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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.