It's not all like "A Beautiful Mind": you can’t make schizophrenia nice

We’re brilliant at defending the mentally ill in principle, but we can be terrible at hiding our revulsion at some of the sick people we’ve encountered in the flesh.

 

The worst thing about psychiatric hospitals isn’t the treatment, it’s the patients. Or rather I guess it depends. Personally, I’ve had good treatment and bad, brilliant treatment and terrible. The one constant has been frustration with the other patients. Whatever else is going on, both inside and outside your own head, they’re always there with you and dealing with that can be hard.  

My brother suffers from schizophrenia while I’ve suffered from depression and anorexia. I’m fighting the urge to write “therefore it’s a laugh a minute round our way” but actually, sometimes it is. Not always – for my brother, the impact of increasingly large doses of medication has been devastating – but the dark humour offers some degree of comfort. If we feel traumatised, it’s often more by treatment than illness itself. We’ve occasionally spent time in the same institutions and end up reminiscing on some of the same people. It’s rare that we’re complimentary about any of them. We remember all the bad things. In a reversal of the way prejudice often operates, we’re brilliant at defending the mentally ill in principle, terrible at hiding revulsion at some of the sick people we’ve encountered in the flesh. I have no desire to defend this – I can’t – but it is, I think, a problem with chronic mental illness.

Familiarity breeds a special kind of contempt. Perhaps more so if you have suffered yourself, you become unwilling to separate the personality of the sufferer from the manifestations of his or her illness. To do so would seem patronising, maybe even a denial of his or her personhood. It’s difficult to think “they’re someone else, but for the illness”, equally difficult to think “the illness doesn’t inconvenience or frighten or anger me, because it’s not really them”. I’m not able to do this with my brother, but then I’m not sure I want to. How much of him do I want to discount, and how much of him would then remain? At what point has so much been amputated that there’s no person left? I don’t want to start chipping away at the person but if I fail to do this, to what extent am I seeing only the illness? People are not their diagnosis but the symptoms of mental illness can colour everything.

There is a need to combat the deep-rooted and irrational fear of mental illness that many people carry with them. Schizophrenia sufferers are not likely to be violent towards others. Those of us with depression don’t fall apart at the slightest touch. Mental illness can be incredibly lonely, with the psychological isolation of the disorder compounded by a real lack of contact with others, because these others are afraid. Charities such as Mind and Rethink have fought hard to challenge perceptions, in the face of constant scaremongering and casual bigotry throughout the national press. This element of their work – only a small part of all they offer sufferers and carers – is incredibly important. All the same, there are times when I wonder whether the message that filters through to the mainstream ends up being the one people want to hear rather than a true reflection of the instability and ugliness of some types of mental illness. When I see advertising campaigns such as this one and this, emphasising the “normality” of people who are mentally ill, I don’t feel as though they have much to do with those closest to me. If anything, I worry that my brother is letting the side down by conforming too closely to the stereotypes that are being questioned. That doesn’t mean the bigots understand him, but it might mean different tactics are needed to make them see the human being.

I remember my own family’s mistrust when the National Schizophrenia Fellowship became Rethink in 2002. I can see reasons for the decision being made – it is more positive and more inclusive – but to them it felt like New Labour-esque rebranding. “They don’t want people to hear the word ‘schizophrenia’,” was my father’s view. “They’re pandering to the stigma.” This may be unfair but there are reasons for such a degree of defensiveness. Rethink sounds nicer than any phrase that contains the word “schizophrenia”. But you can’t make schizophrenia nice.

Just as sufferers of physical illness are often expected to make up for their “flawed” status by being brave little Pollyannas, mentally ill people need to exhibit compensatory features in order to earn the right not to be discriminated against. Well-meaning people tell me “well, your brother must be really good with numbers” and obviously I’m tempted to say “yes, he’s just like that bloke in A Beautiful Mind” (a film I haven’t actually seen) rather than admit he failed GCSE maths three times in a row. After all, I’d only disappoint and embarrass these people following their plucky attempt to look on the bright side. Nonetheless, once it’s clear you don’t actually measure up to the compensatory factors, this can be used against you. I remember hospital staff telling me that as far as anorexics went, I wasn’t “one of those Best Little Girl in the World types but a selfish attention-seeker”. Well, yes. I never promised to be anything other than that. The point is, even if the symptoms of your illness make you a selfish attention-seeker – and even if these symptoms are so enmeshed in who you are it’s impossible to tease out the strands – all people who are mentally ill deserve human contact and support, not just the “good” ones.

You can’t always tell by looking whether a person is mentally ill. Nevertheless there are times when you can make a pretty good guess. Sometimes the mentally ill person is the man shouting on the street corner, rather than that nice man who was off work but is back in the office having “good days and bad days”. Sometimes mental illness is so debilitating that a person never experiences paid employment. That doesn’t mean they’re not a part of our society. It doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for them and it doesn’t mean we’re allowed to stick to what for them may be impossibly high standards for social interaction. Suffering from a mental illness and/or engaging with a sufferer can be messy, embarrassing and deeply distressing. You might never reach a point at which it isn’t. That doesn’t mean understanding is impossible or that attempts at contact and inclusion are worthless. For many people, they’re worth far more than can ever be expressed. 

Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind". Unfortunately, not all schizophrenics are good at maths.

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

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.