Say what you like about Alastair Campbell, he has made a great effort to demystify and destigmatise mental illness. We have come a long way and have a long way to go. I mean, I know Janet Street-Porter’s column appeared in the Daily Mail, and to read that newspaper is to invite an insult to your intelligence. But to paraphrase Sick Boy, should we let this bullshit filter into the culture unchallenged?
I’m not personally offended by the article: as you may know, my mental problems were based around anxiety rather than depression – although I can get days where the very sky seems to ache with poignancy, and a happy-looking cat or chick-lit novel brings the presentiment of tears. But I do object to the general rightwing contention that any illness that doesn’t have volcanic physical effects is nothing more than a benefits scam.
Mental illness, Street-Porter says, is an Islington thing, ‘an affliction which seems to be the prerogative of the chattering classes’:
If you’re a black South African woman growing up in a township, or a mum in a slum favela in Rio, or a supermarket shelf-stacker in Croydon, or one of the band of low-paid female workers who go to work at 3am to clean the offices of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Britain in the City of London, you probably aren’t afflicted by depression. What you’re more likely to be suffering from is poverty, exhaustion and a deficient diet.
This misses the point spectacularly because mental illness – like most illness – hits the working class hardest. You will not get a suspicious look by talking about your panic attacks or crying jags in a Salford pub. Most likely there will be a sympathetic hearing and similar stories. When I lived there the waiting list for CBT was three months long and every fifth person you met was on Prozac. This is because sickness is exacerbated by poverty. The catastrophic mental health of the City’s immigrant workers is almost as much a scandal as their disgraceful rate of pay.
There’s a class myth that only the liberal intelligentsia suffer from existential angst whereas the earthy labourers simply get on with the job in hand. The prejudice hurts the working class because it suggests that they are chemically immune from the confusion and pain caused by abstract thought and feelings, which are available only to the whining bourgoisie who can afford BUPA healthcare.
Hence: ‘Stress has become so acceptable, the last government decided that the NHS would make counselling available for a whole variety of mental illnesses, from stress to depression to panic attacks and low self-esteem, totally gratis.’ For a ‘provocative’ personality, Street-Porter is a little coy here. The implication is that we should take mental healthcare out of NHS funding. Should we, or not? Come on, Janet!
I do get offended when I think of all the people I’ve known who’ve had to live with these debilitating conditions, good friends who’ve struggled in postcode black holes under the disapproving gaze of family and peers. Again, I know that Janet Street-Porter is one of those figures who have carved a name and career from the complete lack of humanity and self-awareness. But on the strength of this piece, she should go back to topless darts.
Update: Campbell has responded. It is a really good piece. Read it.
I assume, from the unsympathetic tone, she has never experienced depression. If she had, then even for the generous cheque she no doubt received, she would have thought twice before setting out an opinion as misguided as it is offensive to anyone who knows the reality of depression.
Much that appears in the media really doesn’t matter. But people who suffer from mental health problems will often say the stigma attached to them is worse than the symptoms. Articles like hers reinforce that stigma and taboo, which in turn create shame and a sense that real problems cannot be addressed.
First, let me try to give her some insight into depression. I had a pretty heavy nervous breakdown in 1986, and I’ve had depression on-and-off ever since. With the help of friends and family, sympathetic bosses, a good GP, a psychiatrist, sometimes medication, I have learned to manage it better than I did once.
At its worst, it is like an invisible dark force that first approaches, then envelops, then appears to fill every waking thought. You can escape via sleep, but you wake and find your eyes won’t open, you lack the energy to brush teeth, shave, speak, think anything other than thoughts of emptiness and despair.
When it’s bad, my partner Fiona says it is like living with somebody from a different planet. When you get into that mode it’s very dangerous and corrosive. People ask, ‘what’s wrong?’ and you don’t really know. ‘What triggered it?’ and you can’t answer that either. One thing you do know, there is no way you would wish to have it.
Once you’ve had it, there are few worse experiences than knowing that dark cloud is coming back. The cause of Janet Street Porter’s ire – whether real or synthetic – is the fact that women like TV presenter and Mirror columnist Fiona Phillips, actress Emma Thompson and writer Marian Keyes have spoken out about their experiences. Like them, I’ve chosen to ‘bare my soul’, as Porter puts it, in print and on film because I feel that openness about psychosis and depression may help counteract the discrimination and stigma surrounding mental health.
When I had my breakdown, I took comfort from reading and hearing about others who had been through it and got out the other side. So when Mind, and later the Time to Change campaign asked me to speak out, I was pleased to.
Mental health problems can happen to anyone just as cancer can or a broken limb when you fall down the stairs. They don’t respect status, wealth or profession. And, hopefully, we can make it easier for others to feel they don’t have to hide that they’ve had mental health problems.
Men in particular find it tough to come forward. Big boys don’t cry, and all that. It goes some way to explaining why men are just as likely to experience depression as women, but half as likely to seek support. So when Janet Street-Porter says: ‘The idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem is, frankly, risible,’ I wonder if the fact that out of every four suicides, three are men might cause her to reconsider. Probably not. But reasonable people might.