Forget the careers guidance

There’s this lottery-funded mental health campaign that is supposed to end mental health discrimination. Normally I don’t see the point of these things. The airwaves are flooded with government information campaigns, all of which seem designed to tackle perception rather than reality. Some people are alcoholics. So let’s spend loads of public money to persuade everyone that drinking is wrong, rather than, er, on services to treat the alcoholics. Similarly, why not just spend the mental health marketing budget on service users?

Then I considered. Perhaps the perception does need changing. Perhaps we need to hammer home the fact that most of us aren’t violent psychopaths, that we may even be capable of performing simple tasks in return for money, and that we constitute a quarter of the population – although that never stopped government discriminating against smokers.

So maybe the Time to Change campaign is appropriate. Or maybe not:

On Sunday and Monday, tram passengers in Sheffield will be ushered into a ‘padded cell‘ carriage, supposedly to remind them that the one in four people who experience mental health problems don’t need to be confined in such a space.

What the fuck?

The two-day event in Sheffield city centre will allow the public to ride in a padded-cell carriage emblazoned with slogans such as: ‘1 in 4 will have a mental health problem in their life; that’s 50 on this tram – but they don’t need to spend their days in a padded cell.’

Time to Change volunteers will be on hand to answer questions from the public about mental health issues.

Sue Baker, Time to Change’s director, says: ‘Mental illness is still taboo. People don’t realise that one in four suffer from some form of mental illness in their life, and we’re hoping that the campaign will dispel myths. The idea behind the stunt is to spark a debate.’

The first thing they tell you in CBT is that the brain can’t process negatives. (If you doubt me, try not to think about a flying pig.) Is it likely that commuters will remember the padded carriage, the volunteers with their smocks and flyers, and think: ‘That’s a great way of helping us to understand that most mentally ill people are no danger to the public’.

Or is it the case that, as Ed Halliwell says: ‘if any Sheffield commuters hadn’t made a connection between padded cells and mental illness, having the two vividly linked as they travel to work will surely do the trick’?

There is another worrying aspect to the campaign, as Halliwell points out.

 Last night saw the first airing of TV adverts in which a series of deeply unsympathetic friends, family and colleagues tell an (invisible) victim to stop ‘wallowing’, ‘take a long, hard look at yourself’ and ‘buck up’, followed by a voiceover explaining that for some people ‘this is too much to bear’.

Both the advert and the tram stunt perpetuate the negative stereotypes they are presumably designed to tackle.

I suffered from unremitting depression and anxiety for almost three years, and I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. But I believe it lasted so long partly because I started to identify as a vulnerable person with an illness, rather than as someone in a predicament who nevertheless could develop the power to recover from it. I labelled myself with a range of diagnoses, isolated myself from ‘normal’ people, took (useless) medication that was a daily confirmation of sickness and sought out various saviours and quack cures. I vented my wrath at anyone who suggested I was hurting myself and those around me, or was in any way responsible for taking charge of my situation. It was only when I stopped behaving like a victim, re-examined my attitudes and took the decision to start seeing myself as a strong, healthy person (even when I don’t feel like it) that I began to get well. Politically incorrect though it is to admit, I really did have to ‘pull myself together’ – albeit gently and with kindness, supported by the friends I finally allowed close enough to give me good advice, even if it was sometimes critical and hard to swallow.

For there is a dark liberation in victimhood – okay, your situation is much worse, but at least you are part of a group, a lobby, a community. At the time of breakdown numero uno I had to sit through countless group therapy sessions with people who self-identified, almost entirely, with their illness. Which for me was depressing, and slightly ridiculous, like defining yourself by a gall bladder problem or a broken leg. Give me the mental pain, spare me the physical…

For I can’t travel on a bus, a train, a tram, or a plane, or in a taxi or private car. Last summer, when the Condition was just kicking in, I rejoiced when a woman dumped me because then I wouldn’t have to take her to city centre cocktail bars. I’d prefer this state of affairs to change.

It’s not that mentally ill people shouldn’t have allowances made for them and be protected from discrimination. We should. I love political correctness and I think there are benefits to the lobbyisation of disadvantaged groups. But the more you define yourself by mental illness, the more meetings and groups you attend, the longer you’ll be sick. It’s a subordination of the personality: the I to the We.

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‘Forget the careers’ guidance. I need therapy.’

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