Mental health campaigns can backfire

Mark ‘One in Four’ Brown has written a typically thoughtful and interesting blog post for the BBC to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. In it he wonders whether a standard tactic deployed by self-appointed mental health campaigners – that of drawing public attention to glamorous people who have managed to have super-successful lives despite their MH problems – may actually prove counter-productive.

At a time when experiences of disability are becoming politicised by changes to social security benefits, some feel that inspirational figures drawn from the ranks of celebrity obscure the real challenges faced by disabled people. These challenges include a lack of relationships and money to make sure that life is not just bearable but enriching and enjoyable.

Where the […] gap between their [the inspirational figure’s] life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment – especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence. […] Most of us will never scale Everest, compete for our country at sports or have a showbiz career. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed.

I fully endorse these comments. In fact, I’ve said similar things myself in the past. Here I am, for example, back in March 2008 demonstrating the problem with presenting exclusively hopeful stories about mental illness (in only my third-ever post, when I was still writing directly about my own mental illness):

The programme [BBC1 documentary Surviving Suicide] did seem to have a certain bias towards celebrities […]. No doubt this was partly an attempt to maintain viewer interest, and it does go to show that anyone can be ill, but it also runs the risk of presenting a warped view of the situation. No matter how spectacular my recovery, I’m never going to be invited to a record shop to sign copies of my book of photographs of The Jam, and the same is true for almost everyone. […]

The programme’s emphasis on hope was certainly understandable, and probably a good thing as far as most people are concerned. But for me it just made obvious all the reasons why I’ll never get to be a poster-boy […]. The programme seemed to be saying, “There’s always hope for a ‘normal’ life”, but the thing is there isn’t, not for me.

If you can see through the maudlin self-pity I would these days make sure to delete or undercut, this is a demonstration of precisely the problem Mark Brown discusses. I’d watched a ‘feel-good’ documentary about inspirational role models who’d overcome their mental illness and gone on to achieve exceptional things – and all it did was make me feel worse.

That wasn’t the only time I’ve raised similar concerns. It’s been in the background of a lot of my posts on mental illness, and broke out in a big way in an angry tirade this last November:

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 […].

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 […]. And what’s possibly worse, you’re helping to foster a false impression of mental illness in the minds of the public.

I’m really pleased to see similar things being said by someone else, especially someone of the stature and skill of Mark Brown, who can (unlike me) make these points to a wide audience, and without getting weirdly angry or self-pitying. I’m hopeful that this might lead on, eventually, to a reassessment of the way we speak about mental illness, both between ourselves, and to the wider public.

I remain convinced that it’s unhelpful to people with mental illness to encourage us to view our own lives in terms of the lives of the most high-achieving among us, since most of us will fall drastically short of that high standard. And I remain convinced that it’s actively harmful to our interests to encourage the public to associate mental illness with super-successful celebrities, even if the effort is part of a well-meaning attempt to tackle “stigma”. Not only does it strengthen the public perception that people who have to claim benefits for metal illness are malingerers who could work if they wanted, it also encourages the impression that mental illness is nothing but a celebrity affectation.

Both of these are real problems, and they cause real harm to real people in the real world – far more harm, in my view, than is caused by “stigma” itself, which only looms as a problem if you’re fed, clothed, housed and receiving appropriate treatment. If Mark Brown’s intervention means that we can have a proper discussion about the unwelcome repercussions of these campaigns, I’m extremely glad. Although I think it may be an uphill struggle. A lot of the big charities that claim to speak on our behalf are heavily invested in these misguided “anti-stigma” campaigns – literally, since they get paid to run them. It may take a lot to persuade them to abandon that relatively secure income stream, since it will put the livelihoods of the people who work for them in jeopardy.

I’m still hopeful that, over time, we can encourage those organisations to refocus their efforts. It would be helpful, I think, if we could forget about “stigma” for a while, and just concentrate on educating the public in the realities of mental illness. That campaign could teach, for example, that, no, we mentally ill are not Hannibal Lecters plotting to skin them alive, but neither are we Winston Churchills who will save the free world. A campaign like that could help the public to understand that the mentally ill are just ordinary people trying our best to cope in circumstances that are sometimes quite difficult, and we’d quite like to be treated as such. Not as terrifying demons, or sweetly-suffering angels, or pretexts for slickly-edited videos about our inspirational ‘journeys’ that can be set to music by Enrique Iglesias. Just as people.

This entry was posted in About me, Depression, General mental weirdness, Social commentary, Stuff I've read, The benefit system and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mental health campaigns can backfire

  1. Kapitano says:

    I once had to patiently explain to people on the street that, just because a child was deaf, that didn’t give him extra-sensitive vision or super-human lip-reading abilities. And that most autistic people weren’t savants.

    But looking back at the hype around the paralympics, the persistent message – always implicit but never quite articulated – was that disability somehow creates superability. That wheelchair bound basketball players are imbued with such willpower that they don’t just reach the same level as non-disabled athletes, they’re in a nebulous way better.

    The nebulousity is important, because that means it can shift according to convenience, and never be examined.

    The obvious corollary is that any disabled person who doesn’t overcompensate…is lazy. And thus a disabled person who can’t get a job…isn’t trying. They’re sponging off the state, maybe exploiting our supposed liberal guilt at their condition etc. etc.

    Stephen Fry is presented, not as an example of someone who’s found ways to cope with mental illness, but as an impossible yardstick for the mentally ill to define their success by.

    I think there’s elements of this in the popular image of the gay person who copes with homophobia. Or the liberal stereotypes of the gay man as young, ripped, and confident…or sassy, witty and wise. Back in the 70s in America there was a slew of sitcoms and dramas depicting black families – who always somehow had gifted children, supportive mothers and affluent fathers.

    If you turn a stupid idea on its head, you get another stupid idea. Inverted snobbery, afrocentrism, the idea that atheism is a superior moral system in itself, etc. The mentally ill being beaten with the stick of ‘You’re too weak to be normal’ gets replaced with the stick of ‘You’re too lazy to be superior’.

  2. Pingback: Face-down restraint in mental hospitals: Mind are to be congratulated | Aethelread the Unread

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