Ken Livingstone and the Social Death Sentence

This week the media is going hell for leather over Ken Livingstone and the fact that he told a reporter who has suffered mental health issues that ‘he needs psychiatric help’. Given the fact that this happened in the same week as the Paris attacks that killed 129 people this is interesting, and naturally I have an opinion on it. Obviously it comes from my experience as a man living with Bipolar Disorder. The most important issue here is that Livingstone can say whatever he likes. This is a free, liberal democracy and, begging your pardon, but I am freaking glad to live in such a place and I will not give this freedom up as long as I breathe. Secondly, I appreciate that someone has propelled into the public eye the issue of how we talk about mental illness. This comes in the same week that Charlie Sheen went public as a HIV positive man and there is no doubt that, whilst there are people who use HIV or AIDS as terms of abuse, that sort of thing has ebbed over the years, and I think that we should welcome that. We must not legislate how people talk but I think that, on balance it is a good thing to consider how one’s words might affect others. I say this as a man with the darkest, most mordant and sardonic gallows humour of anyone I know and I regularly indulge in such taboo humour too. What I like about this is that we are looking hard at why we all intuitively believe that it is insulting to be told that one has mental health problems. In the same way that everyone believes it to be a good thing to have a sense of humour it is second nature to accept that to be mentally ill is bad, funny for those watching and, let’s face it, pretty much a social death sentence.

I have no answers beyond the fact that I will defend Livingstone’s right to say whatever he wants. That is one thing that is more important than anything that might befall a sufferer of psychiatric issues, and in the above linked BBC article I loathe the use of the worst word of this century: ‘offensive’. It might well be offensive. Tough luck, and welcome to the Age of Reason. All I can say is this to each one if us: is it funny to taunt the mentally ill? Is it funny when mental illness strikes? Are the mentally ill so pitiable that the term should be thrown at people as the worst thing they can be?

You tell me folks: is what I am the worst thing you could ever imagine for yourself?

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Ageism and Mental Illness

This Sunday, today as I write, I sat down and watched BBC Sunday Morning Live on the television. As is often the case my fury bubbled and rose up as I listened, in particular when one man, David Vance, spouted his obnoxious opinions. To preface this post, I have read a little bit about him and he seems to be nothing other than an ultra right wing blogger and, frankly, a bit a of a twit. In the midst of healthy discussion he tried to stir up a fight which is all his kind ever actually does, and it is certainly how he sustains a living. He is the perfect blogger insomuch as he possesses no creative skill at all so he instead destroys whatever he sees and calls it politics and morality. What concerned me the most was his rant on the notion of mindfulness. The actual question asked concerning this was whether or not mindfulness has become a middle class religion, in my opinion a perfectly ridiculous question and exactly the sort of baiting in which the BBC engages far too often. My concern is not this question per se and I will explain why.

Vance brought up the issue of how much money the NHS spends on teaching mindfulness and how, in his entirely predictable and uninformed opinion, this is a waste of time and money. He even went so far as to give the standard Idiot Signal regarding healthcare which is the following:

Why are we spending so much on this when people cannot get cancer drugs?

He may have varied his words a little but that was his point. As soon as a person says this you can be sure that they are talking nonsense.The opposing argument quoted studies that I confess to taking at face value rather than having read  them (no sources were given) which assert that mindfulness reduces grey matter in the amygdala, instead stimulating growth in other areas of the brain. This is a favourable thing for those suffering from various mental illnesses. This exposes Vance’s argument as the fatuous and specious drivel that it is: ageism. Not only that, it is the typical right wing, macho response to mental health. He essentially asserts that cancer ought to come before mental health treatment. Why? The answer is simple. Cancer kills the old on the whole whereas mental illness, and by extension suicide kills the young on the whole. Our society in the UK is a gerontocracy. The old, the group that put the Tories in power, are bullying the young and Vance is epitomising this with his wild claims concerning cancer. I doubt that he cares a jot about the suffering of cancer patients. In fact I doubt he cares about anyone but himself, but that is a different matter. The issue is that of his sophistry, which is he is using to cover his relentless commitment to bullying the young, and in particular boys. The Tories have defunded and decimated mental health provision, a deliberate and targeted attack on the young. This is powered by the old, Baby Boomers like Vance, and their conviction that the young are living the high life on the taxpayer.

It used to be that the elderly men in power sent our youngest and strongest to war. Now we send them to hell instead. The hell known as untreated mental illness. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in young men and people like Vance know this. His argument concerning cancer has nothing to do with concern for those suffering from it. Rather, it is a cloak covering his contempt for the young. David Vance is an a obnoxious, ageist bully and he is making a name for himself by bullying the helpless and  hopeless.

Mental Illness is YOUR Problem

If ever a single thing defined the way we comprehend and apprehend our news, our life narratives and our personal sense of worth and responsibility in this world it is the notion of ‘who did this?’. For any crime or deed you care to imagine I can guarantee that in the aftermath of those events there will be a media frenzy directed towards the sole aim of finding who is to blame and that witch hunt will shortly be followed by the ridiculous phrase ‘we must ensure that this never happens again’. This phenomenon is the single most destructive thing that our media sector does and it is killing us, often quite literally. We live in an age of the individual. Any sense of society is dwindling fast. That is why we have more and more individuals who are rich, famous, notorious or any combination of those things. The only thing that is still socialised is massive financial loss, and that is not really down to socialist principles, it is down to the fact that individuals can talk themselves out of their crimes at the white collar level, meaning that what seems to be an act of socialised loss is actually an act of individualist escapism.

This way of doing things will destroy us. It is evidenced in stories such as the CIA proclaiming that Vladimir Putin is capable of such crimes as those he commits because he has Asperger’s Syndrome. This was one of the most monumentally stupid things that I have ever seen but it is an expression of the notion that individuals are to blame for everything terrible in the world. The pathological desire to pin responsibility for things on to an ‘angry lone nut’ has always been strong and it is getting stronger. Witness the vicious, salivating feeding frenzy in the press  about the recent murder/suicide of the copilot of a Germanwings airliner and you see the point perfectly. The level of analysis concerning his mental health has been nothing short of astonishing, and forgive me for saying so in polite company, but the quality of editorial and the narrative has quite frankly, not made it above the level of complete horseshit. I have never, in a strong field, seen such irresponsible, crass and nasty reporting about anything. 

We live in the great age of mental illness. In the UK the number one killer of young men is suicide. Half of the population will suffer mental illness at some point and only half of those will ever receive treatment for it. We are killing ourselves through the lens of a capitalist society which demands that the individual must bear responsibility for all things at all times, without exceptions. Some might argue that it is Thatcher’s legacy, harking back to her proclamation that there is no such thing as society. Well, there had better be a society or there will soon be no human race left. The cult of individualism is the most destructive thing ever witnessed in terms of what we inflict upon people through peaceful methods. We cannot go on like this. If we do not change things then pilots crashing planes will be the least of our worries. Whether or not you have ever suffered, or ever will suffer from any form of mental illness then I have news for you: IT IS YOUR PROBLEM. A generation of males who kill themselves is unsustainable. A nation of people slaving away on the cusp of complete breakdown is not acceptable. Why? Because we have created a de facto caste system. The sane versus the nutters. Take a quick straw poll of your friends and family and ask how many of them would either associate with, date, marry or otherwise interact with someone if they knew that person was mentally ill. Good luck finding anyone who will say yes to that. The simple problem here is that we already have that. You are walking past and interacting with depressives every day. Your entertainment life and the cultural pastimes you enjoy are all products of those with bipolar disorder, Aspergers and so forth.

The invisibility and disposability of the mentally ill is bringing society to a head. Unless you want more and more people snapping and flying planes in to mountain ranges then we have to dispose of our individualist philosophy and ask ourselves the painful question: ‘of what is our society made?’. We are going to have this moment sooner or later because the race to the top cannot be won by a society, but only by one individual. So, as the pool of eligible people in that race gets ever smaller, the number of rejects becomes ever larger. What will we do with that? Will we really wait until one rich, powerful white male is able to point to everyone else and blame them for whatever set of circumstances they inhabit? Or will we accept that as a society our first, best destiny is to accept difference and bear with it, even construct a society adapted to living with it? I doubt that any politician has the courage to stand up and say that we ought to be helping one another more. To date the rise of our selfish, capitalist, ‘greed is good’ society has been built by those willing to divide societies into strata. They tell those in the middle strata that those below are the cause of all societies ills, citing the notion that as individuals those below do not work hard enough to pull themselves up. Those in the middle thank their lucky stars that they are not ‘them’. They are not the ones below. As is always the case what those in the middle never realise that once the bottom has been wrung out, they are next.

The mentally ill are the bottom of society by and large. We freely admit that we need the rest of you. Due to stigma what the rest of you will not admit is that you need us. You need us more than you imagine. The next time a mentally ill person does something like crash a plane, which incidentally is very unusual since we are almost always victims rather than perpetrators of crimes, ask yourself whether you honestly believe that this person is the source of all evil. Are they really? Or did our society make them? It was the copilot who closed the door on the plane as it crashed but it was our society that closed the door on him. He needed an escape route and the path of least resistance for him was suicide and the murder of 149 people. Think on that for yourself. In a world where the easiest way for a young man to find relief and peace for himself was a terrible act of carnage, ask the difficult question: of what is our society made?

You Must Be Mad!

How many times have you heard it?

He’s mad!

or

She’s a looney!

You can add to this list words and phrases such as crazy, round the bend, insane, nuts, nutter, off his or her rocker and much more. Language is powerful and if you are anything like me then you have used it carelessly before now. Language is like a cultural window. What we accept without thinking in terms of the spoken and written word reveals that which we are.

I have often paralleled the struggle for acceptance faced by the mentally ill with that of the rights of gay people. My best friend as I grew up was gay and seeing his world change over the years as our society adjusts itself to orient itself favourably towards homosexuals has been a privilege and a pleasure. I hope to live long enough to see the same happen for those with mental illness.

Below is a video excerpt taken from an edition of BBC Question Time in 2012. This features Will Young, among others, talking about gay rights, and in particular something said on the BBC Today radio programme by an awful, repulsive vicar who described gay marriage as an abomination and who likened it to slavery.

What Will Young does in this video is attack one prejudice with another. He particularly highlights the use of the word “gay” as an insult in schools, and dismisses this man by doing exactly the same thing when it comes to the words he uses, specifically “mad” and “crazy”.

The use of the word “gay” in the way in which Young describes is something I experienced first hand at school it was extremely unpleasant and had a detrimental effect upon my education. I would argue that the socially acceptable allusion to anything relating to mental illness as a negative thing has the same destructive effect upon a vulnerable group of people. I have never heard a single person challenged upon their usage of such language. It seems to me to be completely acceptable to regard mental illness as the ultimate expression of all that is unwanted in terms of what a person might suffer in life. That a man can argue so eloquently in favour of the rights of one vulnerable group by denigrating another one shows where we are as a society. The status of the mentally ill is, in my estimation, similar to that of gay people at a time when it was illegal to be gay and being homosexual was essentially a social death sentence and often a literal death sentence.

This problem is the essence of my reason for writing this blog. I know that there are children going through schools now for whom growing up is extremely difficult. They are dealing with things within themselves such as suicidal feelings, serious depression, psychosis and other serious, chronic and debilitating symptoms. Add to that prejudice and a stigma, both of which are considered entirely socially acceptable and completely normal, and which serves to make the mentally ill outcasts and it is not hard to see how awful the lives of mentally ill people can be, particularly schoolchildren.

Just as we have begun to make a better world for gay people, I long for a better world for my people, and I hope that I live long enough to see it.

What is Mania Like?

The question of what mania is like is one that may be answered in at least two ways. There is the issue of what it is like for the sufferer, or the maniac to use a rather unpleasant term, and there is what it is like for those who are related to or intimately connected with the sufferer. Incidentally, as a brief aside, maniac is one of those words that is so deeply ingrained in our discourse that it demonstrates how we as a society view afflictions of the mind and those who suffer with them. It is a word that means a sufferer of mania. Nowadays most would concede that it is an exclusively negative term and one which bears the connotations of violent conduct, unpredictable rage and generally deranged and insane behaviour. Words such as imbecile, idiot and moron were all similar clinical terms describing various degrees of mental retardation and all are now unanimously pejorative, just as maniac,mania and manic all are. The word paranoiac is another such term but that does not have the same connotation. Paranoia is not desirable but one would never use it as a broad spectrum insult in the same way, however that would seem to me because paranoia is insular and often leaves no outward markers of its presence and affectation. In short there is a rule regarding illnesses of the brain that are manifestly visible with clear symptoms. If you lose your mind then you lose a whole lot more with it. One’s job, one’s dignity, one’s place in society, even one’s life are all considered acceptable losses. By that I mean that if I were to tell you about someone from whom all of those things had been taken then the moment I suggested that he or she possessed a mental illness or affliction then there would be immediate hand-wringing and shrugging of the shoulders as though such collateral damage were inevitable and ought to be accepted as a part of life. This must change, however that sort of thing is not the subject of this post.

I intend to discuss mania from a first person perspective. It seems rather foolish to me to attempt to portray the travails of those living with a sufferer rather than as the one suffering themselves although there is some overlap. Anyone who was been through a manic episode knows the heartbreak of crawling through the wreckage of their behaviour, attempting to make amends and correct some of the crazy – quite literally – things that they did. Therein lies the first characteristic of mania. It is episodic. It comes and goes and during episodes it can and will vary in its intensity. At the beginning of an episode life is great. Euphoria is prevalent and a person trapped within this phase of an episode is usually inspired, productive, fun, energetic and able to function to a high degree of productivity and usefulness. This is why those with bipolar disorder are often drawn to creative professions. Creativity demands energy of often epic proportions. I know that to most normal people the act of writing, painting or composing may seem cerebral and restful but I can assure you that both my firsthand experience and the testimony of others reveals it to be anything but. The mental drain upon me as a writer during such times is extraordinary and that is why mania helps. Ideas flow plentifully and it almost seems as though one is working to the specifications of a commission from the Gods of Mount Olympus. These phases can be among the most exhilarating times of a person’s life.

But then the worm starts to turn. One starts to become irritable, difficult to work with and be around and extremely unpredictable. Imagine the world’s most annoying morning person over the course of a year and distil that energy into a concentrated burst of energy. This is where perception matters so much. However it may look to others, here is how it looks to me. I am on a roll, bouncing around the room ready to create something so stunning in its creative genius and so remarkable in its manifestation that I need to stay awake for several days. I find suddenly that people are staring at me, their incredulity towards me matched by my incredulity at what they find so incredulous. Can they not see what is going on here? I am on the brink of creating the next great work of fiction and they are staring at me as though I am the crazy one! I become annoyed at them and their stupid, dull minds that are incapable of keeping up with the flow of energy that is pulsing through me wildly and powerfully. I begin to exhibit signs of annoyance and wilful disrespect to those who are not like me and do not have the insight that I have. People cease to spend time with me, thinking it impossible to keep up and at some point I find myself furiously producing either writing, photography or music. I remember an occasion where I produced a whole album of instrumental progressive rock music in a single day. A single day! I remember writing an entire book in a week, some sixty thousand words. I remember once being so desperate to fall asleep at night that I cycled around a hundred and fifty miles in two days. I was simply so needy of normal routine as I felt my mood rising into mania that I tried the only medication that I could think of that was free of charge to wear myself out.

It did not work.

Soon arguments break out as people try and fail to live with the inaccessible speed and pressure at which I operate. I talk so fast and assimilate ideas with a rapidity that, were I able to control it would be a great asset to me. I argue relentlessly in defence of my great ideas and unassailable genius. Do they not see? Can they not comprehend what is about to happen? I record musical ideas and leave them half finished because the next one arrives so fast that I know that I will forget it if I do not produce a recording immediately. I start writing story after story for the same reason, desperate to hold on to the ideas before they fly away as quickly as they arrived.

And then comes the crash. I start to read what I have written and I often think it is genuinely great work, something of which I may be immensely proud . Unfortunately I leave it half completed, often for months on end. The mania has subsided and the energy it brought to me is no more. The mood starts to sink and I head towards the other pole, depression. But that is the subject of another post.

Homogeneity and Mental Illness

Homogenous we are not. This post may seem a little contradictory at the outset. On the one hand it is a plea for the mentally ill to be treated as a group, yet on the other hand it is an admonition for the world not to see us as one big group. Rather odd I know, however it can be resolved. Often one will see a group of teenagers, all dressed a certain way and listening to the same music and so on, typical teenage behaviour and it is not unusual to hear adults say something along the lines of ‘they all want to be seen as individuals but they all look the same’ and those adults genuinely think they are being clever in citing the seemingly rather obvious implied paradox of what Stephen Fry refers to as being a part of the crowd and apart from the crowd. Those adults have dead hearts, unable to remember the angst and yearning for self expression and self determination that is often forged in fire and in great pain. In the same way the mentally ill as a group are much maligned and in need of better treatment in every sense, yet also in dire need of understanding and a sense of appreciation for who and what they are as individuals. It is perfectly possible to address a group of people as a whole without diminishing the individuality and dignity of each member of that group. We are a part of the tribe and each one of us is also apart from the tribe.

It can be very difficult to resolve the apparent contradiction of wishing to stand out from and yet be a part of a crowd. To be both a part of society and apart from it presents an arrangement that seems impossible at first, however it is not as absurd as it first seems. Variation within specific parameters is far from unusual. It is not hard to confer respect upon a whole group without having to worry about the group in terms of its differences. All groups possess individuals who delineate themselves from the apparent normative but that does not diminish their individual humanity, their group solidarity and belonging to the group. I know this because the mentally ill must do this themselves. It is no easier for me to comprehend the experience of a schizophrenic than a person who suffers no mental health problems. In that sense, even though I refer to the mentally ill as a group, there is no group of people craving respect and acceptance as such. The secret to understanding this is to learn to how deal with a member of a particular group as though there were no group at all. In short, I did not choose to be in this group but I am, yet I am also a human being and whilst my illness is an aspect of my makeup it does not define me.

I am indebted to my illness for my belonging to the group, but I owe bipolar disorder nothing for the content of my character, my loves, my hates, my passions and so forth. Ask yourself this: to what is a person with a mental illness indebted which makes them who they are? I guarantee you that the answer is not their illness, for identity is often undermined by illness as it surrenders to it rather than being enhanced by it due to it’s non-existent origin within the illness. In that sense we are simultaneously a part of the crowd whilst also being apart from the crowd. The things that a person possesses within themselves that are peculiarly them, their ‘them-ness’ have very little to do with who they are. The philosopher Martin Heidegger often used a German word, wesen to describe the essence of a thing or a person. To him it did not mean the essence per se, it means the thing that a person continues to be and which maintains him or her as what they are as they travel through time. A person’s wesen is the thing by which you measure their existence over the passing weeks, months and years. In that sense, again, I do not think that my illness is anything to do with my wesen. The things to which I am indebted for my continued existence as what I am go beyond the mere aspects of my illness and my responses to it. My substance is my personality and character, of which my illness is not a part. The substance of a manic depressive is not his or her illness any more than the content of a black/Asian/European/white person’s character is a product of his or her skin colour. In short, we are more that the sum of our parts, mentally ill or not.

It is not unusual to hear or see a person with a mental illness have their opinions or feelings dismissed as the illness talking. It is frustrating and downright demeaning to have someone refuse to take me seriously because it is easy to dismiss me because I have bipolar disorder. When you do that you homogenise me. I am compartmentalised and parked in the brain of the person doing it and I will almost certainly never get out of the spot marked ‘nutter’. Humankind would go a long way towards bettering itself if it just realised that when a person is dismissed like that it damages us all. I have previously talked about the remarkable contribution the manic depressives in particular have made in the sphere of human creativity. I do not think that I would like to live in a world where some of our best artists, writers and musicians did not fulfil their potential, instead living lives forever parked in the nutter box.

What is worse is that dismissal leads to lax practice. Can we not just medicate them and shut them up? They should be in a special home right? These are things I have heard routinely. I am willing to bet that you have said them too, no doubt more than once. It has often been expedient to throw the mentally ill outside the city walls, leaving them to wander in the desert alone. We ought not to scapegoat anyone like that, least of all the weak, vulnerable and sick.

You might well ask me: if I am so set on being an individual who is not at all categorised by bipolar disorder, why do I still address the issue as though the existence of a group is so important? Why be a part of the mentally ill crowd too? This question is as susceptible to reason as any and the simple fact of the matter is that the world addresses us as a group, we are seen as a group and we are classified as a group and therefore the world at large is only ever likely to listen to us as a group. For better or worse strength is all too often found in numbers and in a democratic system the individual may be empowered with a voice and a vote, the reality is that an individual has little real power on his or her own. I am convinced that the question of mental illness is one of the great civil rights issues of our time and one need only look back through relatively recent history to see that civil rights questions are always settled by the action of force in numbers. When there are more of ‘us’ than ‘them’ change is effected. The campaign for LGBTQ rights gained strength and brought about change at remarkable speed only when there was a majority and that majority was not comprised of LGBTQ people. They needed the heteronormative majority on their side and the same must happen for the mentally ill. The right of those of all sexual orientations to be taken seriously came about when the generation demonising them had children and those children grew up among gay people who had the courage to come out. The world saw that gay people represent no threat and can do no harm to anyone and as such the prejudice rolled back under the weight of the opinion that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is simply immoral. There remains work to be done of course, however their can be no doubt that the tide has turned.

We, the mentally ill are a quarter of the population and change for the better will only come about when those not defined by the group become a part of the group. Just like the LGBTQ struggle, the walls between Us and Them must come down, and that is why it is so important for us to be seen as more than our illness. The group will bring about change yet the group must be more than the sum total of its members. We need those without mental illness on our side, for so long as we are viewed as pariahs to be feared and scorned we will not possess a sufficient number to bring about our own emancipation.

I am currently reading the Tripods novels, a series about a post-apocalytpic world dominated by alien machines. The machines ‘cap’ humans at the age of fourteen, meaning that a sort of cybernetic helmet is fitted to people and this keeps humanity subjugated. Occasionally the capping goes wrong and the victim of this becomes a wandering vagrant, indulging in odd behaviour and is generally feared and shunned by others. I and others like me have been capped and the wiring has gone wrong somewhere along the way. With the acceptance of humanity and society we can be a part of the world and culture at large. In many ways we are already a part of society, however this is not recognised by successive governments whose response to mental health problems remains woefully inadequate. I suppose at this point I can only make an impassioned plea:

Accept us as a group, love us as individuals, treat us as people.

The ongoing fear that grips me now that I have ‘come out’ and publicly discussed my illness is something that I would much rather live without. I would give a lot to live without the familial rejection I have experienced and to no longer read articles about the horrors inflicted upon people like me and live in constant fear that I might be next against the wall. I and many like me have stepped into the light. It is up to those of you born normal to do the same, both for us and for the future generations like us.