Bad Argument of the Week XI

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

The stigma of mental health is still very much an issue in today’s “modern” Britain; the rethink campaign (a mental health charity that works to help everyone affected by severe mental illness recover a better quality of life)  defines stigma as:

Something judged by others as a sign of disgrace and something that sets a person apart from others.

MIND, a mental health charity based in England and Wales, lists a number of tragic examples where people’s lifes have been negatively impacted by both mental health issues (such as depression) and the attached stigma. They feature the story of German goalkeeper Robert Enke who committed suicide as a result of his depression, and the shocking statistic that 92% of the British public (in a yougov poll) believes that admitting to having a mental illness would damage someone’s career. It also tells us the tale of Manchester DJ Steve Penk who played Van Halen’s “Jump” in response to requests from frustrated motorists whose journey was delayed by a suicidal woman: while the woman’s attempted suicide was by no means Penk’s or the motorists’ fault, it betrays a startling lack of sensitivity and understanding towards people with mental health difficulties from the general public and a media personality.

Sadly, I have been motivated to write this week’s Bad Argument not for a cheap laugh at someone’s poor grasp of science, evidence or logic, but rather because yet another media commentator has chosen to trot out the tired and baseless mental health prejudices so common in our society.

Janet Street Porter’s column (dated the 15th of May) was entitled “Depression: it’s just the new trendy illness” and displayed a startling lack of appreciation for the issue at hand, and the very real prejudices that people who suffer from very real mental health issues face. She makes highly offensive statements such as:

The misery movement has rapidly gathered momentum and in recent months it’s become apparent that, along with the Sam Cam handbag, the latest must-have accessory is a big dose of depression.

Most galling of all, Porter appears to be using the column as little more than an excuse to promote her book Life’s Too Fucking Short:

I’m not a complete cynic, but I am a 100 per cent ruthless realist. I’ve written two books about my no-nonsense attitude to life. The first, Life’s Too F****** Short, has been published all over the world, from Slovenia to Sweden, Spain and the U.S., and I’ve received a mountain of mail from people who say that my key message – that you need to strip away the c**p that clogs up your existence – made them laugh out loud.

Clearly, where the psychiatrists and psychologists with their prescription drugs and their therapy and their counselling have been going wrong is by not prescribing Janet’s book to those who find themselves with a black dog on their shoulder. The ignorance and arrogance of Street-Porter’s “I know best” attitude pervades the rest of the article, with its insidious lack of understanding and compassion. Indeed, her advice and prescription for “self-empowerment” is little better than the trite and offensive “pull yourself together” nonsense that people coping with mental health issues have had to suffer for years.

In a seeming attempt to make this repellent bashing of those with mental health issues seem a more reasoned and thought out critique, Street-Porter states:

I am not denying that clinical depression is a real mental illness, or that it can be debilitating for sufferers. But let’s take a moment to consider whether depression is common among the poor or the working class?

Well, that’s good: she doesn’t actually discount the existence of clinical depression, but just claims that a host of people, typically middle class (could that be a chip on your shoulder, Janet?), aren’t really suffering it. It seems that not only does she have the cure in the form of her book, but she is also now qualified to diagnose the seriousness of another person’s mental health issues simply on the basis of having read about their plight in the newspapers. It almost makes me wonder why I bothered getting a degree in psychology in the first place.

I think that it is actually worth considering Janet’s proposal that the “poor or working class” have lower rates of depression or that:

If you’re a black South African woman growing up in a township, or a mum in a slum favela in Rio, or a supermarket shelf-stacker in Croydon, or one of the band of low-paid female workers who go to work at 3am to clean the offices of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Britain in the City of London, you probably aren’t afflicted by depression.

Janet might wish herself to become acquainted with the following facts and figures from the World Health Organisation:

On average about 800 000 people commit suicide every year, 86% of them in low- and middle-income countries.

The highest suicide rates are found among men in eastern European countries.

I also would encourage her to digest, and realise the significance of, the following statistics from Friends of Antara:

  • Mental illnesses are responsible for an estimated 14% of the Global Burden of Disease (illness and death) yet receive only 1% of world health expenditure.
  • Mental illness has been connected to absolute and relative poverty.

Mental health is the invisible problem in international development. The World Health Organisation estimates that mental and neurological disorders are the leading cause of ill health and disability globally, but there is an appalling lack of interest from governments and NGOs.  Mental health is a serious problem that affects many people, across income brackets: the rich and the poor alike, and affects those in the South African Townships as well as those in Nottinghill Gate. I invite Janet to consider the following quote from the WHO:

Stigma about mental disorders and discrimination against patients and families prevent people from seeking mental health care. In South Africa, a public survey showed that most people thought mental illnesses were related to either stress or a lack of willpower rather than to medical disorders. Contrary to expectations, levels of stigma were higher in urban areas and among people with higher levels of education.

This is not just something that affects people with or without money. It is not a “middle class” affliction. It is a very real problem for many, many people across the globe, and Janet does no good reinforcing trite stereotypes and offensive stigmas. I hope that she considers the potential for damage her odious column has had, and I pray (an unusual act for an atheist, granted) that she hasn’t stopped one person getting the help they require because they think they just need to “pull themselves together”.

I hope that Janet will see the error of her ways, and this week’s award comes in the form of advice: I would implore Janet to consider publicising (or becoming a patron of) the charity Friends of Antara (or a similar charity) an independent, voluntary organisation, which aims to tackle mental illness, poverty and the vicious cycles that connect them. At the very least, she can be persuaded to sign the Time for Change campaign pledge, and make efforts to challenge her own and others’ prejudices about mental health. In this way, her prize could be considered the rebuilding of her reputation as a commentator on mental health issues.

I leave Janet with a sobering thought about poverty and mental health issues: the availability of mental health services is worst in areas of greatest need.