Stigma in crisis: mental health, fear-mongering and murder

Opposition to having a charity-run mental health crisis centre in your street is both very telling and depressingly predictable.

Reading the objections to the Planning Permission application, you would think that they were proposing a hostel for unrepentant murderers, not a charity-run mental health centre. Rethink recently submitted an application to turn a house in Sheffield suburb into a “safe haven” crisis house for people experiencing mental health problems, and the opposition they have faced is both very telling and depressingly predictable.

The plan is to provide a place where a maximum of six people can stay for no longer than a week when their mental health is deteriorating towards a crisis point. The converted semi would offer a safe environment where they could receive intensive emotional support, and would also house a 24-hour helpline.

Along with complaints about increased traffic on the street, many local residents oppose the crisis house on the basis that children live on the street and walk to school, and the theme of “danger, danger” is seen throughout. One person complains that people who are unwell “will be frightning (sic) to local residents and may cause risk to children and other people in the area”, while another says that, “I would be reluctant to allow [my young teenager] to return from school unaccompanied if I thought there was a risk of her having to deal with difficult situations arising from this”.

Another uses carefully chosen (dare I say cherry picked?) statistics to prove just how likely residents will be to be murdered if this goes ahead (clue: there will barely be a survivor in the entire city), and the overall message is that those experiencing mental distress are to be feared, avoided, and ostracised. In short, they are most definitely “other”.

Many of those who object to the building's change of use do agree in principle that such facilities are worthwhile and important, they just do not think this one should be on their own street.

Some of the objections are also bewildering in their naïveté. When one woman explains that, “This is a quiet leafy suburb and I am not overreacting when I feel concern about the fact that we cannot be sure of who is coming and going”, I do wonder if she realises that this is the case, crisis house or not. The thing is, with the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems in the general population being so high this community, like all others, already has people experiencing mental distress in its midst anyway. They may not broadcast their difficulties but perhaps this is not surprising: the strength of feeling from those who commented on the planning application is pretty representative of the attitudes towards mental ill-health in our entire society.

So, let's start with the facts. 95 per cent of murders are committed by people who do not have a diagnosed mental health issue. Given that 25 per cent of the population can experience mental health problems, sane people appear to be statistically far more dangerous to be around. And people experiencing psychosis – those that the public seem to be the most afraid of – are 14 times more likely to be the victim of violent crime than they are to commit it.

Rethink are clear that nobody would stay in the house if they were thought to be a risk. They would be in hospital.

When somebody is in crisis they can either stay at home (where they are somebody's neighbour), go into hospital, or go into a crisis house for a few days. Kate Wareham, Rethink's regional Associate Director explained to me: “the intention is that we prevent people's illness escalating to the point where they require a hospital admission. We provide a safe, secure environment for people when they are experiencing a mental health crisis”. It will be used by people who accept that they need a bit of extra support for a while, and if Nether Edge residents (who are replicated the entire country over whenever mental health facilities are proposed) think that stopping the crisis house before it starts means they will have nobody experiencing mental distress living near them, they are seriously misguided. As Kate pointed out, “These people already live in Sheffield! These are people in the community”.

Planning permission has been granted to the facility, and Rethink really want to work with the local community, aware that many service users will not want to go to a crisis house where local people fear them. When someone needs a safe haven, they do not want to come up against this stigma and opposition to the care they need.

Stigma like this does have wide-ranging effects, all of them damaging. It means that the first response, when a horrific massacre takes place in the US, is instant speculation on the killer's mental health status; it means that people with mental health problems can't get a job when they want to work; it means that people feel isolated and excluded; it means people get physically and verbally abused; it means not getting physical health problems taken seriously; and it means that some people don't seek treatment that they desperately need because they are so afraid of what people will think.

Prejudice and bigotry are never pretty, and I'm more worried about children being taught to fear those who are distressed than I am about the statistically tiny threat from somebody who is undergoing treatment and receiving help. If they grow up believing that their own, or other people's, mental health problems will mean they will commit violent disorder and exhibit frightening behaviour, the stigma will continue to grow. Instead, we need to understand that many people experience mental distress, and that some of them will need more help than others. Putting barriers in the way of those people will only exacerbate their problems and their isolation. Society must move to a position of compassion and humanity towards this significant percentage of the population who currently experience it as anything but compassionate and humane.

How would you feel about having a mental health centre on your street? Photograph: Getty Images
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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.