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Get me Sporty Spice

Mental illness is a defining issues of our time and will affect one in four of us. But the media are reluctant to cover the subject without the obligatory celebrity endorsement.


Many of the people who start their careers wanting to be journalists find out pretty quickly that the job is not what they thought. They dream of truth-seeking heroics, but it often doesn’t work out that way. They recoil from the media’s cynicism. They don’t want to become hacks ruled by tabloid values, and fear they will be condemned never to write about the things that really matter. So, they become charity press officers instead. At least, I did. No dumbing down or marching to the editor’s tune for me. I chose the path to true virtue: the freedom to work only on the stories I really cared about . . .

Yet here I am, years later, working at the mental health charity Rethink and spending my time chasing celebrity quotes and case studies that fit the “under 30, photogenic female” demographic demanded by the press. Instead of explaining to millions why mental health discrimination is the next big civil rights issue, I’m often to be found reminding journalists that our beloved Stephen Fry has bipolar disorder.

This has been especially true while I’ve been working on Time to Change, the national campaign to end the stigma on people who experience mental health problems. If you read the papers or travel on the London Un­derground, you’ll probably have seen photos of Stephen, as well as Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell, peering at you from the page or following you up the escalator. They’ve been fronting the campaign, designed to break down one of our last great taboos, by sharing their own experience of mental illness. Nothing wrong with that per se – in fact, it has pro­bably doubled the coverage the campaign would otherwise have received.

But there’s the rub. Shouldn’t we want to hear about these issues anyway? Do we really need to look to the stars? I started “selling” this campaign to journalists armed with a raft of compelling stories of real-life discrimination – the experienced business analyst who, after six months off with depression, made 150 job applications before an employer would give him a chance; the singer barred from joining a choir because she had had schizophrenia; the Cambridge graduate refused a chance to train as a teacher because of a history of mental health problems. They’re interesting stories, emblematic of a stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and they matter to a great many people: one in four of us will have a mental health problem at some stage. And journalists know it. “Wow, yes, that is very interesting,” they say. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it? I know someone that happened to, actually, but . . . I was wondering if you could get me Mel C, y’know, Sporty Spice? Or Ruby Wax? Or, even better, do you have any new celebs who’ve had problems in the past?”

Not only glossy women’s magazines or the red-top papers gave this response. Those on the guilty list include the Daily Telegraph and the BBC (evidence, perhaps, of an increasing tabloidisation of the British media). I wasn’t even especially surprised when, after I had lined up a series of “real people” with fascinating stories for Newsnight, the producer scrapped it and said the programme wouldn’t cover the campaign at all unless they had a film on Alastair Campbell talking about his breakdown in the 1980s and recurrent depression. I’ve lost count of the number of times a section editor has come back to me saying that “we’d love to do something on Time to Change – if you can get me a famous face”.

Celebrity sells. We know that. It is a tried and trusted method of polishing up a brand and increasing product sales. So it might make a lot of sense for charities to adopt proven marketing methods if they are fundraising. At a push, you might compare the decision to buy a product with the decision to “buy in” to a charity. But that’s not what Time to Change is all about. We don’t want people’s money; we want to mobilise popular indignation about the fact that mental illness, an issue that affects 25 per cent of the population, is still shrouded in shame. And I’m not so sure celebrities could, or should, lead social movements. I choked on my breakfast a few weeks ago when I read Ed Miliband’s call for green activists to launch a “mass social movement – like Make Poverty History”. Make Poverty History, with its TV adverts starring the highest-paid Hollywood darlings, looked more like a Gap advert than a popular social movement to me. But if it works, does it matter?

And it does work, to a degree. In fact, it worked on me. I confess that it was Simple Minds’s Jim Kerr who brought me to the anti-apartheid debate as a kid. In my teens, I joined Amnesty because the sleeve notes on U2’s Achtung Baby told me to. Yet predicating a campaign, an advert or an article purely on the involvement of a celebrity so often leads to the message and the issues becoming oversimplified. Francis Bacon said: “Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen and drowns things weighty and solid.” It’s very easy for complex social issues to become diluted and even drowned in the torrent of celebrity on which they’re often carried.

More and more of our information now comes through the prism of fame, even health warnings (Kylie, Jade Goody). We will never know how many people voted for Barack Obama because of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement. I would guess that most New Statesman readers, like me, are pleased Oprah did endorse Obama, because we’re happy with the outcome. I also like the outcome of Alastair Campbell’s fronting the Time to Change campaign (coverage in several national papers and a bevy of TV spots), but I’m not comfortable with the fact that we needed his fame to achieve it. Nor is he, I think. As we sat in a radio studio one afternoon and he did his tenth regional interview of the day, he asked me why I hadn’t got some “real people” telling their stories on their local radio stations. Oh, how I’d tried.

When I heard he was guest-editing the New Statesman, I thought to myself: “He’s bound to give us some coverage.” And it didn’t surprise me either that he said he wanted me – and not a celeb – to say whatever I wanted about the issues and the campaign.

There is no doubt whatsoever that listening to a high-profile public figure divulge their experience of psychosis is riveting. And, with or without the charity brief, we have found a celebrity who understands that, in having a boss who didn’t hold his mental health against him (in his case the Prime Minister), he was in the lucky minority – he knows that the stigma of mental health illness is real.

Alastair Campbell, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Patsy Palmer are all good ambassadors for Time to Change because they speak from personal experience, they care about the issue and they know how to engage people. But celebrities alone do not constitute a movement: a deeper level of engagement and popular mobilisation must happen. Without it, our support for campaigns is no more meaningful than our preference for a particular brand of cooking sauce or, for that matter, a certain colour of rubber wrist bracelet.

And if there are any editors out there who want to hear about real stories of ordinary people suffering discrimination on the grounds of mental health problems, past or present, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Hilary Caprani is media manager for Rethink:

Rethink, along with Mind and Mental Health Media, is leading Time to Change, England’s most ambitious campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems. Find out more at:

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood