THERE is a popular misconception that a person suffering from epilepsy has a mental health problem.

But the story of how Peter Dunn's world fell apart five years ago is a warning that anyone can be struck by the condition.

Epilepsy is a neurological condition affecting the brain causing 'seizures' to take place and preventing the brain's nerve cells from working in normal harmony.

The brain, a complex and sensitive organ, controls and regulates everything we do. To fulfil its many functions the brain's nerve cells must work together in smooth harmony.

Sometimes, however, an upset in the brain's electrical activity can cause a brief disruption within the nerve cells and an epileptic seizure results.

With Peter, the upset was caused by intense stress after trouble with his business, Industrial Supplies, of Clayton-le-Moors, which supplied tools and engineering equipment.

It created a tumour on the front temporal lobe which is now controlled by medication.

"I was in a bad way health wise," he said, "I didn't have my wits about me. One seizure takes two or three days to recover from."

Peter, 48, of Preston Old Road, Cherry Tree, Blackburn, can have an operation to remove the tumour -- taking the epilepsy with it -- but that means sacrificing the sight of one eye.

So Peter battles on with the help of medication which restrict the condition to one epileptic fit per month. He is trying to get back on his feet and is taking a computer course he hopes will lead to a job.

He gives much of his time to the Blackburn District Epilepsy Association helping to raise awareness of the neurological condition.

The type of seizure that a person may suffer depends on the area of the brain first affected and by how rapidly it spreads. Seizures may simply last for a few seconds, or, in some cases, for a few minutes, before the brain returns to normal. Seizures can be divided into two main types, generalised and partial.

A generalised seizure affects the whole brain. There are two main types of generalised seizure, the tonic-clonic (formerly known as the grand mal) and the absence (formerly known as the petit mal). The tonic-clonic is characterised by a sudden and complete loss of consciousness -- the person falls to the floor and their arms and legs stiffen (the tonic phase).

A rhythmic jerking follows this (the clonic phase). The person may emit a high-pitched cry at the outset as a result of air being forced through their vocal chords. The person may also bite their tongue and be incontinent. These incidents will usually take place within the first two minutes or so followed by the person remaining unconscious for a further minute or two. Upon regaining consciousness the person will remain confused and sleepy for a further 15 to 30 minutes before recovering a more general awareness of their condition and surroundings.

The absence is short and generalised, lasting for a matter of seconds, beginning and ending abruptly. These include brief lapses of consciousness during which the person stares ahead and may possibly rhythmically twitch the eyelids and face muscles. Whatever activity was interrupted at the time of the absence starting is resumed immediately when the absence stops.

There are other less common types of epilepsy caused by electrical discharges to other areas of the brain and they can cause a variety of other reactions such as fidgeting, feeling that you have been in a situation before, experiencing an unpleasant smell and other experiences.

The development of anti-convulsant drugs has meant that people suffering from epilepsy can now maintain a perfectly normal life with their seizures almost totally in control by their medication. But they are not allowed to hold a driving licence unless they have been completely free of seizures for at least 12 months.

Despite living a normal life due to their medication, it is possible that a person suffering from epilepsy may suffer a seizure as they go about their daily business. If this happens, there are things you can do to help. It is not a pleasant experience to witness someone suffering a seizure, but if someone has a tonic-clonic seizure you can help by:

* making sure they are safe from their surroundings;

* cushioning their head;

* aiding breathing by putting them on their side (the recovery position);

* not restraining their movements;

* loosening their collar if applicable;

* not putting your fingers in their mouth;

* not trying to lift them up.

If they do not recover consciousness after about five minutes it is advisable to send for an ambulance.

Once the person has regained consciousness, they will be able to talk but not be aware of their circumstances for some time. Someone should stay with the sufferer for 30 minutes or so to allow a more complete recovery to take place.

Epilepsy affects around one in 200 people, of any age and from any background.

It is a well-known fact that strobe lighting or flashing lights can trigger a seizure but this affects only about five per cent of sufferers. More common triggers are late nights, lack of sleep and withdrawal of medication.

Local support groups and the British Epilepsy Association are taking strides to dispel the false image that epilepsy is a mental illness by making more information available and raising awareness.

Anyone who would like more information can contact the BEA at Gate Way Drive, Leeds LS19 7XY (tel 0113 210 8800) or contact the Blackburn and district branch which meets on the last Wednesday of every month in the Fielden Room, Blackburn Central Library at 7pm.

The BEA freephone helpline is 0808 800 5050.