Winston Churchill is currently in a straitjacket in Parliament Square.
It is part of a stunt from the series of art shorts, Random Acts, in which different filmmakers showcase short, three minute films. This film is part of Channel 4’s, “4GoesMad” series, a season of programming on mental illness.
A daring endeavor, but not quite new. Rethink straitjacketed Winston in 2006. Gimmicky? A wee bit. But we shouldn’t shy away from making bold statements. It can’t all be fluffy and nice. The act was savaged by the Churchill family as being, “offensive to them and to the people who revered him”. Many members of the public denounced it as insulting to his memory, which led to its premature removal.
Winston Churchill is widely cited as one of the greatest figures of British history. He was also open about the fact that he suffered from depression, and indeed, coined the now ubiquitous term, “the black dog”.
Mental health problems can be a psychological and social straitjacket. And yet Churchill- and many other successful people who suffer ill mental health- show us that it can be escaped from.
To deny the existence of this bind is disingenuous and disrespectful to those- including Winston- who have struggled within it. Churchill is all the more admirable for what he achieved when one considerswhat he struggled with privately.
And although I respect the opinions of the Churchill family-and clearly the public do also- in their outrage lies the rub; why is it offensive to illustrate, visibly, that someone was mentally unwell? Why should it be hidden away, erased from history? Why does it offend a memory, or indeed offend sensibilities? Outrage at such a, “stunt” is a tacit agreement that mental ill health is something to be hidden, something shaming, a black mark against a person- a stigma.
A retrospective assessment of someones’ mental state does no harm. Florence Nightingale suffered from depression, and many artists have lived through mental illness. It has not dented their reputation, not sullied their personhood. Because, in retrospect, we judge them by their acts. We see it for it is, something which can shape a trajectory, influence a person, but it not the whole of who they are. We see that the mental straitjacket made them no less a person, no less capable and no less worthy of respect.
So why is it, “offensive?” It is offensive to those who are still in their straitjacket and who are judged- often- to be weaker or lesser for it. We should celebrate people like Churchill, who was open about his mental health issues and achieved so much. And we should understand that those here and now are as equally worthy of that respect.
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