Mental Health stigma, a hurdle in preventing disease (Ann Luce)

I lost a great teacher this week.

Choje Akong Rinpoche was a Tibetan Buddhist Lama and the co-founder of the SamyeLing Monastery in Scotland. According to media reports he was murdered on Tuesday 8th October, while visiting China along with his nephew and a monk who was travelling with him.

I first met Rinpoche during my PhD at Cardiff University, when I was grappling with the transition from journalism into academia. My work was also wrought with emotion, having decided to research media representation of suicide after my partner took his own life two years previous. His death shook me to my core, and as a result, all I wanted to find out was why would anybody take their own life?!

After writing several investigative pieces for The Florida Times-Union where I worked as an editorial/comment writer, I soon learned that suicide was not something newspapers wanted to talk about every day. So while the newspaper was done with the conversation and the investigation, I found I was only beginning, and thus my PhD journey began.

The PhD, as anyone who has attempted one will attest, gets inside your head, even on the good days. Wobbles are frequent. Self doubt, a daily occurrence.

It was during a particularly bad time during my own PhD research that I was first introduced to Rinpoche. We took a stroll around Caerphilly castle, and I shared with him my worries. The study of suicide and being a suicide survivor (someone who is bereaved), was hitting a little too close to home most days, and I doubted if I had the physical energy and the mental capacity to continue. Rinpoche’s answer was succinct:

“Luce means light. Go into the dark to find the light”.

Reading about suicide, researching suicide, having been bereaved by suicide -that’s a lot of dark. But through the PhD process, I was able to find the light, and now have an understanding, if not answers, as to why my partner took his life.

Over the years, I have become active in the suicide prevention community. I have a pretty decent following on Twitter and post frequently about the topic to my friends and family on Facebook. I give one or two lectures a semester to my students about moral panics, or ethics, and use suicide as a case study. Some of them call me, ‘Suicide Girl’ and more than once I have been called ‘Dr. Death’.

But I’ve never actually come out and written publicly or spoken publicly about the day-to-day representations of suicide or mental illness in this country.

Until now.

In the last three weeks, I have been absolutely outraged by what I have seen in the British media. It started at the end of September with ASDA being forced to withdraw its ‘Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume’ (though they were far from alone in promoting the outfit). Has society seriously become this insensitive, that we feel the need to dress up, caricaturing someone who is suffering from an illness? The problem is, many people don’t see what is wrong with doing just that. Making light of people who suffer from mental illness is as stupid as making light of someone who suffers from Cancer – and yet we all seem happy to get behind finding the ‘cure for cancer’, rather than mocking them. Cancer patients don’t choose to get cancer. Neither do those who suffer from mental illness. Yet, as a society, we continue to allow the stigmatisation and trivilisation of mental illness to be perpetuated.

The Sun, 7th October 2013

The Sun, 7th October 2013 (via http://www.politicshome.com)

On Monday this week, both the BBC and The Sun lead with a criminalisation of mental illness angle. The BBC angle: “Crime Victims with mental illness ignored, research suggests”, while The Sun splashed across its front page: “1,200 Killed By Mental Patients: Shock 10 year toll exposes care crisis”.

The BBC story reported how those with mental illness are “three times more likely to be victims of crimes than the general population.” It went on: “The study found victims saying that their reports to police were often dismissed or disbelieved”. The report was co-authored by Kings College London, Kingston University and St. George’s University of London, in collaboration with University College London.

The story was heartbreaking to read. Those who suffer with mental illness are scared and fear reporting being assaulted, and sexually assaulted because the police won’t take them seriously and because they are afraid of being held under mental health legislation.

How, in 2013, have we allowed this injustice to occur? Are we saying, as a society, that those with mental illness are second-class citizens? That they are not afforded the same courtesy and consideration as the rest of us… because they are sick? Under The Animal Welfare Act of 2006, cows in this country have the right to be protected “from pain, suffering, injury and disease”. Are we really saying that people who suffer from mental illness in Britain should not have that same right?!

The Sun’s headline was, of course, characteristically sensationalist and shocking. Whilst we may be accustomed to such extravagant treatment from The Sun, what saddens me is the role that the paper frequently chooses to play in our society. Instead of supporting those with mental illness and urging the government to make psychological therapies on the NHS more accessible (for example by investing more than the £400M it had allocated over four years until 2014/2015) – The Sun chooses to demonise those with mental illness.

According to the National Mental Health Development Unit, one in six adults, or just over 10.5 million adults in the UK will have a mental health problem at any one time. The Sun is doing a disservice to its estimated 6,707,000 readers (MediaUK, March 2013) by stigmatising an issue that many of them will actually face! Shaming people who are sick and allowing others to mock those who are sick – that’s pretty dark.

So while I have spent some time grieving for my own partner who suffered from mental illness and then consequently took his own life, and I have grieved this week for a teacher who taught me that you have to keep fighting through the dark to eventually find the light, it occurs to me that once again I will need to immerse myself in the darkness of stigma – to shine a light on the many ways that society continues to mistreat those who suffer with mental illness.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Dr. Ann Luce is a Lecturer in Journalism and Communication at Bournemouth University where she researches media representations of suicide and mental illness. She also freelances as a journalist. [/author_info] [/author]

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