Warning: this post is angrier and swearier than most of my posts. If you’re bothered by that, don’t read any further. If you do read further and come across something you don’t like, don’t come whingeing to me about it. I will not be sympathetic.
This may not count as a mental health blog any more, but I’m still a fully paid up member of the mentalist loony person fraternity for all that. I still live a life that’s dominated by depression (not, for the most part, the histrionic “O, woe is me! Am I not the most miserable creature that ever lived!?!” depression that gets you noticed; just the grinding, lifeless, affect-less, anhedonic depression that royally fucks up your life and no-one gives two shits about). Well, it’s dominated by depression apart from when it’s dominated by the other-end-of-the-see-saw opposite, anxiety, that is. I still teeter endlessly from one to the other, always either depression or anxiety predominating, and precious few moments of balance between the two. And I still live in the shadow of semi-frequent bouts of paranoia that utterly destroy my sense of self, that twist me up to the extent that I couldn’t tell you which of my thoughts are my own, or who I am, or even if I really exist. All that changed is I stopped writing about it.
I stopped writing about it because, frankly, it’s boring: where’s the fun in writing (or reading) about the same thing over and over again? I stopped writing about it because I decided it was better for the balance of my mind that I should concentrate on something other than the balance of my mind: solipsism has always been, for me, one of the easiest ways to fall down the rabbit hole. I stopped writing about it because I realised I was triggering myself – that by writing about the things that troubled me I was making things worse, not better. And I stopped writing about it because the virtual community I felt I’d belonged to started to fracture and dissolve. As blog-friends like Lucy, Cellar Door, Abysmal Musings, DeeDee, Katherine, Alex and J to a greater or lesser extent melted away, there seemed little point in carrying on. I didn’t know who I was talking to any more, and I lack the showmanship gene that makes some people happy to perform psychical striptease for the gratification of an anonymous public. (And yet here I am doing it just the same – letting my saggy old symptoms hang out like the shameless whore I am, while trying to pretend I’m purer than driven snow: don’t you just hate a hypocrite?)
So for these reasons and others I stopped writing about mental health, but every now and again a mental health story comes along that I feel I can’t ignore. Which brings me, rather neatly, to the Mind awards, that glamorous annual soirée where selected minor celebrities, a handful of MH professionals – and even the occasional patient who’s been thoroughly scrubbed with disinfectant, and made to pinkie-swear that they won’t dribble mentalism down the back of anyone’s party frock – gather to rub shoulders. The Mind awards are like the Baftas, only with fewer raving paranoiacs in the audience. Or, actually, they’re more like the Stonewall awards: an opportunity for the mainly rich, mostly high-achieving people who’ve appointed themselves as representatives of our ‘community’ to congratulate themselves on how well everything is going, and resolutely fail to talk about any actual problems. Well, you know what? The whole thing pisses me off.
It pisses me off that events like this always insist that any public discussion of mental illness has to be structured round a reductive “recovery” narrative, as though we’re all in some uplifting TV movie where mental illness is just a one-time setback to be overcome before we all move on to our happily-ever-after. The relentless pretence that a single bout of illness followed by a forever recovery is the only way to experience mental illness leaves no room for the other experiences of mental illness, as a recurring problem, or as one that never goes away.
It’s more common for people with serious mental illness to either remain ill for the whole of their lives, or to experience periodic relapses, than it is for them to recover and never get ill again, so why won’t our self-appointed ‘representatives’ ever talk about it? Why don’t they ever talk about the crappy realities of a life lived in the shadow of mental illness? How is it helpful to pretend to someone recovering from their first bout of mental illness that the rest of their lives will be peachy, when we know that for most of them it won’t? How does it help someone with mental illness to con them into thinking that they’ll never experience a relapse, so that when they inevitably do they feel scared, and isolated, and like they’ve fucked up somehow?
If Mind are going to hand out awards – and I’m far from convinced that they should – why can’t they be about celebrating the sheer bloody-minded courage of people who get through a shitty life with a few shreds of humour and dignity intact? Why is mental illness, whenever it’s discussed in public, always talked about as though it’s a temporary problem? Why are Mind – who should be speaking up for people who lack the ability to speak for themselves – associating themselves with the idea that mental illness is something that momentarily clouds the skies of high-functioning celebrities? How is it helpful to the public understanding of mental illness to lead them to believe that mental illness is a thing that doesn’t stand in the way of you becoming a pop star like Frankie Sandford, or prevent you from being the most prolific polymath in the country like Stephen Fry?
Of course in their cases it hasn’t, and that’s a wonderful thing – I’m glad they’re successful, and I applaud their ability to achieve it in the face of such difficult odds – but the fact remains that people like this are exceptional. For most people, life with with a serious mental illness means a grinding struggle just to achieve the ‘normal’ things – a network of friends, a relationship if you’re lucky, a steady job if you live in some parallel universe – let alone achieving things that are beyond most healthy people. Focussing on the few high achievers whose mental illness hasn’t held them back from living truly exceptional lives – and doing so at the expense of the far greater numbers of people who struggle through life – is cruelly misleading, and a charity that supposedly exists to advocate on our behalf should have nothing to do with it.
The reason it happens is because of Mind’s preoccupation with the notion of ‘stigma’, and the importance of ‘challenging’ it. This all sounds very lovely and fluffy and positive, but the devil, as always, is in the detail. Because the decision seems to have been taken that ‘challenging stigma’ means insisting that people with mental illness lead shiny, happy, successful lives. How lovely! What an attractive image of mental illness to present to the world! There’s just this one, niggling problem, of course: it’s utter bollocks.
Mental illness is a thing that makes life non-shiny, and unhappy, and unsuccessful, and if your method of ‘de-stigmatising’ mental illness involves pretending that people with mental illness don’t suffer the effects of mental illness then what, really, have you achieved? You certainly haven’t made life easier for people who are ill. In fact, you’ve achieved the precise opposite of that, by creating another reason for mentally ill people to feel bad about themselves – “Mind say mentally ill people lead happy, shiny, successful lives, so it must be my fault my life isn’t like that.” And what’s possibly worse, you’re helping to foster a false impression of mental illness in the minds of the public.
The truth is that ‘stigma’ is the mental health equivalent of a first world problem. To be able to afford the luxury of worrying about ‘stigma’, you have to know that you’ve got a warm place to live, and where your next meal is coming from, and that you have access to the medications and treatments you need. Only if you’ve got all of that can you start to worry about relatively trivial problems like people moving seats to get away from you on the bus, or girl/boyfriends leaving you when they find out because they’re worried you might hack them to pieces with an axe. For most people in the UK, that kind of physical security means access to benefits, either in the short or longer term. Now, Mind do campaign on benefits – albeit not very loudly; it’s presently 4th of 6 in their list of ‘current campaigns’ – but they don’t seem to recognise that their overweening focus on ‘stigma’ undermines that. Because every time they loudly and publicly insist that mentally ill people lead normal, happy, successful lives they offer support to the argument that people in receipt of benefits are malingerers who are perfectly capable of working, but choose not to.
Actually, it’s even worse than that. At this year’s awards Mind gave the ‘Making a Difference’ prize to the Sunday Express for their Crusade for Better Mental Health, which, with its ‘stated aim […] to create a public debate in which we start thinking and talking about mental health in the same way as we do physical health’, perfectly coincides with Mind’s anti-stigma agenda. But while the Express are talking Mind’s lovely, fluffy language on de-stigmatisation, just look at what they’re saying about mentally ill people on benefits: ‘Health tests show how 75% on sick benefits can work’; ’7 in 10 who claim incapacity benefit could be working’; ‘The Paralympics show up a corrupt benefits system’; ’70% of Britons on ‘incapacity benefits’ found to be fit’; ‘Proper reform of disability benefit is long overdue’; ‘Blitz on benefits: 887, 000 fiddlers exposed’; and on, and on, and on.
The fact is that there is currently a war on the sick and the disabled, and the mentally ill are in the forefront: they don’t even have missing limbs like ‘proper’ disabled people. It’s being led by the government (and connived at by Labour), but the Express is one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for it. Their relentless headlines painting people who claim sickness benefits – especially the ones who claim for ailments you can’t see – as cheats are making life immeasurably worse for the mentally ill. They’re adding directly to the stress that people feel – stress that is causing a substantial worsening of symptoms for many, and driving some into outright suicidality. And, indirectly, they’re adding fuel to the fire that’s kicking tens of thousands of mentally ill people into poverty and homelessness. But because they say the right things about ‘stigma’ – because they write fluffy lifestyle pieces suggesting that rich, successful people shouldn’t be looked down on just because they have an easily managed health problem that doesn’t impact on their ability to be rich and successful – Mind feels that they should be rewarded for ‘Making a Difference’.
The Express are making a difference, all right. They’re making a profound difference for the worse in the lives of tens of thousands of the mentally ill, and it’s beyond satire that an organisation that purports to represent us is congratulating them. This is the trouble with Mind, and most of the other big mental health charities: because they’re a self-selecting coterie of people with mainly mild or transitory mental health problems, because they’re mostly rich and largely successful, they simply don’t see the problems faced by other people – people whose mental health problems are serious and enduring, and people who aren’t rich and successful. Because ‘stigma’ is the worst of the problems they face, they assume that no-one has anything worse to deal with, and that ‘anti-stigma’ must be the priority. That’s why they hold self-congratulatory awards soirées where they tell themselves things must be getting better because there’s been a somewhat accurate depiction of a mentally ill person on a minor soap. Meanwhile, those of us who live in the real world can’t remember a time when things were as bad for mentally ill people as they are now, or a time when the prospects for our future looked so irredeemably bleak.
It really isn’t getting better. And the fact that more people accepted their free invitations to the Mind awards this year doesn’t offer proof that it is. And even though more discussion is always good, the most pressing problem facing the mentally ill in Britain today isn’t that the chattering classes aren’t chattering enough about panic attacks, or that the tweeting classes aren’t tweeting enough about OCD. The most pressing problem facing mentally ill people in Britain is the relentless war that’s being waged against us – the war that’s seeing the money the most vulnerable amongst us depend on to live withdrawn, and the services many of us rely on cut. And what are Mind doing in the middle of this war? They’re handing a prize to one of our chief tormentors. I don’t know whether to stay angry, or just surrender to the despair.
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