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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.