Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
So why aren’t we allowed to laugh and be silly any more? The world can be an empty and miserable place. I think it’s important to laugh as much as possible.
Two of the UK’s biggest supermarkets were recently forced to stop selling Hallowe’en outfits – one of a ‘Mental Patient’ in a blood-splattered strait-jacket, brandishing a meat cleaver, the other of someone from a ‘Psycho Ward’ in an orange jumpsuit, wearing the mask we all associate mainly with Thomas Harris’ cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter – accepting that such costumes contribute to the stigma and shame of mental illness and they really ought to have known better.
They were silly costumes, a popular gimmick. For Hallowe’en. For fun and nonsense.
Several celebrities who have themselves experienced mental health issues tweeted their disgust, informing mental health charities who also expressed their shock through the popular medium of tweet, then issued real statements made up of predictable words such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unacceptable’. Lots of other people jumped on the inevitable bandwagon, tweeting their disgust and chastising those who dared suggest that maybe, just maybe, everyone was taking things a bit too seriously. The usual journalists got on their moral high horses, writing enthusiastically about lines being crossed (which makes a pleasant change from blurred with Robin Thicke, I thought). And so grovelling apologies were relatively swiftly issued from the supermarkets, those wretched places, one of which promised to donate £25,000 to mental health charity Mind.
I’m just wondering whether we should march on Hollywood next? They gave us the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, with the very characters that the costumes impersonate because most people are familiar with them and agree that they’re scary – certainly more scary than eye of newt, toe of frog – and accept that Hallowe’en is still about scaring people in a friendly, silly, jovial way. I don’t recall these outraged people objecting so vociferously to the key role mental health has always played in horror imagery.
Unfortunate as it may be, as uncomfortable as some will find it, the fact is: we’re afraid of the mentally unstable. We’re afraid that we could ourselves become mentally unstable. Society frightens us much more in these less innocent times than any monster lurking beneath the bed or witches flying around, cackling, on broomsticks.
(Come to think of it, Hallowe’en’s imagery is greatly offensive to real witches, but nobody listens to them, even though the Wiccan religion continues to steadily grow, so they will just have to grin and bear the green faces, crooked noses and pointy black hats for another year.)
I don’t think the costume designers set out to stigmatise anyone; they did it in search of easy money because our TV and cinema screens are full of fictional characters such as Freddie Kruger or Michael Myers and it’s easier to replicate than to be original. (The News Thump satirists managed to come up with an alternative costume: the ‘Heartless Corporate Prick’.) How sad that some believe that the ignorant general public’s opinions on mental health must be formulated by silly costumes for grown ups, who ought to grow up, rather than by what they see around them in the real world. Give us more credit than that, please.
If we keep sanitising the world it will be an even more sterile, self-obsessed place full of paranoiacs than it is now. Nobody has to buy either of these costumes or wear them to Church. Relax!
Ah, but you miss the point. Would it be OK to have a ‘Cancer Patient’ or ‘Burns Unit’ costume? I hear you cry. Of course not. And that isn’t the point at all. The point is: there seems to be a strange need to have something to be outraged about all of the time and we should calm down. Shut up, move on, as someone once advised me in a self-help book.
Hallowe’en is supposed to be for children, about humour. It used to be about ghosts and ghouls, black cats and witches, making your own costumes and carving pumpkins (or swedes, back in the day before pumpkins were essential British supermarket ware at this time of year). Now zombies and vampires have crept in. Now you go out and buy a costume – which is both lazy and unimaginative – to look like someone recognisably scary, and still expect to be rewarded with sweets and money. Less pagan and jolly, more tacky and commercial. The sheer idiocy of Hallowe’en.
I apologise. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community – that’s Article 27. Carry on and enjoy your Hallowe’en.
But… Do you let your children knock at the doors of strangers now that we don’t know our neighbours as well as we did back in the good old days? Do parents even bother to supervise the Trick or Treat drill, or are they too busy/tired/lazy/drunk? Why are costumes available in such large sizes? We shouldn’t provide teenagers with more of an excuse to throw eggs at windows. Why are kids so much bigger these days, anyway?
In the wake of all this, one of the berated supermarkets has since had to apologise – again, aren’t they always apologising for something? – for selling an inflatable doll marketed as a ‘gay best friend’. Oh, please. I have a gay best friend and he thought it was hilarious.
Are nurses, maids and policemen going to start making demands next about who sells what and where, based on how they are portrayed in costume form? Who should be most incensed: thin people, because some mean-spirited folk might choose to use Hallowe’en as an excuse to dress up as skeletons, or fat people who have had almost thirty (!) years of being irritated by the ever-ready mouth and strained waddling of Marshmallow Man, another fictional creation we all recognise from the movies (Ghostbusters) with vague connections to Hallowe’en?
How pathetically mollycoddled we are. Our great-grandparents must be turning in their… Actually, best forget I said that.
There are a dozen other very good reasons to attack supermarkets, I just didn’t think this was one of them. All the controversy will achieve, has already achieved, is allowing some already smug people to feel even more smug; the costumes will suddenly be in greater demand; the supermarkets get some free publicity along with a large helping of sympathy; and the charity mouthpieces get, as well as a large donation to
further line their own pockets boost their cause, their moment in the spotlight – and just in time for World Mental Health Day. At least it takes focus away from what their chief executives earn, I suppose.
Just thank God that the same supermarkets are still allowed to sell the latest Grand Theft Auto video game so we can all turn a blind eye as the under-18s shoot, steal and pimp their way across a fictional place causing death and destruction (which I have no problem with either, you understand; it’s only a game, it’s only entertainment).
I understand why the costumers were deemed to be offensive – one of them was insensitively named ‘Mental Patient’ for starters – and it’s undoubtedly in poor taste as a crass exaggeration of an outdated but still hurtful stereotype. And the truth is, I couldn’t bring myself to finish this post last week because I realised it was World Mental Health Day and I already felt bad enough about being so contentious (although it works out quite nicely because today is Blog Action Day and this year’s theme is Human Rights, in case you were wondering).
I just find it sad, even if that makes me shallow and cold, that it’s not OK to poke fun at frivolous generalisations any more. And I wonder, when it comes to joking about mental health, if the butt of the joke is sometimes less the character and more the system and how society reacts to it.
I also find it alarming (and I write this as someone who is often absolutely neurotic) that someone with, let’s say, a deep-seated fear of flying might suppose that a machete-wielding caricature in any way (mis)represents him or her and everybody else who has ever experienced poor mental health. I don’t recall blind people objecting furiously to the regular comedy routines featuring dogs and white sticks, as they might choose to do; I remember Ray Charles driving a bus in Spy Hard. One of the funniest comedians I’ve seen perform is Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy and describes herself as ‘Britain’s first wobbly comic’. One of the year’s funniest television programmes was Off Their Rockers, the UK version of the hidden-camera show where pensioners play often quite crude pranks on unsuspecting young’uns.
Comics, such as Ruby Wax, have for so long used their personal mental health battles in their acts. Is it acceptable that they profit in this way?
If comedy makes disabilities and circumstances more acceptable, acceptable enough to be laughed at, why the fuss over a couple of Hallowe’en costumes?
Everyone seems to be ‘stressed’, ‘down’, ‘hyper’ or ‘manic’ at some point these days; there is an endless conveyor belt of celebrities on their way in and out of rehab; neat freaks (am I even allowed to say that?) trivialise obsessive compulsive disorder; the mental health loophole in the law is routinely exploited to help criminals guarantee a more lenient sentence on the grounds of diminished responsibility; children are all-too quickly labelled at school and ushered into counselling; and doctors enthusiastically prescribe anti-depressants and sleeping pills to provide help to their patients in the easiest and most profitable way. Isn’t all this extremely offensive to anyone with mental health issues? It should be – and more so than any silly Hallowe’en costume.
As for being tasteless, Tesco sells live turtles in China. Asda, technically Wal-Mart, sold the bullets (17 cents each) that killed 12 students and a teacher in Columbine High School. This is much, much worse.
I’ll take Paul McGee’s advice, shut up and move on to my next point.
Last week the Sun newspaper ran a more provocative, less informative, story on its front page carrying the eye-catching headline: 1,200 killed by mental patients. (That’s 1,200 killed in a decade, not a year. Not as exciting now, is it? Still, stick with it, although you’ll soon discover that they weren’t killed by mental patients, as it happens.) The gist of it: the mental health system is failing to properly identify and supervise dangerous, high-risk mental patients who go on to kill.
This follows the trial of Phillip Simelane, a paranoid schizophrenic who stabbed a schoolgirl to death on a bus in a random and unprovoked attack. He had recently been released from prison without any care plan, treatment or monitoring, even though experienced psychiatrists had recommended in-patient treatment.
The problem with the Sun story was that closer inspection of the figures showed that there were actually 738 murders committed by people who had been in contact with mental health services; the 1,216 figure included victims of people who were later decided by psychiatrists to have been mentally ill at the time of the crime – a common legal defence by killers at trial. This had significantly been overlooked by the Sun.
The Guardian asked if it was true and included lots of graphs and numbers to show that it wasn’t. The true story was that “mental patients”, whether high-risk or otherwise, killed 738 people over ten years.
There’s now a petition, which more than 80,000 people have so far signed, demanding that the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, admittedly a horrible newspaper with some track record of causing great hurt and anguish with its attention-seeking front pages, apologise for acting unethically and for misrepresenting and make a large donation similar to the shamed supermarket’s.
I’m stunned that people have the time and energy to be more aghast at the wording of a high-impact tabloid headline than by its dangerously selective, politically-motivated use of data. They’re words. Nobody died. Well, 1,200-plus people did but the outraged are not troubled by those, it seems, just convinced we mustn’t offend anyone who, regretfully, has something loosely in common with those who killed them.
I’m sad and disappointed that so many avoidable and brutal deaths aren’t considered worthy of more sympathy and respect. The use of a catch-all insult – “mental” – to reinforce the public perception of the mentally ill as a danger to society is one thing, but 738 lives lost due to apparent failings of care is quite another.
Criticise the newspaper for being a gutter press rag, by all means, and condemn its lazy reporting. Applaud the left wing press for jumping in, pontificating, as its journalists do best, about factual inaccuracies being used to stigmatise vulnerable people. Their superior morality aside, the true figures should remain of concern to anyone who is not too busy being outraged to be uncomfortable. Should we have to pussyfoot around issues, afraid that the truth might upset someone, somewhere? Or can we spell things out in clear language so that everybody can understand and be informed and inspired to influence, through their votes and protests and purchasing power, the type of society we want to live in?
Yes, the newspaper has its political agenda. It always has. Of course it seeks to sell newspapers and nothing helps more than an intriguing front cover. Yes, its readership favours short, snappy headlines and stories written in plain English. But far better to read something that jolts you into contemplation and further research than endless inanities about Simon Cowell’s baby or Wayne Rooney’s protective head gear.
Some good has come from all this, though. We have been reminded that people with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators of it. Mentally ill women, for example, are ten times more likely to be a victim of crime and two thirds of female psychiatric patients have been subjected to sex attacks as adults. Young men in gangs are four times more likely to suffer from psychosis than young men who are not in gangs.
People with mental health problems are far more dangerous to themselves than they are to others: 90 per cent of those who opt to take their own lives experienced mental distress.
Indeed, suicides have increased as murders have fallen, but would that sell as many newspapers? Hardly.
In addition to this, new government figures show that more than 30,000 people under the age of 75 with mental health problems die needlessly every year from from preventable illnesses, such as cancer or heart disease. They are more likely to succumb to a preventable illness than the rest of the population due to delays in receiving medical treatment and intervention because police and health workers can be dismissive when dealing with the mentally ill.
One in four of us will experience a mental health problem. To put this into some perspective, around 300 people out of 1,000 will experience mental health problems every year in Britain. That’s anyone with a phobia or eating disorder, with post-natal depression or dementia, not just the most extreme, chronic conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Of these, 230 will visit a doctor, 102 of these will be diagnosed as having a mental health problem, 24 will be referred to a specialist psychiatric service and six will become in-patients in psychiatric hospitals.
This is all highly significant and worth keeping in mind, of course, but as for people’s human rights not being upheld or protected, as is the new purpose of this post, it is not unreasonable to ask why a small percentage of potentially dangerous people have been allowed and are still allowed to roam the streets freely, with nobody checking how they are feeling or if they have taken their medication, which puts the patient as well as the wider public at risk of harm. I think it would be completely foolish to cover up this issue, as some would have us do, through fear of stigmatisation.
Health care professionals have long accused the media of exaggerating the problem. But they would, wouldn’t they? Much in the same way that police and social services spout their guff each time a child dies by the hand of parent or guardian, only for the whole world to discover in astonishment that the police attended the house multiple times, as did social workers, and their reports all suggest that everything seemed fine.
As Julian Hendy, whose father, Philip, was stabbed to death by a man well-known to mental health agencies in a random killing said, “They talk about stigmatisation to conceal their own failures in basic acts of care, like listening to the concerns of the patient’s family and getting patients to take their medicine. If they tackle the violence, they will tackle the stigma. If you don’t tackle it, you tar every patient with the same brush.”
Highly paid people, wanting to preserve for themselves a comfortable existence free from public scrutiny and outside interference. Who’d have thought it?
Glaister Earle Butler, who had experienced mental health problems for more than two decades and had a long history of paranoid delusions involving police and security services, killed a police detective in 2004. It eventually became known that he had been visited in his home shortly before the killing and staff had found a large knife on his sofa, damage to a door and 432 unused doses of a medicine prescribed for his disorder (equivalent to an 18-month supply), but concluded that there was no cause for concern.
Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing, but I struggle to comprehend how anyone in their situation would not be the slightest bit alarmed by these discoveries. Did they need to be slapped across the face several times with the evidence? Did they need a large, neon sign spelling out that all was not well?
At the time of the killing, he was being treated in the community, but nobody knew that he had not been taking his anti-psychotic medication. Under his community-care order, he was supposed to be visited every two weeks by a psychiatric nurse with his medication and assessed every three months by a consultant psychiatrist. Instead his medication was frequently left on his doorstep; nobody could confirm that it was being taken or had opportunity to observe changes in his behaviour.
So we hear the usual promises about learning lessons and making changes, some grumbling about staffing and resource issues to attempt to excuse the most inexcusable incompetence and negligence.
Then it happens again.
Jarvis Ford killed his elderly mother after moving to a different part of the country to live with her in 2009. He wasn’t taking his medication, either. There were too many agencies, inadequate communication between them, delayed assessments and dithering over hospitalisation.
Most incredible of all is that these examples of lives lost in the most tragic circumstances all come from the same region: Birmingham and Solihull. I’m not sure how many more lessons they need.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (that’s Article 3). Yet we continue to allow the most vulnerable people afflicted by mental illness who, along with their desperate families and carers, need much more of our attention, resources and understanding to self-medicate in their homes. Sometimes they are driven to hurt, even kill – most likely themselves. That is a much more serious breach than any ambiguous tabloid headline and much more damaging to the way the mentally ill are perceived than any overstated Hallowe’en costume. What is truly depressing is that pandering to sentiment always matters more than making changes for the better, changes that would be better for everybody. Is it really any wonder, then, that it sometimes feels as if history repeats itself?