Not every mentally ill person is a poster child for mental illness

I’ve spent time in psychiatric hospitals; I look like a “normal” person, too. But what if I didn’t?

All hail the mental health stigma fightback! As the sibling of someone who suffers from schizophrenia, and someone who’s spent time in psychiatric hospitals herself, I am sick to death of all the bigoted crap that gets thrown our way, from “mental patient” Halloween costumes to fear-mongering Sun headlines. Enough! We are not all axe-wielding murderers! We are Stephen Fry! We are Alastair Campbell! We are that bloke in A Beautiful Mind who’s good at maths! And what’s more, we wear normal clothes! Get a load of my jumper – would a mad person wear Per Una at Marks and Spencer? I think not.

I’m not trying to be flippant (much). I think it’s incredibly important that we stand up to bigotry wherever we find it. I like the mass pressure that twitter and other social media forums can exert. Nonetheless, I wonder if I’m alone in feeling a certain unease with the route the mental health fightback is starting to take.

The #mentalpatienthashtag is a case in point. In response to a number of crass, bigoted “mental health patient” Halloween costumes sufferers of mental illness tweeted photos of themselves in their own #mentalpatient outfits – which look just like everyday clothes! Way-hey! It’s a funny and clever way of defying expectations, similar to the Fawcett Society’s This Is What A Feminist Looks Like T-shirts. And yet in both cases, I have my misgivings. So mental patients don’t look mental patients and feminists don’t look like feminists – but what if, sometimes, they do? What if we’re not challenging stereotypes so much as saying “these are indeed where the boundaries of our tolerance lie”?

I understand and appreciate the good intentions behind the hashtag. Nonetheless, I start to feel a creeping discomfort at the sight of so many people demonstrating how “normal” they look. I’ve spent time in psychiatric hospitals; I look like a “normal” person, too. But what if I didn’t? What if my clothes were unwashed, my hair matted, my skin stretched over prominent bones, just like it was in the days when I couldn’t muster the energy for self-care? What if I found myself dribbling incessantly due to the over-production of saliva, a side-effect of anti-psychotic drugs? What if my eyes looked wide and fearful because actually, I didn’t want to be photographed and felt terrified it would steal my soul?

Not every mentally ill person is a poster child for mental illness. While you could argue that those who put themselves forward – the Alistair Campbells, the Stephen Frys – are taking one for the team, it’s not so simple. Thousands would love to share tea with Fry, listening to witty and urbane chit-chat interspersed with stark tales of mental disintegration. Few people want to share instant coffee and out-of-date milk with someone who just doesn’t want to talk, or when he or she does talk is rude or accusatory or paranoid or just repeats the same stories again and again. The more we promote the “normal” mentally ill – the mentally ill on a good day, the mentally ill who aren’t difficult or hostile or embarrassing to be with – the more isolated the “non-normal” mentally ill and their carers will remain. Fighting stigma isn’t just a matter of replacing a Halloween monster with a successful media personality. In doing so we’re allowing the bigots to push us into a corner. We don’t need to go by their extremes.

We shouldn’t have to prioritise making others feel comfortable when it comes to fighting mental health stigma. Just as feminism doesn’t need “rebranding”, mental health doesn’t need “sanitising”. This is not the way that social norms are challenged and changed. If mental illness does not make you feel frightened, uncomfortable, bored or embarrassed, perhaps this isn’t because you’re a wonderfully open-minded, laid-back person. Perhaps it’s because you’re not close enough to mental illnesses, or only engage with sickness eloquently expressed on blogs or on Twitter. Perhaps it doesn’t seem ugly or challenging because your engagement is selective. Mental illness hurts, the way all illness hurts.

Ranting against the Sun and the Telegraph might be a worthwhile pursuit. Calling for better resources for those suffering from mental illness is even better. What’s also important, though, is ensuring that the goal of well-resourced, positive care for the mentally ill isn’t to hide them from view. Sometimes we can’t take away the fear and ugliness. Sometimes minimising suffering has to be enough.

Few of us would pass up the opportunity to spend time with Stephen Fry. Image: Getty

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

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Ukrainians now have more freedom of travel - but less freedom of thought

Ukraine's government is rightly concerned about Russian cyber aggression. But does that merit online censorship?

Ukrainians have sacrificed so much in their bid to be recognised as fellow Europeans. Their struggle to extricate themselves from Russian domination is written in the blood of the Euromaidan protestors and the toll of its military dead.

The slow progress of Ukraine’s emergence, into something resembling normality, passed another milestone on 17 May, when President Petro Poroshenko signed an agreement with the EU allowing for visa-free travel in 34 European countries. 

From Sunday 11 June Ukrainians with biometric passports will be able to travel in Europe and stay for 90 days within a 180 period. There are obvious economic benefits to the new agreement. Ukrainians will be free to travel and conduct business with much more efficacy. The new agreement will also reduce the insularity of Ukrainians, many of whom yearn for the cosmopolitanism they see in Western Europe. President Poroshenko was mindful of the symbolism of the agreement. He declared: "Ukraine is returning to the European family. Ukraine says a final farewell to the Soviet and Russian empire."

Perched on the periphery, Ukraine is now set to become more woven into the European mainstream. Ukrainians sense that the western door is slowly but inexorably opening, and that both recognition, and validation beckons. In this respect, it seems that there is much to celebrate.

However, as ever, Ukraine hangs uneasily in the balance between the old ways and the new. On 16 May, Poroshenko signed a decree blocking access to Russian social media websites Yandex, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. Millions of Ukrainians sign in to these websites every day. Even Poroshenko himself uses them. Five Russian TV stations are already banned in Ukraine. Poroshenko says that "Ukrainians can live without Russian networks". And it is certainly a fact that Ukrainians have responded to the decree by turning away from the Russian platforms in great numbers. Ukrainian Facebook is growing by some 35 percent a day.

In the context of Ukraine’s continuing conflict with Russia, it is perhaps understandable that the government in Kiev wishes to limit Russian trolls, together with Russian state influence and misinformation. This is certainly also the case across the whole western world, which is keenly aware of Russian cyber aggression. Nevertheless, one must ask why countries such as Britain, France and Germany continue to allow their citizens to access Russian media platforms, when Ukraine does not. 

While the new travel freedoms for Ukrainians has unleashed optimism, the latest decree has indicated something a little darker about the future. President Poroshenko would do well to consider the actions of other European governments that he so ardently wishes to emulate. Closing down social networks is usually done by authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia. But Poroshenko advocates democracy, and in democracy there is no place for such acts. It is surely a mark of a nation’s maturity to encourage freedom of thought, as well travel.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.

 

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