So, Ed Miliband is to tackle the Stigma of mental illness in his next speech, according to the Guardian. Good for him, although he seems to be choosing some rather soft celebrity hate figures to take a swipe at in order to give his speech some punch- Jeremy Clarkson and Janet Street Porter;
With the cost of mental illness to the NHS believed to be around £10bn, Miliband will announce he has set up a taskforce – led by Stephen O’Brien, the chairman of Barts Health NHS Trust and vice-president of Business in the Community – to draw up a strategic plan for mental health in society, in the hope that the next Labour government can begin work immediately on implementing reform.
He will also say that attitudes in society need to change, criticising “lazy caricatures” of people with mental health problems and highlighting recent comments by Clarkson and Street-Porter.
He will say: “There are still people who abuse the privilege of their celebrity to insult, demean and belittle others, such as when Janet Street-Porter says that depression is ‘the latest must-have accessory’ promoted by the ‘misery movement’.
“Jeremy Clarkson at least acknowledges the tragedy of people who end their own life but then goes on to dismisses them as ‘Johnny Suicides’ whose bodies should be left on train tracks rather than delay journeys.
“Just as we joined the fight against racism, against sexism and against homophobia, so we should join the fight against this form of intolerance. It is not acceptable, it costs Britain dear, and it has to change.”
Whilst I welcome the initiative- I feel slightly skeptical about the outcome, even before it begins. I hope I am wrong, but the problem faced by any such review (particularly one led by someone embedded in the NHS) is that its conclusions are inevitably shaped by the set of lens through which we look at the ‘problem’.
It reminds me a little of theology- we inherit a set of beliefs about who or what God is based on our culture, denomination and hermeneutic. These things are useful, valuable, even essential for a while- they are vehicles through which the Spirit travels. But there can come a point when they obscure, restrict, oppress and close down our understandings. For example, if our theology is based on a flat earth created in 6 days a few thousand years ago, then something has to give when we are confronted with the expanding universe.
The mental illness machine is not working.
I say this not in disrespect of the many wonderful people working within the system, but there comes a time when we have to see the machine for what it is- something that more often than not sucks people in, strips them of who they used to be, and replaces this with a new set of roles- patient, schizophrenic, lunatic, depressive, manipulative, unemployable, benefit scrounger.
Then there is the role played by the pharmaceutical companies, competing to push the next wonder drug, and employing a thousand drug reps to flood doctors, nurses and even social workers with half truths about their new product using everything from free toys (pens, flasks, binoculars) to free meals and holidays. The wonder drugs each turn out to be versions of what has gone before- no Lilly the Pink, just more chemical suspended animation to hold people in half lives.
A few months ago I wrote a piece reflecting on the monster that is the new American Psychiatric Association Dignostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, otherwise known as DSM 5. In this, I wrote of my own hopes for change in the system along these lines;
Away from ‘illness’ towards an understanding that all forms of mental illness are caused by mental ‘distress’
Away from ‘symptoms’ towards understanding that we develop different means of coping with this distress.
Away from restrictive labels towards listening to individual experience.
Away from medicalised interventions, towards encouragement and support of individual recovery.
Away from simplistic distinctions between ‘psychosis’ and ‘neurosis’ towards a greater interest and understanding of the effect of trauma.
Away from segregation and ‘otherness’ towards seeing mental distress as an essential part of the human experience and as such, part of all of our experiences.
Away from ‘maintenance’ (which is a form of medicalised slavery) towards hope.
If Ed can gather some real radicalism from his up coming review, I really hope it will contain some of these ideas.