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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.