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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?

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

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.