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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 Buried in amongst the hopeful rhetoric on “turn[ing] a corner on outdated attitudes” and “the whole of society […] providing […] care and support” were some pretty clear expectations: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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder