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 Buried in amongst the hopeful rhetoric on “turn[ing] a corner on outdated attitudes” and “the whole of society […] providing […] care and support” were some pretty clear expectations: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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.