His latest role saw him starring as the hero of the hour in a nerve-jangling shootout.
Brummie actor David Harewood saved two penalties as he helped England to victory against a Usain Bolt-led World XI in this year’s charity Soccer Aid
bonanza for Unicef.
Given the amount of time he’s spent working in America since 2011 when he won the part of CIA counter-terrorism chief David Etses in the hugely successful US drama Homeland, you could be forgiven for thinking he should have been playing on the other side.
Never too far away from a 747, the Small Heath-born 52-year-old actor, who in the 1990s scraped a living by supplementing his low profile stage roles with minor parts in The Bill, Casualty and Minder, is wowing audiences as a superhero in the US action series Supergirl.
But wind back 30 years to 1988 and the captivating father of two’s head was in the clouds for an altogether more harrowing reason.
Two years out of RADA and cutting his teeth as an enthusiastic theatre performer, his joie de vivre began to evaporate when the realisation dawned that his ethnicity might have a tangible impact on his career.
“I’d always, perhaps naively, just considered myself an actor, but suddenly I was David Harewood, black actor, and there were these whole other set of rules for black actors and that reality stunned me a little bit.
“I just hadn’t considered the colour of my skin was going to dictate my career. I found it all very confusing.”
David’s bewilderment snowballed and to dampen the gnawing feeling of unease he began self-medicating.
“It takes enormous courage to walk on stage,” remembers David, who lives with his wife Kirsty and their daughters Maize, 15, and 13-year-old Raven in South London, “and I had lost my confidence. Prior to that I’d had this bulletproof, supreme confidence but I’d lost that ability in front of an audience and the only way I could get through a performance was to get sloshed.”
As his drinking continued to mask his plummeting self-esteem, David began to lose his sense of perspective and soon his fragile grip on reality.
“I started to revert to that childlike attitude where I’d just go to any lengths to have a good time.
“That meant me just going out and searching for fun, whether that was singing on the Tube, carrying somebody’s bag down the street or just talking to complete strangers and having a laugh, that’s what I did.”
David’s friends and family grew increasingly concerned by his erratic behaviour but he was unaware of his mushrooming eccentricities and believed he was having the time of his life, in retrospect classic signs of a hypermanic episode experienced by manic depressives.
Today he might well have been diagnosed as bipolar but in 1988 the first GP he saw declared, “He seems to think he’s Lenny Henry,” and prescribed him pills, which David promptly binned.
Still behaving erratically David reached the point where the authorities believed he needed to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act for his own safety. “I got to the stage where my behaviour was deemed to be, I wouldn’t say dangerous, but I didn’t really care.”
David spent an indeterminate spell at the psychiatric ward at Whittington Hospital in Archway, North London.
“I remember bits of it,” he says, “I remember friends coming to see me and the odd moment of lucidity but I was very heavily sedated. Most of it I was asleep for, to be honest.”
Initially delusional and unaware of his mental condition David was bemused by his new surroundings.
“I had absolutely no idea where I was or why I was there or how long I was in there. I can remember at one point thinking, ‘Why can’t I get out of these doors?’ I can remember trying to get out and thinking, ‘Why are these doors locked?’ and then people coming towards me and helping me back into bed. And I was thinking, ‘Why can’t I go home?’ and just being very confused.
“I didn’t really know where I was and why I was there. And in the 30 years since no one has actually been able to tell me exactly what happened.”
David hopes to banish his sense of psychological amnesia by exploring the frightening episode in greater detail in a documentary he’s filming for the BBC called David Harewood: My Psychosis and Me.
“It’s been a fascinating journey so far and I’m talking to all the medics and doctors and people involved at the time and trying to put dates to events and what I’m already realising is that it was probably happening for a lot longer than I had realised.”
One memory still fresh in his mind is where his sense of reality was so distorted he believed that William Shakespeare was reciting lines to him as he lay watching in his hospital bed.
“I remember just lying there and I heard somebody talking Shakespeare and even in my drug-addled brain I thought, ‘I recognise that.’ And I sat up and looked for him, and looked around and he was wandering the ward. And I’m sure it was, it was Shakespeare. And for some reason it made me feel better.
“It comforted me because I didn’t know who I was. But I knew Shakespeare when I heard it. Then I remember drifting off to sleep thinking, ‘No, it’s OK, everything’s OK, I’m all right,’ because it brought me comfort to hear something that I was familiar with, because everything around me was not.”
One of David’s regular visitors was his brother Paul who said, “Dave, you’re flying a bit but if you want to get out of here, you’ve got to tone it down.”
Soon afterwards he was discharged and after a healing spell at home with mum Mayleen and an abortive period taking the anti-psychotic drug Largactil, eight months later he was back to work and stronger for the experience.
I did feel stronger and I can’t ever see that happening to me again,” says David. “Maybe something needed to break in order for me to kind of put myself back together. I’ve never had a repeat of that and I don’t ever intend to have a repeat of it.
“I’m very lucky that I’m in a profession where you get to live 1,000 different lives so I can use all this experience, which is why I’ve never felt stigmatised by it.
“In a strange way I’ve almost seen it as a badge of honour. I mean how many people go crazy? How many people get the chance to go have a breakdown and then go on to play the head of the CIA or some of the greatest roles in Shakespeare?
“Having a mental health problem is not a death sentence. You can bounce back. You can find help, whether it’s through therapy or hard work, or other means of assistance, but these things can be overcome so it’s so important that we encourage people to seek help before things reach a crisis point.”
David is hoping that the green ribbon he’s wearing to symbolise Mental Health Awareness eventually becomes as synonymous with the cause as the red poppy is for Remembrance Day.
Plenty of other celebrities have posted selfies wearing the ribbon, among them actresses Olivia Colman and Samantha Womack.
“As an ambassador of mental health I would urge the authorities to ramp up all forms of advertising around mental health and publicise contact numbers to make it easier for people. There’s a lot more help out there, but as a society we need to start taking more care of each other.”
- Order your green ribbon to raise awareness and support good mental health for all from The Mental Health Foundation at: mentalhealth.org.uk/green-ribbon-pin-badges
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