Dylan Voller, Paul Gascoigne and the State of Things

Below is a video you should watch before reading any further. Bear in mind that the subject is a child.

This took place in Australia, but do not comfort yourself with the notion that ‘it could not happen here’. Stanley Milgram put that nonsense to bed in conclusive fashion with his famous study on compliance and obedience to authority. You ought also to remember that, as I so often say here, mental illness can strike anybody, at any time, and in any place. There but for the grace of god and all that.

It has been some time since I last posted and I regret that, however real life has kept me busy. What I have done during that time is watch with dismay as things have apparently deteriorated in respect to mental health care and the treatment of sufferers of this constellation of conditions to which we refer as mental illness, a term which seems to describe far too much and far too little at the same time, has worsened. Now, I have no doubt that Dylan Voller represents a serious challenge for those working with him, however there can be no doubt that what has happened to him has done harm to him, and furthermore it has likely made his symptoms worse. Imagine the outcry if that had been a prisoner of war in Guantanamo Bay. Ironically one need not imagine. We have seen the photographs from there and Abu Graibh in Iraq, and the public fury was universal, the justice meted out to the perpetrators swift and harsh. Yet who weeps for Dylan Voller? Locked in prison since the age of just eleven years old, treated as an adult prisoner with all of the physical brutality that that entails, and written off by society. He will likely never work, never have a romantic relationship, never be allowed to live in such a way that grants him a moment’s freedom from the watchful gaze of the state and its penal apparatus.

Dylan’s family likely tolerate what is being done to their son because he has already sustained a criminal career that most people will never emulate, not even young offenders and delinquent children. This life of his has seen him attack his own mother and he has done the same to practically every authority figure that he ever encountered. In that light it seems reasonable that the state should intervene, I am sure most would agree. Really? Is this really the best that Australia, one of the richest and most enlightened countries on earth, can do? Are we seriously to believe that the only viable options are either to allow this boy to brutalise others, or alternatively to have the state brutalise him? Is there no middle ground?

In reality nothing will change for Voller. The men who have mistreated him will never be held criminally accountable for their actions. The media has taken great pains to stress that he attacked his mother, as though it were the ultimate crime a young boy could commit. Few of them bother to mention the foetal alcohol syndrome that he was born with, which paints him in a different light. All of a sudden we start to feel a little compassion, or I certainly do, owing to this boy’s terrible start in life thanks to his drunk of a mother, herself possibly mentally ill too. I doubt that she has even seen the inside of a courtroom to hold her accountable for that.

The indignity of stripping him naked as you can see in the video above is possibly the ultimate curse that this boy has to bear. I would invite you to compare those scenes with those of holocaust survivors, and, aside from the malnutrition and emaciation, I would ask you to honestly evaluate them and ask yourself what difference between the two is. Those who might serve as apologists for this sort of thing will point out that he could self-harm with his clothes. I say give him a gown made from paper instead. This boy has little to nothing in life, and to humiliate him like that is the final indignity in a whole screed of indignities and abuses that ought not to be tolerated in the future, but where mental illness is concerned then you can be assured that they will be.

Paul Gascoigne

To speak further of naked humiliation, this month Paul Gascoigne, the most gifted footballer of his generation, was photographed in a state of near undress, clearly struggling with alcoholism and suffering the severe effects of the illness he and I share. One thing that is 0bvious is that Gascoigne is, for the press, box office gold. The George Best of the modern day, it is clear that the journalists who follow this man around cannot wait for him to finally drink himself to death. On that day the front pages will be covered in cliched drivel spouting mock sadness over the early passing of a tortured genius.

I refuse to duplicate, or even link to the photographs in question. They represent nothing other than voyeurism, and the morbid tormenting of a human being in pain. I bitterly resent the media for doing this because this is the pain and suffering of a sick man being used to sell copy, and it is unethical and immoral. In the same month that this happened a young woman who broke her neck was given a front page story with the BBC for overcoming survival chances of 1%. Why the disparity? Who congratulates the man or woman who beats the depressive urge to commit suicide and walks tall for another day? Who endorses the courage of a patient who goes to ask for help from the NHS, despite knowing the cost of a diagnosis of mental illness? Where is the praise for the people with mental health issues who suffer such terrible symptoms, yet who entertain us? Did anyone stand by Robin Williams in life, during which he was crippled emotionally by his own bipolar disorder? Of course not, he was simply lauded in death as, yes, you guessed it, the flawed, tortured genius.

I fear for Paul Gascoigne. He appears to be so far along the line of a death spiral that recovery and salvation are now challenges that will seem, to him, nigh-on insurmountable. I never give up hope, however I think that the way the media is permitted to harass this man is going to make it impossible for him to manage his illness. They are throwing him under the bus, possibly literally in future.

What is so painful for me to hear in respect to him is that so many people bemoan his decision not to play for Manchester United. I have heard several times that Sir Alex Ferguson would have ‘knocked him into shape’. It is remarkable how many people think this way. It happened to me personally but it seems to be a common notion, the sense that the mentally ill need to be beaten out of their sickness. Dylan Voller is clear evidence of that, as am I and so is Gascoigne. I have yet to hear of anyone ever being successfully beaten into shape. I certainly have not encountered anyone who was cured of a physical ailment through violence or brutality so I do not understand why this idea is so pervasive and why it stubbornly persists in the public consciousness.

Seriously Paul, I hope you make it.

The State of Things

The state of things is not good. The raised threat and incidence of terrorism has brought with it a now universal trope in respect to understanding the pathology of atrocities. Read about any act of terrorism this year and I guarantee you that there will be a pronouncement somewhere of mental illness being the cause. This is usually done to deflect blame away from religion, but also it is used to understand the ununderstandable. When people ask how a human being could do this to other human beings someone will blame mental illness, usually with a shrug of the shoulders or a shake of the head. What is going on here is that all of the shame, guilt and outrage over the crime is being dumped on the backs of the mentally ill. There is a word for this: scapegoating. In biblical times society would pronounce that all of its ills would be loaded as a burden onto the back of a goat, and that goat would be cast outside the city, never to return. This is, in a nutshell, what happens to sufferers of mental illness. Every act of terror is now laid at our door. There is not a single dissenting voice in the media now. The notion that it is all our fault and that the mentally ill are the main threat to society is absolutely ubiquitous. Nobody doubts it, nobody speaks up against it, yet, as I have previously proven conclusively, when it comes to crime, the only thing we may be sure of is that a person who has a mental health problem is not only far less likely to commit a crime than a mentally normative person, they are also far more likely to be a victim of crime than an otherwise normal person. Yet still the myth propagates and dominates debate. This has to change. We are literally killing ourselves through this act of collective scapegoating. In blaming the wrong thing we cannot solve the problem. In blaming the innocent we make a mockery of our supposed compassion and enlightenment.

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2016: Carrying on Where 2015 Left Off

2016 is shaping up to be a terrible year for mental health, those who treat sufferers and sufferers themselves. In the UK funding for services has crashed into the national toilet. Our vicious Tory government could not care less about it. Children are being failed and dealt with as though they are adults (as an ex bipolar child this is especially painful to me). Were I to suffer a breakdown tomorrow I might well have to travel hundreds of miles just to get treatment – oddly enough I pay my taxes like everyone else so I would really love to have an explanation on that. I am not holding my breath, however.

Stephen Fry has made The Not so Secret Life of the Manic Depressive – a follow up film to his two part documentary entitled The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. I recommend the former in earnest to you and the latter I am just sitting down to watch. I like Fry but it is harder for me to see him as someone like me. He has my illness and symptoms but I cannot relate to a man with millions in the bank and who has no limitations on the life he wishes to lead. It is impossible. I admire him from afar but I might as well be on Mars compared to him and the lifestyle he leads. I do not resent him at all, good for him. He has cashed in his winning lottery ticket, but he is privileged and loved. I am neither of those things. I feel privileged simply to be alive. Every day that I get to smell my daughter’s hair, or hug my son is another day I treasure as a man who looked into the suicidal abyss and from which I am fortunate to have returned. Many of us simply do not make it.

In other news, this year I would like to produce a memoir, telling the story of how I arrived where I am. We shall see how that goes…

The Pandemic of Bipolar Disorder

Imagine an illness that was prevalent in every country and on every continent on the planet. Imagine that it is an illness with outcomes ranging from chronic, long term symptoms, often substance abuse and in the worst case scenarios, death. Imagine that it is a disease which afflicted those about whom society cares very little, and therefore by extension society cares nothing for that illness and the loved ones of its victims.Imagine an illness that is essentially a death sentence upon diagnosis, both a socially and a literal death. We have seen an illness such as this. In the 1980’s HIV/AIDS was precisely that. I am no historian but it seems to me that this epidemic was a key driver in the campaign for the emancipation of those who are members of the LGBTIQ community, and the simple truth is that there freedom was won because when HIV/AIDS began to lay waste to their communities they had no option but to come out swinging. They were being killed by this disease and many governments refused point blank to invest money in researching, treating and (hopefully one day) curing it. To quote Dan Savage, advice columnist and founder of It Gets Better, gay people had to fight because ‘they were fucking dying’. The institutionalised homophobia in the government of my homeland, the UK stink. The repulsive homophobe Margaret Thatcher and her odious Tory government were happy to let homosexuals drop dead in huge numbers. Even now I hear people say that AIDS is a punishment meted out to homosexuals for their lifestyles. It is 2015 for crying out loud.

Today we have a similar situation with my people, the mentally ill. Isolating just the sufferers of Bipolar Disorder estimates suggest that it occurs without discrimination in all populations at a prevalence of approximately 4%. Taken as a share of the poopulation of the earth this amounts to 120000000 people. By any standard you care to measure that is a crisis. If one accounts for all illnesses prevalence is 25% of the population, some 1.75 billion people. In Paris recently Islamist gunmen killed 129 people and as a result NATO has mobilised for war. So what happens for us? As little as possible. For terrorist deaths the military might of the West is brought to bear upon the problem, yet for something that is decimating our communities and way of life, especially the young, the machinery of government scarcely trembles. As is so often the case with politicians I doubt that this will ever change until it happens to one of them. The empathy gap in Westminster is astonishing in scope. When one of their sons or daughters is found having committed suicide maybe then things will change. One thing is for certain and that is that the current strategy of pretending that there is no problem simply cannot continue, although I would wager that it will. the NHS has been gutted for the last six or seven years as efficiency has become the name of the game and each one of these overpaid, over-privileged Eton boys competes to see who can be the most brutal and macho minister. Who pays the price for this ludicrous, criminal egotism? They do not, that is for sure.

Mental illness is a global pandemic and I for one have had enough of being used as expendable political capital by ministers who could not care less about the lives of ordinary people who suffer extraordinary problems. I write to my MP, nothing happens. I write to other politicians and none of them reply. I pluck up the courage to attend assessment and treatment sessions and nothing happens for months (this is not the fault of NHS), during which time I could well have taken matters into my own hands. We disclose our illnesses and we are subjected to vitriol and abuse from those who wish to taunt us online for the crime of being sick. We live openly as mentally ill and we are attacked in the street. We run into the police and they murder us. We tell our families and they ostracise and disown us. Parents throw us out of the family home, and we go to the state for help and are told that we must help ourselves. We go to friends and they tell us that we are making it up for attention. We tell colleagues and we are ostracised and scarlet lettered at work. We inform our bosses and we lose our jobs. We have a bad day and we are advised to ‘keep taking the medication’, or to ‘go quietly when the men in white coats come’. We live undiagnosed and governments use us. We ask for help and they sterilise us. We live through times of warfare and are exterminated. We post online and Facebook experiments on us. We eventually become so desperate and lost that we sometimes kill ourselves and society blames us and says that we are selfish. We did not do this to ourselves and we are not going to go away. Not now, not EVER.

You tell me folks; what are we supposed to do?

The Dignity of the Mentally Ill

Author note: this post dates back to August 6th, 2014. I clicked ‘draft’ and forgot about it. I posted it now because it is important to me.

Dignity is an imprecise word. It refers to a quality that essentially is conferred upon a person by others. One cannot possess dignity. It is given, donated perhaps. At best one can display dignity, however it is usually the case that when a a person is noted for behaving in a dignified manner it is usually in the midst of some sort of trial or difficulty that they are going through. As such we are all reliant upon our fellow humans for dignity.

This week a man was sectioned under the UK Mental Health Act after he was involved in some sort of bomb hoax on a flight which was escorted to land by a fighter jet. I doubt anyone would defend this act and it is clearly something that must be taken seriously, however, what I have found most upsetting about this incident is the rhetoric surrounding the condition of this man and the way he has been portrayed in the media. For one thing this is the first story I have seen in some time which deals with a mentally ill person and of course, it is not a story about the positive lives and contributions to the world made by many people who happen to be mentally ill. This story is, of course, about a nutter on a plane trying to blow it up, or pretending to do so at least. It is yet another scare story. I have previously discussed this sort of press coverage and it is nothing new. What is new is this quote taken from the Guardian

One police source said: “On a sliding scale we think we may be looking at an idiot rather than an international terrorist.”

This comes from the police so it is not to be dismissed as idle chit chat. The questions I want to ask this person are these: given that this man is already deprived of his liberty and will pay a bitter price for his actions taken when we was, in all likelihood, not accountable for his actions, was it really necessary to publicly humiliate him like that? What problem has been solved by saying that? Finally, did the person to whom this comment is attributed do anything other than substantially reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness and the stereotypes that are often so brutal?

Furthermore, I briefly perused Twitter as I am often wont to do and I noticed that, of all people, Al Murray referred to him as follows

I regret posting this as I do not like the lazy brand of Internet journalism that lies in wait for someone to say something silly or offensive and then attacks, but I could not let this slide. I did have a brief and cordial exchange with Murray which you can find in my Twitter feed and I hold no grudge against Murray. I am sure as a famous and successful comedian he has no interest in my little corner of the web here either, just to be clear. The same questions apply, however. What has been accomplished by that tweet, other than the promotion of stigma and the ongoing bullying and oppression of a man whose only crime was to do something over which he could have had no control and cannot be held responsible for in law?

If people are not afforded dignity and respect then they will learn to behave in an undignified and disrespectful fashion. I would like to think that I, complete with my illness, am worth more to the world than the description of ‘a stupid c*nt’. Nobody deserves that when they are subjected to forces beyond their control in this way. I regret however that this is just another loony for people to sneer at, not realising for a moment that at any time in their lives it could be them.

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?

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.