EDIT: I bloody well missed it! Happy (er?!) three year birthday to my blog! That’s ancient in blog terms. Hark, I hear a man approaching with a shotgun… RUN! RUN! RUN AND GRAB ALL THE CAKE YOU CAN CARRY!
EDIT EDIT: I found the speech I made as part of the panel in my emails, but I deviated wildly from it. Anyway, it’s at the end of this post after the cut.
I have my own extremely late thoughts on the Open Up conference, which was about how to communicate mental health issues through the media, but due to aforementioned feeling depressed thus tired, I haven’t finished the post. In short, I enjoyed it, it was interesting, it highlighted a glaring division in the mental health “community” (the problem of language- some people take massive exception to “illness” and to words like, “mental”, some are more in keeping with the medical model who want mental illness to be more normalised. The issue of identity- if there is no consensus, we’ll just argue amongst ourselves, and what then?) and I hope to be hanging around at other such events. As I was hanging around I met a few of my readers, so hello out there!
I found speaking nervewracking and I will post about it properly when I’m feeling a bit better (which I hope comes soon- I feel slightly better today) as it deserves some proper articulation. I was glad to see that a lot of people made an effort to be there, coming from far afield. I still think Alastair Campbell is a tiresome, self promoting cockend. Do quote me on that. There is no thread of discourse so interesting that he cannot turn it back onto himself somehow. He even had a book signing at the break. I admire Campbell’s openness about his problems, but I wish he was more inclusive in his promotion.
I think Mark from One in Four is a star. Here was his opening speech:
Hello, I’m the editor of One in Four magazine. I’m a professional. I’m also a person with mental health difficulties.
There isn’t a division between people with mental health difficulties and professionals, be it professionals in politics, in the professions, in the media or in any sector. You’d be surprised at the amount of charity, public sector and private sector professionals that we run into who have a mental health difficulty. It’s like a secret club, spread across workplaces throughout the country. Some of the people you’ll hear from and meet today are members of this club. I know I am.
This afternoon is about beginning to find new ways of talking about mental health difficulty. More than ever, we need to be cleverer and more effective in getting across useful, meaningful and positive ideas about mental health difficulty.
Like a growing number of exciting and groundbreaking projects like Star Wards, Patient Opinion and Cool Tan Arts, for us in producing One in Four it’s about meeting people halfway and collapsing old divisions between those providing services to people experiencing mental health difficulties and those experiencing them.
One in Four is a grassroots project, similar to all of the other excellent and innovative projects created and run by people with mental health difficulties that are supported by Open Up, the part of Time to Change that incubates and supports grassroots projects. But we’re also professionals. The old divisions no longer apply. We produce a magazine that is written by people with mental health difficulties from the point of view of what people need to know, not the point of view of what needs to be told to them. We all face the challenge of not only making people aware of what mental health difficulty is, but also what it means.
It’s more important than ever that we get things right. Just one little slip, one badly judged idea, one badly informed person and an individual can be made to feel worthless, forgotten, stigmatized or without hope. People focus on information, but information is meaningless unless people know how to understand it and how to make use of it.
We all need to find new ways of moving people’s ideas of mental health difficulty on, of shaking up old understandings and putting in place new, positive ideas. We need to finally remove the stigma of mental health difficulty and help everyone to see that mental health difficulty isn’t a list of symptoms and treatments, but a series of challenges that can be overcome and lived through.
The reality is that there is no ‘us and them’ when it comes to mental health difficulty. Any group will contain people with experience of mental health difficulty, regardless of how much it might protest that it does not.
It’s only through working together that we will be able to change attitudes, be they the attitudes of those that don’t experience mental health difficulty or those that do. There is so much information available, and so many competing ideas that we must find ways of helping and supporting people that start from the point of view ‘what do people want to know?’ The only way we can do this is to shake off the idea that simply putting information out there in ever-increasing volumes is the answer, and meet people halfway by working with them to find out the best ways of answering their questions and meeting their needs.
It’s about all of us working together. It’s about getting beyond the idea of thinking of people with mental health difficulties a separate group in society. It’s about working together, whether it’s with public sector organisations, the voluntary sector, the media or just in everyday life. People with mental health difficulties need to be at the heart of the production of messages about mental health difficulty.
It’s awful to be stereotyped by people who should know better. It’s time for a new way of dealing with mental health in the media. At least one in four people will experience a mental health difficulty. That means a quarter of the audience for any television programme; any radio show, any newspaper or any other public material will have experienced mental health difficulties in their lives, or will know someone who has.
If one in four of us experience mental heath difficulties, no one who produces materials for public consumption should ever use the excuse that they couldn’t find anyone to talk to about the issues or the best way to discuss them. There’s thousands and thousands of us out there, just waiting to be asked what we think, what we’ve experienced or how something affects us. Some of us run companies. Other provide services. Others are more than happy to give our time for free if we know it will make a difference.
We need to get beyond a culture of just complaining. We need to get beyond saying ‘oh dear’ or working ourselves into a moral lather. People with mental health difficulties need to work with, and in, organisations to make sure they get it right and producers and organisations need to accept that and make it possible.
We hope that this afternoon will mark the birth of a number of new ideas, schemes, ways of working and plans for doing just that.
So, it might interest you then to read the thoughts of my glamourous assistant Robert, who is- as is quite apparent from his manner of speaking- a sociology student.
He also blogs over at: Vaughan Vanquishes Vaughan (his “nice” blog- warning, CONTAINS ARSE), Sporting Deviance (his sociological sporting blog) and The Trap Box (the “nasty” blog. Warning: contains visceral mentions of teeth).
He is also a Nice Man.
Hello. I am not Seaneen. I am, however, a Sociology student. And whilst I attended the Open Up conference solely in the capacity of giving Seaneen moral support for her speech, I found myself studying it, in academic terms.
I am particularly interested in how people organize and express themselves as groups, how they try to exert power & influence and the smorgasbord of things they believe in. All collective action is interesting in the same way, be it women’s lib, football hooliganism or a pop.culture scene. They exist and act in the domain of culture, lifestyle and symbols, not the old-fashioned rigidities of traditional politics. Changing language can be as powerful as changing laws, if not more so. It’s sometimes called postmodern politics. I would call it, simply; the way things currently are. It occurred to me that the Open Up conference was an event for one (or more) such group(s).
This was an event held largely by and for *enters lexiconographic minefield* mentalists/people with mental health problems/service users etc. I myself, if I may just jump into another minefield, am… normal/healthy/able/non-service user. An “unmentalist” perhaps.
I was very aware of my difference. You don’t notice not being in “a secret club” (as Mark Brown put it) until you’re there amongst them.A stowaway. Amidst this company I was The Other. Not in an extreme or difficult manner, in fact I quite enjoyed it for its strangeness & irony, and must emphasize the incredible friendliness of everyone I met. This was the, ahem, polar opposite to, say, being a Manchester United fan sat amongst the Liverpool hardcores.
But the sense of difference was tangible inside me, profound enough for it to be noteworthy. It was a polite Us & Them. The “normal” me as the minority Them surrounded by a majority Us. The spatiotemporality of my supposed normality was exposed. For a brief fascinating moment I actually had an insight into what it is that might make someone yearn for diagnosis/labelling – the precise kind of thing that for good reason so enraged Seaneen last week: https://thesecretlifeofamanicdepressive.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/bipolar-disorder-can-suck-it-suck-it-hard/
In fact, as a warning, I should like to predict that as this self-organizing “mental rights” movement(s) continue, as they win their discursive culture-battles, be prepared for more and more wannabes. Having something to believe in, something to challenge, something to change is an intoxicating feeling. People will aspire to the bandwagon as it gathers more pace. Prepare yourselves for some annoying buggers! But take it as a sign of success, perhaps, albeit one of the least desirable trappings.
Superstar speaker and self-promoter galore Alastair Campbell was, as one may expect from a former PM’s spin doctor, absolutely explicit in this being a cultural battleplanning meeting, emphasising the all-importance of (mass) media… He made reference to the fact comparable movements such as gay rights and black civil rights were “five or ten years” ahead (I would sy they’re further than that). “Have your arguments ready!” he demanded. In sociological terms, he was urging the listening audience – the group – to push their discourse to the vibrant globalised centres of knowledge/power.
There is serious business afoot, things are in motion. And this added to my sense of separation. Which is to be expected. But perhaps wasn’t quite the intended point…
For while I felt separate, it wasn’t because I found myself in a dynamically bizarre heterodox environment. It wasn’t. It was very normal. Normative. Homodox. A business conference in a business conference setting. Suits. Chit-chat. Pressing of the flesh. Mingling. They, those crazyfolk, were more normal than me in the presented aesthetics of the event. And this is a good idea. A good tactic. I’m sure. The general message was: mental illness is normal, even mundane, and should not be allowed to get in the way of anyone’s life, career, social life etc. Which is a message I support…
However. I have a right troublemaker who lives in my gut. Mr. Visceral. He was alarmed. He claimed that whilst challenging the dominant discourses about the mentally ill being dribbling axe murderes is no doubt useful & interesting, there is another discursive action going on. A deeper, more profound one. The active conformity to normality… the drab bureaucracy of the businesslike setting… the bending over backwards to accommodate an elite figure like Campbell…
Do we (as in all human beings, and gutpeople like Mr. Visceral) really want to carry on the social order as it currently is? This is something I, er, I mean, Mr. Visceral would ask of every group, every movement. From football fans to feminists… Motorway protesters to the mentally interesting…. Is the rest of the world worth joining as it currently is?
Rather wise words, there.
Here is what I said, roughly. I deviated massively from this. It’s long, so behind a cut it goes.
Hello, I’m Seaneen Molloy. I write a blog and for One in Four, and I
have bipolar disorder. Which, if you believe a lot of you read or
watch about it, makes me, in some ways, lucky. I’m more creative than
the average person. I’m more productive, more interesting and more
vibrant. I reside in the company of artists and actors. So, thanks,
But that’s not true. I’m neither lucky nor unlucky to have bipolar
disorder. It’s just something that I have, in the same way I have
I applaud the efforts of Rethink and filmmakers in bringing real
people with severe mental illness to a wider audience and proving that
people with mental health problems are not just sitting in a corner
rocking back and forth. That we’re not dangerous. That we’re not
However, striking a balance is difficult and I think the media are
often failing to do so. Mental illness, like any thing else, is not a
wholly positive nor wholly negative experience for most people.
Representing a vast group of people via a more positive stereotype can
be as harmful as a negative one. The media’s representation of
bipolar disorder is often guilty of this.
The connection between bipolar disorder and creativity has been
explored in books such as KR Jamison’s, “Touched with Fire”. The
problem is, the creative geniuses with bipolar disorder are, like
autistic savants, the exception, not the rule, yet the alleged
creativity of bipolar disorder as experienced by some in manic
episodes is emphasised constantly. Likewise, when it comes to
depression, there is almost a romance in the way it is reported.
For example, although Stephen Fry’s fantastic documentary, The Secret
Life of a Manic Depressive did a wonderful job of raising public
awareness of bipolar disorder, the people whom were interviewed as
part of the programme were, by and large, those who pointed out that
they felt most creative and productive during manic episodes and who
wouldn’t wish the condition away. This is some peoples’ experience
but what about those who feel differently?
The point is that by representing bipolar disorder as a sort of gift
or as just a condition where people are depressed then very happy-
which completely ignores the existence of dysphoric mania- makes it
harder for people who have bipolar disorder to be taken seriously and
perpertrates a fundamental misunderstanding in what bipolar disorder
actually is. In my experience, I’ve found that I’ve been dismissed
when I’ve spoken about how hard I’ve found it.
The vast majority of people with bipolar disorder aren’t journalists
or artists. I’m a writer, but it’s little thanks to having bipolar
disorder, in fact, it completely impedes my ability to write. My
experience of mania isn’t that it’s a wild creative force; when I’m
manic, I can’t concentrate long enough to pen a single sentence. The
fact that I don’t think bipolar disorder is a virtue for me to have
can make me feel like I’ve failed somewhere. There are cab drivers,
civil servants and checkout assistants with manic depression who seem
to be invisible within the media.
Although I think the Time for Change campaign is fantastic, I think
one of the pieces has been misjudged. Schizophrenia and psychotic
disorders are arguably the worst-perceived of all mental health
problems, and the ones with the most stigma attached. “Schizo” is
used as shorthand for madman in some of the British press. So I think
it’s important that there is a counter to that that challenges the
public perception of schizophrenia.
The campaign featured a short film called, “Schizo”. From the
cacophony of horror music emerged Stuart, who then spoke about the
fact that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. All this was done
in the setting of a pristine show kitchen with a woman, presumably his
partner, milling about in the background.
Given that schizophrenia is sometimes referred to as, “the cancer of
mental illness” by less enlightened people, I’m glad that people like
Stuart provide a counter to that fatalistic view. Whereas people with
schizophrenia can recover and lead full lives, as Stuart did, I don’t
think it’s helpful to gloss over the social and personal problems that
schizophrenia can cause. It can be an incredibly debilitating
condition that can be intensely isolating and hamper someone’s ability
to work or take care of themselves. Although I think the advert might
be more aimed at the general public who subscribe to the idea that a
person with schizophrenia is dangerous, it should be remembered that
people with mental health problems are the general public, and in
something as underrepresented in the media as schizophrenia, it’s
important to have someone that people can identify with. I’m not sure
that many struggling with schizophrenia would identify with the Schizo
I also think the media needs to be careful that they don’t attempt to
make an, “acceptable” face of mental illness. In terms of stigma, it
could just result in a hierarchy of “good” mental illness and “bad
mental illness”. Mental illness doesn’t need to be advertised, nor
does it need to be sanitised. I think the media should be more
honest when it comes to speaking to the public in regards to the
mental illness. The issues and challenges that people with mental
health problems shouldn’t be shied away from. Psychosis seems to be
roundly ignored in mental health media other than in articles that
feature violence. The counter to that is to include more people who
have suffered from psychosis in the portral of mental health problems.
Why is psychosis not openly spoken about, along with other aspects of
mental health problems, and other challenges that people with them
face? There is nothing shameful about these challenges. There is
nothing shameful in not being able to work, or in having difficulty
taking care of yourself. This is the experience of many people with
mental illness. Being honest and direct in talking about them doesn’t
mean that there is no hope; it’s just acknowledgement that it is not
There are the grassroots campaigns like Open Up in which real people
share their experiences and I think this is the right approach. A
wide a group of people as possible should be involved when it comes to
consulting on mental health problems within the media. I think that
in that trying to be fair, there’s a tendency to
sometimes overstate the positives.
I think the media and public as a whole should take a more equable
approach to mental illness and represent it as what it is: mundane and
normal. It’s just a fact that people suffer from mental illness and
it doesn’t make them better or worse than anyone else.