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Why aren’t we more shocked that mentally ill people spend time in police cells because we lack beds?

Wanting to care about mental illness is not the same as caring.

A female dormitory at the Broadmoor Asylum in 1867. We haven’t moved on as far from this as we like to think. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I supposed I should be horrified that a 16-year old girl suffering from severe mental illness was forced to spend two nights in a police cell while waiting for a hospital bed. I’ve tried to be but I’m not. The whole thing seems so fitting for a country in which the most painful aspects of mental illness remain behind closed doors. Stigma might be talked about in the vaguest of terms – we might even be familiar with the one-in-four statistic – but wanting to care about mental illness is not the same as actually caring.

The truth is, most of us don’t care about those suffering from severe mental illness, at least not when the latter are showing obvious symptoms. We want “the mentally ill” to be witty, insightful, inspired by their torment, or failing that, at least out on the other side (“I have good days and bad…”). That mental illness can be ugly, unremitting, embarrassing, hopeless, is not something for which our standard narrative allows. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t have resources to cope with the kind of crises in which individuals require full, unconditional support? Is it at all surprising that, according to Mark Winstanley of Rethink, “each year thousands of people with severe mental illness are being held in police cells”? After all, they must be somewhere. We know they exist, if only because of the few occasions when their suffering holds our interest.

The Daily Mail reports on the “Fury as mentally ill girl, 16, is kept in police cells for two nights”. But it’s the same Daily Mail that delights in emphasising severe mental illness as a causal factor in violent crime, and which merrily lists new supposed “causes” for schizophrenia – soil, cat faeces, air pollution – without focusing on the needs of sufferers in the here and now (unless it’s in a foreign country, in which case disapproval of someone else’s brutal approach to treatment is de rigeur).

Last week Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced the formation of a new mental health taskforce. Buried in amongst the hopeful rhetoric on “turn[ing] a corner on outdated attitudes” and “the whole of society […] providing […] care and support” were some pretty clear expectations:

One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem and it costs the country more than £100 billion. This is too big an issue for the NHS to deal with alone.

The whole of Government needs to combine its efforts and pool its resources to help the millions of people whose mental health condition is preventing them from getting on in life.

You get the sense that people with mental illness are seen as a drain. We need to help them “get on in life”. Terrifying them with Work Capability Assessments isn’t working. How do we make them more productive? We’ll “fight stigma” (but in the meantime, let’s not allow those prison cell beds to get cold).

As a recovered anorexic who still suffers from mild depression, I have the kind of mental health background that is easy to sugar-coat. It is not without pain but I am functional. I could tell you all about My Road to Recovery or My Anorexic Hell. I still embarrass people when I mention the worst parts, but at least I now know how to edit the whole sorry tale. I know it’s not like that for everyone. The last time I was in hospital I discharged myself early because I didn’t want to be around “the really mad people”. I was both frightened and disgusted by them. I am ashamed of this – deeply ashamed – but not so much that I don’t forget about them most of the time. Other than for people who are very close to me, my concern for severely ill patients is fragile, easily destroyed by all the things I don’t understand.

Recently I’ve been reading Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a study of madness and English culture between 1830 and 1980. It’s one of those books that allow the reader to look to the past and feel horror – and perhaps a little smugness – at how far we’ve come. Gone are the days of Victorian “moral management”.  Psychiatric Darwinism, with its obsessive focus on eugenics, is no more. We no longer send “difficult” relatives and recalcitrant women to waste away in institutions. It is tempting to think of ourselves as enlightened. But mental illness is still with us, and so too is prejudice and neglect.

What would someone from the future, writing about mental health care in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, say about us? Can you believe they used to lock people with severe mental illness in police cells? Can you believe they used to find a reduced life expectancy of 20 years perfectly okay? Can you believe that schizophrenia patients were characterised as violent and dangerous? Can you believe that politicians used to talk about combatting stigma while allowing anyone who couldn’t be a poster child for mental illness to waste away? If we cannot summon up the empathy to be shocked right now (not just at one news story, but at all the lives being written off every day), then I hope those who come after us will be shocked on our behalf. And I hope they are shocked not because, as ever, it’s easier to judge the past than the present. I hope they are shocked because they’re better people than we are managing to be.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide