule, and at that instant I regretted having disclosed my mental illness to an employer that I thought was supportive and could trust.
People with mental illness also have to constantly battle having their illness used against them in employment situations, for example if a disagreement arises between a manager and employee. A genuine grievance can be dismissed or twisted into “we have concerns about your mental health”.
You speak widely, eloquently and passionately about a really diverse range of issues which relate to LGBT people. Do you think that there’s still a lot of complacence about human rights and health issues amongst gay men?
It depends who you talk to. I think there are a lot of people in denial, the ‘everything’s fabulous’ brigade and the ‘look how far we’ve come’ fraternity. In terms of mental health, there are now four decades worth of accumulated evidence to show that LGBT people are at greater risk of suicide and mental health problems, and relatively little is being done about it. HIV is still a massive issue, and because it still carries such huge stigma, I think gay men are scared to own it, despite the fact that in New Zealand – which is a much lower-prevalence country than the UK – a gay man is forty times more likely to be HIV positive than a heterosexual. In the Western world, HIV is a gay man’s illness and we need to own that not only so we can prevent it, but so that HIV positive men can feel part of a community and not be treated like lepers.
What would be your advice to gay men experiencing mental health problems?
Always talk. Don’t self-diagnose, just talk about what’s in your head, what’s worrying you. If the first person you speak to doesn’t listen, keep going until you find someone who does. Don’t be afraid of talking to a doctor, you’re unlikely to be locked away unless you turn up at the surgery with a dead cat in a bag. And for those who don’t experience mental illness, pay more attention to what’s going on in your friends’ lives. Forgo the small talk, and simply ask people if they’re ok. And be prepared to listen to the answer.
I understand you’re a big Cluedo fan. I’ll only play if I can be Miss Scarlet. Any preferences who you play as? By the way, I play to win
I always loved Professor Plum as a kid. But I was also fond of Mrs Peacock. I was obsessed with the game as soon as I got my first set for Christmas when I was about eight or nine. I’ve always loved murder mysteries, particularly camp ones, so it was inevitable that I would become equally obsessed with the fantastic film adaptation, “Clue”.
You also talk about your love of British sit-coms. Any particular favourites?
I love “Are You Being Served?”. I thought the writing was horrid and often mean-spirited, and the writers themselves clearly racist, sexist and homophobic, but the casting was absolute genius. They were all great, but Mollie Sugden (Mrs Slocombe) and John Inman (Mr Humphries) particularly milked the two-dimensional characters they were given for all they were worth. The timing of Trevor Bannister (Mr Lucas) and Harold Bennett (Young Mr Grace) was impeccable.
“Man About The House” and “George And Mildred” were great too. In some ways, they were almost like kitchen sink dramas with a laugh track, sometimes. Amazing pathos.
Of the new batch, “The Office” obviously kicked off a new era of “awkward” sitcoms which is very British in a completely different way. “Peep Show”, “Nighty Night”, “The League of Gentlemen” and “Absolute Power” have been highlights for me as well.
Finally, your new documentary is about to open. Can you tell us a bit more about it and any plans for it to come to the U.K.?
“Men Like Us” tells the life stories of nine gay New Zealand men from a wide range of backgrounds. The youngest is 24, the oldest 78. Each has had experience with a difficult life issue that is either unique to gay men, or is uniquely experienced by us: school bullying, body image, sport and masculinity, religious identity, cultural identity, HIV and aging. It was originally conceived as a series of short pieces, but there were so many thematic linkages between the interviews that once I put them together I saw that this was more than 9 separate stories: it was a testament to how much we do have in common as gay men. Community does exist, it’s up to us to make the best of it and treat our brothers with respect, love and kindness. Because there’s a lot of hidden pain out there, and as the documentary shows, an incredible amount of strength. Gay men are often stereotyped as weak, but I think to be gay in this world, you grow a Teflon coating at an early age.
I’m currently speaking with distributors in the UK. I would love to see it made available over there.
[Website address for film: www.menlikeus.co.nz ]
Words by: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.