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Paul Merton health: The comedian’s ‘manic episode’ that led to hospitalisation

Paul Merton and Suki discover ceiling lights in the motorhome

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For a life that is full of making people laugh on the BBC One show, Paul has been through some unfortunate experiences during his lifetime. One of these was losing his second wife to cancer only 12 weeks after they married. Another occurred just as his career was taking off. At this crucial time Paul suffered a mental breakdown. The episode was so severe that he was referred to a psychiatric hospital in Camberwell, South London.

Unexpectedly while rehearsing for a Christmas edition of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the comedian started to cry while talking to a friend as he believed he was Jesus. He describes that at the time he had a heightened state of excitement but then also started to ramble.

Hallucinations followed with the comic imagining 15-inch transparent worms and people staring at him. It was after this incident that he decided he needed help and was driven in a taxi to hospital. After only a few days he discharged himself in a desperate attempt to continue working. But after another breakdown he was admitted for a full six weeks for further treatment.

In true comedic fashion he retells his breakdown in a humorous way. Refusing to call it a mental breakdown but rather a manic episode. “I felt good, I felt alive, I felt alert, I was full of energy. It was the people around me who were getting worried,” the star tells The Guardian.

But his friends and family surrounding him all knew that something was not right. While some speculated that his psychosis was due to depression, Paul insists that his behaviour was due to anti-malaria tablets that he had been taking for a holiday to Kenya.

Specifically, the star said it was caused by “a combination of overwork and anti-malaria pills.” Yet images of seeing curtains twitching and paranoia indicated that it was something more serious.

Paul remembered how embarrassed he felt being in therapy sessions with “serious schizophrenics and people who had attacked strangers with knives” during his time in the psychiatric hospital. He thought at the time his only problem was that his Channel 4 series had been postponed – one that would turn out to not be a great success anyway.

Despite his reluctance to admit that he was mentally ill, Paul also remembers the exact moment where he started to get his life back on track. And all it took was for a friend to come and visit him.

“What I wanted was for somebody to hug me. But he, being a typical middle-class male, was keeping his distance. And his emotional detachment made me feel even more alone. When he went away, I felt so lonely, I howled, like animals cry.”

After his recovery the comedian was reluctant to talk about his experience.  Happening in 1990, the comedian only talked about this time in his life in 1999 and was even able to return to the hospital where he was treated to open a garden for other patients.

Although he has had no manic episodes since the comedian is very aware of not overloading his working schedule, something his current wife and fellow comedian Suki Webster also understands.

What is a mental breakdown?

The term mental breakdown, or sometimes nervous breakdown is related to periods of extreme mental or emotional stress. The level of stress is so great that the person feels like they are unable to perform their normal day-to-day activities.

However, the term nervous breakdown is not a professional term. Nor is it recognised as a mental health disorder. This does not mean that the condition does not exist, but in modern terms, experts would refer to the condition as either depression or anxiety.

There is not one cause of a nervous breakdown. In fact multiple factors can trigger these episodes. WebMD suggests the following may be triggers:

  • A sudden tragedy
  • A major life change
  • Constant stress at work (sometimes referred to as “burnout”)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor sleep
  • Abuse
  • Financial problems.

Signs you are having a nervous breakdown

The first and most important sign of a nervous breakdown is the inability to function properly.

Symptoms may be related to those experienced when suffering from anxiety and depression. This includes things such as low self-esteem, fearfulness, feeling worried, getting easily angered, withdrawing from friends and family and losing interest in your favourite activities.

In addition, trouble concentrating can also be an early sign that your mental health is not in it’s prime condition. Stress can affect your body in a multitude of ways including the structure of your brain, leading to memory loss and concentration problems.

Extreme insomnia and fatigue as Paul Merton experienced is another sign that you may be having a nervous breakdown. When you cannot sleep the brain cannot recover from the high levels of stress it is under. In turn this can lead to worsening stress and anxiety.

Performing on a lack of sleep is also damaging to your health and in response you may feel extremely tired. This feeling of fatigue can be caused by a lack of sleep or oversleeping and it is this level of exhaustion that leads to a breakdown.

Some individuals will go off their food in times of extreme stress whereas others may find the urge to binge eat. In either case an individual will experience unwanted weight loss or gain which can lead to other permanent more threatening health conditions.

In order to treat a nervous breakdown, it is crucial to talk to a doctor who may be able to provide treatment for any visible symptoms. Simple lifestyle changes to reduce stress may minimise your risk of having a nervous breakdown as well as medication to aid with symptoms such as insomnia or hallucinations.

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  • Posted on September 10, 2021