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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.