On certain days, my facebook feed is chock-full of mental-illness-awareness-raising. It tends to back up on days when there’s a high-profile sufferer who’s spoken out about mental illness and taboo, or when an easily-sound-biteable study is press-released. We’ve got to speak out and speak up, they say. We’ve got to get more treatment. We need parity of esteem. Stigma is bad, you guys! We need more funding. Especially for children. Especially for young men. Especially for those in minority communities. It’s the same message delivered differently. Sometimes there are pictures.
It’s fine, I guess. At the very least it provides a break from looking at babies. But so much of this stuff can just blur into a grey murk of well-intentioned blandness, unremarkable and uninspiring.
What aren’t we talking about?
What’s more interesting, I find, is when people don’t get involved. What’s not said tells you just as much about societal attitudes towards mental illness as what is said, sometimes more. For example, it’s surprised me how few (zero, so far) posts have popped up to speak out about the latest high-profile public figure who’s fallen from grace due to mental ill-health.
And I’m not talking about Will Young. No, I’m talking about the mentally-ill person we all love to hate: Tyson Fury.
With Tyson there’s been nothing. No-one publicly empathising with his plight. No-one highlighting the particular pressures of this sector of employment. No-one asking about how we change attitudes within the sport, or asking ‘are we doing enough for the mental health needs of the travelling community?’ Nothing. Why is this?
Maybe it’s because he’s a sportsman?
Nope, can’t be that. People are all over Gascoigne when he gets addicted to something and says a thing, or O’Sullivan when he pretends to quit and says a thing. And there’s always at least a smattering of attention paid to the sob stories of whichever footballing journeyman turns out to have had a gambling problem. Sports-people are great ammunition for the awareness-raising set, as they not only get to speak to a wider audience than usual, but get to wheel out the ‘crisis in masculinity’ dirge too.
So, is it because he’s from the travelling community?
I don’t think it can be that either. While the travelling community are pretty much the only ethnic group you can get away with discriminating against in polite society, they are still an identifiable minority, and as such should be prime grist for the liberal mill. Highlighting Tyson’s fury should kill two birds with one stone – you can advocate both for the mentally ill and the ethnically marginalised all at the same time. Bonus!
No, the reason people haven’t got involved is because he’s a bit of a shit.
So’s Gascoigne, you might say. But he always apologised (and was really good at kicking, which is nicer than hitting, but let’s leave that to one side). Tyson, on the other hand, is pretty nasty, and doesn’t seem to want to apologise for it, or to play the blame-it-on-my-illness card.
How nasty is he? By boxing standards, not that nasty, just a bit thick and a few PR-advisors short of a [I couldn’t think of anything snappy or funny to put in here. I really tried but I couldn’t]. But by everyday standards, he’s pretty nasty. He’s done the homophobia, the misogyny, the racism. Most of the key players.
This is confusing for us woolly awareness raising de-stigmatisers. We like a clean story, but we don’t get one here.
Goodies and (no) baddies
Why are we so keen on a clear narrative? Why do we need there to be obvious goodies and baddies? A lot of us awareness-raisers come from a person-centred background, which is about the woolliest of all of the counselling jumpers, which embraces each and every person with the message: “you’re great, you are, no matter what you’ve done or what you think. Your heart is a golden nugget and always will be. It’s just got a bit covered up by the bad words that some bad people said when you were young, but inside you is a beautiful unicorn just waiting to come out. Believe in yourself and let your nugget shine, and in no time at all, with no help from anyone else, you’ll become the beautiful rainbow you always were.” Or words to that effect.
We believe people are fundamentally good, in the person-centred world. Which is silly, clearly, but believe it we do. When you combine that childish belief with a medicalised model of mental illness which seeks to assign zero responsibility to those who are suffering, and you’re left with a world in which all badness must come from physical imbalances which are beyond our control, and all goodness is yours from within. There are no real baddies – only brain chemistry – and only goodies.
Which fits very nicely when your high-profile mental-ill-health sufferer is contrite, seeks medical help and externalises their problem. This suits us very well, as we can lazily consign all of the bad in them (even if it’s hurt others) to their illness, and still love the person we knew before they went off the rails. We love to watch as they go into rehab and come out clean, even if they relapse, because it allows us to see them as fundamentally good. Good people in their core, but on the surface afflicted by an illness (be it addiction, compulsive behaviour, anxiety, depression, whatever) that is not their responsibility.
Mental illness = not your responsibility?
Now I’m not going to go into the whole responsibility thing yet again. My views on this are unfashionable and I want to work them out properly before I say them outside of my head. But there is a problem with the standard, physicalising narrative we see in play in our attitudes towards high-profile sufferers: it doesn’t leave space for the Tyson Furys of this world.
Tyson (or, to be entirely accurate, the Tyson that we know through his public utterances) is, undeniably, a bit of a shit. He’s pretty horrible, as a human being. But he also has mental health issues. What we want to do when we hear that he has mental health issues is consign the nastiness to his illness and advocate for him to be treated gently and to not feel any stigma. That’s our stock response.
But we can’t on this occasion, as it’s just too great a leap of logic to put all of that nastiness down to mental illness. Plus, even if we wanted to he’s not making it easy for us – he’s not apologising and saying ‘I need help for my baddies’. He’s not fitting our narrative because after he goes to rehab and comes out clean, he’s still going to be homophobic and misogynystic and the rest. And then we’ll have to face up to a category we’re really not comfortable with: a mentally ill person who is also, in some respects, a bad person. Denied our stock response, then, and unable to fit him into our normal narratives, we stay quiet.
Mental illness = your fault?
Of course, on the other side of the liberal/conservative divide they’ve no problem with the category we’re struggling with here – that of a mentally ill person who is also, perhaps, a bad person. Indeed, if you look to the brexit press, it’s the only category they’ve got (where all mentally-ill people are dangerous and violent and completely responsible for their illnesses). This is worse, in terms of its effects and its closed-mindedness. But we’re not, I don’t think, doing that much better than them in terms of the clarity of our thinking, or in our flexibility and openness to the evidence.
On the liberal-accepting side, we too easily use ‘mental-illness’ as a get-out. A way of avoiding thinking difficult thoughts, and actually listening to the people we’ve categorised, or engaging with the nuances of morality and illness. It’s cleaner to put the mentally ill into an all-good (victims) or all-bad (criminals) category because it protects us from engaging with the messy fact that they’re people.
Add to all of this the fact that Tyson hails from the travelling community and has suffered considerable abuse because of his background, and you’ve got a perfect storm for liberal inertia. We know we should be advocating for him and for his community – they’re marginalised after all, and he’s been a victim of abuse – but we also know that he’s a bad man who expresses intolerant views. And that these views are pretty representative of a part of his community. And that he’ll continue to do so even after he’s had his brain fixed. He won’t disown any of it. He won’t apologise and wrap it all up neatly for us.
We just don’t know what to do with him – he challenges our cosy dichotomies and so we (just like the conservatives do with cases which don’t fit their categories) simply ignore him.
Rigid categories, blinkered kindness, fear
Why are we so rigid? Partly because of our woolliness and liberalness. But also, I think, because of the way mental health debate has been taken out of the hands of ordinary discourse and into the hands of medical science. We play along with this relocation because it’s most often done in the name of greater access and awareness etc. But by buying into a very narrow discourse, we’re left in a position where we can’t nuance our views to allow for someone who is discriminated against but is a shit person. Or for someone who discriminates against others but is deserving of our empathy. Or for someone who might be partially responsible for their mental illness. We just don’t talk about it because it doesn’t fit the categories we’ve unquestioningly adopted. Many is the occasion I’ve felt scared – even now as someone who’s trained to work in mental health – to ask some of the difficult questions I have about the way we perceive mental illness for fear of being illiberal and nasty. So I’ve ignored it too.
But by ignoring the cases which challenge our categories we fail to engage with the real world. A world in which we’re none of us completely responsible or completely free of responsibility for any aspect of ourselves, just as we’re none of us completely responsible or free of responsibility for the communities we grew up in. A world in which the dividing line between ‘prick’ and ‘personality disorder’ is blurrier than the sun. By talking about this in a grown-up way we might come to develop a language which situates mental health back in the realm of normal, messy, moral life, rather than the sterile, amoral, medicalised annex it currently occupies. But that’s scary. It means saying some things that feel horrible and bad and might offend people – it means blaming people we’ve got used to pardoning, and vise versa. I’ve tried to do that, but right now I’m too scared; I’ll keep quiet.