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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: www.rethink.org

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: www.time-to-change.org.uk

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

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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