by Geoff Ellis
You don’t need to be a regular Sun reader to know that “mad” is tabloid shorthand for “bad”. It is not news to point out that television and films, newspapers and magazines all have a tendency to link mental health issues to violence. All too often, the media blame game implies that someone living with a mental health issue is at fault where someone else, with a broken leg or appendicitis, is not judged in any way responsible for their condition.
The bad news is that sensationalist media portrayals of mental health issues have a big impact, promoting fear and mistrust. But the good news is that reliance on negative stereotypes is in decline. Thanks to energetic campaigning and education, the stigma surrounding mental health is gradually dispersing.
That is the message from a discussion, Perceptions of Madness, on Wednesday 25 February 2015 organised by PSSRU as part of the LSE Literary Festival. Four presentations centred on understanding mental illness through art, literature and drama were followed by a discussion led by a questioning audience.
How deep do these attitudes run? Nine out of ten people with mental health problems had experienced stigma, said Mind chief executive, Paul Farmer. And how damaging does it feel to be stigmatised? It’s worse than the illness itself, said two-thirds of them.
Starting with films Silver Lining Playback and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, clinical psychologist John McGowan examined the benefit and limitations of labelling mental conditions as illnesses. McGowan adroitly skewered the whole issue of perception with a troubled figure captioned, “I’m not sure if everything sucks because I’m depressed or I’m depressed because everything sucks.” The audience laughed in recognition, as good as saying, “Yes, we’ve all been there”.
Author of the Costa Prize-winning novel, The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer talked of how his book came out of his experience of working as a mental health nurse. The story is told by Matthew, a 19-year-old with schizophrenia struggling within the mental health system. Matthew writes partly to fill time at a day centre (now closed by austerity) and partly as self-administered therapy.
The latter idea was echoed by Sarah Carr, both a long term user of services and a mental health and social care policy analyst. Her survey of the popular dread of the madhouse in the movies led to an appraisal of the 2002 French film In My Skin, which candidly and gruesomely depicts self-harm. “What was shocking about the movie was that it showed how I felt,” said Carr. She added that watching films became part of her recovery. But, “That can’t be described, only discovered”.
Self-care recurred in audience-led discussions. Certainly, service user involvement in services was universally approved – “Nothing about us without us”, extending to “Ask not what’s wrong with you but what’s happened to you”.
If there is one single message from the LSE discussion, it is encapsulated by Mind’s Paul Farmer. “When done well, the media can be a tremendous tool in raising awareness, challenging attitudes and helping to dispel myths. It can give people with experience of mental health problems a platform to speak out. It can offer insight for the public, particularly through soaps and drama,” he said.
A podcast of the event is available on the LSE website. A video will be available shortly.
About the author
Geoff Ellis is a writer within the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the LSE.