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I’m the Sun’s favourite mental patient

October 8, 2013

Trigger warning – this piece talks about mental illness discrimination. Non-explicit mentions of suicide, self-harm, violence, crime, police, but several links are to more explicit pieces.

 

‘Mental Patients kill 1200’ screams the Sun headline. I thought they’d changed since the years of ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’. I’d agreed to have my photograph and story in the Sun, as one of those ‘mental patients’, under a ‘schizophrenia’ headline, talking about my experiences of what my care team tactfully refer to as ‘severe and enduring mental illness’ (the piece is now paywalled, but you can read another interviewee’s take on it). I won’t discuss the stats, as they have already been done here & elsewhere, except to say that the headline isn’t even right, and doesn’t discuss the real risk factors, which have more to do with young men using alcohol and street drugs, than psychosis per se.

 

I was shocked when I was asked to appear in the Sun. I’d responded to a request by a mental health charity for women with my diagnosis, the first time I’d done media work. When they said it was for a ‘national newspaper’, I was expecting maybe a feature in Guardian Weekend. Not the Sun. Not the tabloid behind such memorable cover stories as ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up!’. I looked through the Sun archive, and every single mention of schizophrenia was next to words like ‘stabbed’, ‘hacked to death’, ‘slashed’, ‘psycho killer’, or occasionally illegal drugs. How could I let them use my face for what had to be another monstering? But the Sun is the UK’s most widely read paper. This is where speaking out about mental illness really matters, the way I might be able to talk to people who would campaign against a ‘mental hospital’ being built in their neighbourhood. I read the ‘health’ section they wanted to put my story in, which was for some reason in the ‘women’s’ section of the paper. Of course, the headlines were lurid, with ‘My fake boobs exploded!’ and ‘My Dad’s a lesbian!’ but the actual stories weren’t too dreadful. The ‘lesbian dad’ turned out to be quite a nice story about a trans woman, with a quote from her daughter saying ‘It was strange at first, but we quickly got used to it’, and a picture of two women hugging, made to look quite ordinary and not a freakshow.

 

So I did it. The interview wasn’t too difficult, I had help from Time to Change and also talked things through beforehand with my lovely friend Symon Hill, who is basically the ethical Max Clifford. I was sure what I didn’t want to talk about and just said no when they asked about my family, and chatted away about the everyday human details of my life, like my love of running and flapjack. It was instructive finding the way in which what I said was turned into a work of fiction very loosely based on my words, but I’m not too unhappy with it. They even put in a statistic I gave them about seven out of ten employers not wanting ‘someone like me’. The photoshoot was more awkward, they sent a woman round first to plaster my face with an inch of brick dust and turn my eyelashes into tarantula legs. I had to insist I wasn’t going to pose looking angry or sad or with my top unbuttoned for extra cleavage. Still, the pictures they used were friendly and positive and looked like someone you wouldn’t mind living next door to.

 

I’ve done other media work since, but this was my first time, and so far my biggest audience. I was proud of it, and still am. This was when I decided to ‘come out’ about having a particularly scary-sounding mental illness, spending years not able to work, and the way this has gone on for most of my life. It’s been a good few years since then, I’ve finally got useful treatment, really good support, and I now have a wonderful boyfriend, nearly finished an MSc, and am hoping to start work soon, as well as doing lots more as a sort of ‘consultant mad person’. There’s been some bad times since too, some of the worst are recorded on this blog, where people have acted from false assumptions, bigotry and prejudice. Other news reports yesterday echoed some of the things that have happened to me, like this report from Victim Support and Mind about how victims of crime who have mental illness are treated, where a woman describes being sectioned after reporting a sexual assault, and this story about a man with schizophrenia who was killed by police using unsafe ‘restraint’ techniques.

 

Headlines like those in the Sun fuel the assumptions which kill people like me. Sometimes we are killed outright, by police or health staff who treat us like safety hazards to be processed, not people who are terrified and in need of compassion. More often in the way society pushes us and our problems to the margins, leading to the health and social problems associated with poverty and exclusion, poor healthcare, lives with little to do but self-medicate with cigarettes and alcohol and street drugs, which mean people like me die twenty years too soon from physical illness. I’m ten times more likely to be violently assaulted than most people, and three in five women like me are sexually assaulted as adults – but when it happens, again and again, we aren’t taken seriously. Society systematically kills us, quickly or slowly, actively or by taking away what we need to survive.

 

Severe mental illness is scary. It is terrifying going out of my door today, wondering who knows, if after yesterday’s Sun headlines people are watching me walk down the street, hating and fearing me, telling their children to stay away from me. Feeling exposed, vulnerable, persecuted, threatened and fearful, thinking that everyone knows you are evil, is a common part of the paranoid symptoms I and others experience. Having it shouted in the headlines that all this is really true, that you really are dangerous to others, and everyone knows, is a sick joke. I’m probably going to be on national BBC TV evening news next week, talking about the shortage of acute mental health beds. The Sun headlines make me much more scared to do that, but personal stories are so important for campaigning for the changes which save lives.

 

Stigma kills, and one reason it kills is because we believe it too. Once in my support group we were talking about what ‘schizophrenia’ means, and someone who’d had multiple hospital admissions on heavy-duty antipsychotics said ‘It’s what that man on the telly had, the one who killed all those people, isn’t it?’. Sometimes stigma means that you never accept your diagnosis, because that would mean you were like ‘the man on the telly who killed all those people’, and then the psychiatrists will shake their heads and say you ‘lack insight’, and all your treatment will be done to you not with you, a trap of injections and forced face-down holds, all because you stubbornly refuse to accept that you are a murderer-in-waiting. Or sometimes stigma means that you believe what they tell you, the diagnosis, the prophecy, and so you must die to protect others from this awful monster that you have become, as this piece by Katy Gray eloquently explains.

 

The Sun is right. Severe mental illness is scary. From the inside, it’s terrifying. We need help to make society safer for us to live in, not monstering.

 

If you’d like to do something useful, please have a look at the upcoming ‘Schizophrenia awareness week’ by Rethink Mental Illness.

 

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