Faking it for Attention, or dangerous lunatics?

Stigma

The media’s contradictory messages on mental illness, and how it affects us all.

This weeks blog post has been written by Daydream believer who wishes to remain anonymous
Legendary motormouth Piers Morgan started a new job as armchair psychiatrist last week on 1 Twitter  when he shared an article about mental health featuring the claim of Coronation Street star Beverley Callard, that “’we have to be careful mental illness doesn’t become like a Gucci handbag. There is a danger it can become ‘fashionable.’” This point was aimed more at celebrities who ‘come out’ as having had struggles with their mental health.

Morgan took to Twitter, as you do, to back up Callard, stating, “She’ll be hammered for saying this, but it’s 100% true”, and that many famous people were “faking” it for “positive publicity” 2. Maybe it’s more projection on the part of Morgan (regarding attention-seeking behaviour at least), but it’s not “positive publicity” to admit to having a mental illness, just look at the way Britney Spears’s pop career took a nosedive 3 after having a very public breakdown, or Kanye West’s bipolar diagnosis has been used to explain his support for Donald 4 Trump , with West preferring ‘sleep deprivation’ as an explanation for his issues. 5

In fairness to Morgan, he did further qualify this by saying that they were doing those with “genuine” mental health problems a disservice. But this is a can of worms about mental illness and ill health in general that the right-wing media like to open up in order to defend Tory policies, with articles like those claiming that 75% of disability benefit claimants are “faking it” 6, which in turn influences the public’s view of them as “scroungers”, and leads to related hate crime offences.

While some people have more severe symptoms than others, no two people with the same diagnosis have identical experiences of it, so arguments like ‘my friend has depression but he can work, so why can’t you?’ are not valid. And anyone who has been through a Work Capability Assessment, as featured in the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake, knows very well that having “genuine” mental health problems is no guarantee that the State believes you either. Tory MP James Cleverly, following the film’s recent airing on BBC2, has been (quite rightly) mocked for his dismissal of its main points, even though the film is based on real-life accounts of the modern day welfare system, but unfortunately there will always be some who choose to believe the words of an upper-class twat than those of ordinary folk with personal experience of being a benefit claimant.

After years of ‘poverty porn’ propaganda 7, this is not surprising. But this also extends to media fantasies about ‘faking’ mental illness. At the same time, there is the bizarrely simultaneous belief that the mentally ill tend to be violent, which is a well-cited cause of related hate crimes, and it’s a contradiction no one seems to question: on the one hand people are making it all up, but are also dangerous lunatics.

As someone who has suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) most of their life, and more recently two separate episodes of psychosis, I have experienced both attitudes and seen them first hand in practice in society and at work. One particular place of employment stands out in memory. When I was a child, I actively shied away from admitting I had OCD symptoms, for fear of stigma, which is still very present today, so to claim anyone is ‘faking it for attention’ in the real world does seem a tad ridiculous. This, along with a learned awareness of a ‘stigma hierarchy’ (discussed more later), meant that I only eventually admitted to having depression in the job, after work colleagues noticed my seemingly insatiable thirst, caused by antidepressant side effects, but which they attributed to possible diabetes.

Given how rubbish I was at the tasks I was assigned in the role, as a kitchen hand, this immediately clarified my lack of ability (that explains it! –you’re a nutter and obviously incapable of achieving anything in life), yet at the same time it was obvious that having a mental illness diagnosis was, in theory, no barrier to working – just as long as you didn’t have to work alongside someone with one. A story was told by a fellow colleague about a woman with bipolar who had been doing voluntary work but ‘as soon as there was a danger her benefits could be cut, she gave it up.’ Anyone who knows anything about bipolar knows an employer will not keep you on if you don’t turn up on one of your ‘bad’ days, where you literally cannot function, certainly not to a degree where you could leave the house, and you can’t predict when that will be. However, the armchair psychiatrists in my workplace immediately saw this as ‘evidence’ of ‘malingering’. Yet the ‘dangerous lunatic’ attitude also prevailed.

One day, after disclosing my ‘depression’ (which, to be fair, was genuine, as a side effect of the OCD), I picked up a knife after it had been through the dishwasher, and a fellow worker said “I was wondering what you were going to do with that”, suggesting I was violent and unpredictable, two of the common misconceptions about most mentally ill people. The same worker, when discussing someone who another member of staff claimed was ‘rude’, replied “what do you expect? He’s a schizophrenic”. Armchair psychiatrists out in force again, presumably thinking that being rude was a symptom of schizophrenia (must remember to check the DSM but it’s a new one on me).

More recently, after being signed off sick with an episode of psychosis, my last employer told me that he felt he had been ‘conned’ after I told him I had OCD at the original interview and that he would ‘never have employed me’ had he known my history of hearing voices. The only reason I told him about the voice hearing in the first place was because of the diagnosis on the ‘fit note’ (‘upgraded’ version of ‘sick note’ for these neoliberal times), which he did not understand, and it certainly wasn’t ‘obsessional neurosis’ or any such OCD related term. That and the fact that he seemed to think I was faking it to take time off. After trying to make me feel guilty for alleged loss of contracts, which he seemed to be blaming on me, even though he had other available members of staff who were perfectly healthy, and probably better at the job than I was, I succumbed and told him the full extent of what was going on. This, unsurprisingly, did not go down well, and is where the stigma hierarchy is brazenly obvious – it’s ok to employ someone with OCD, but if you are going through psychosis/schizophrenia or hearing voices, forget it.

My guess here was that, given I was doing cleaning work at the time, a stereotypical OCD sufferer is obsessively tidy and hygienic, whereas a stereotypical schizophrenia sufferer/voice hearer is violent and unpredictable, so I could understand his response, but it doesn’t change the fact that having any mental illness, regardless of stigma, is no barrier to being found ‘fit for work’ by the DWP, even though it’s unlikely an employer is going to give someone with a psychiatric diagnosis that is associated with violence a job, over a so-called ‘normal’ person. Logically, given risk and health and safety assessments, and a general culture of ignorance and fear, it isn’t going to happen. While the MSM still mainly reports on schizophrenia in a negative way, in conjunction with incidents of violent attacks on the public, it’s unlikely to change either.

And while this negative publicity and attitude is pretty much everywhere, and mental illnesses are caricatured (e.g. the OCD ‘hygiene freak’, or the bipolar ‘creative genius’), rather than seen for what they are; complex, debilitating and potentially life-threatening conditions, it’s easy to understand why empathy-lite commentators like Piers Morgan see celebrities and find it hard to believe that they are “genuine” sufferers. It may be that Morgan presumes that having money makes one ‘immune’ to such problems, and while it might allow access to better care, material wealth is no guarantor against poor psychological health; it might ease the pain, however, it doesn’t prevent constant abuse, judgement, pressure and attacks from the media and the public, paranoia over who can be trusted as genuine, resulting feelings of isolation and self-doubt, and hectic schedules which do not allow for much rest (see Spears and West).

The fact is if it really was “fashionable” to have a psychiatric diagnosis, we wouldn’t have to hide our related problems from employers or deal with stigma driven hate crime. And none of this impacts well on the health of those with mental illnesses in the real world, where one minute you’re a malingerer, next you’re a walking axe murderer, and it’s arguable that the media influenced public misconceptions about those with such issues leads directly to worsening of their wellbeing and increases their suffering and social isolation. It also allows governments to overlook mental health care as a priority, and provide a ‘Cinderella service’, which is focused on punitive and often abusive ‘treatment’ rather than ‘genuine’ mental health care while sidestepping any related issues caused by their counterproductive policies. So is it any wonder, in such a world, that psychiatric disorders are being diagnosed at a higher rate? It’s not so much a “Gucci handbag” as Tesco value baked beans; increasingly prevalent in today’s households, but not fashionable… more an inevitable consequence of modern society.

 

References

  1. Sophie Turner calls out Piers Morgan over mental health comments
  2. Piers Morgan sparks debate by claiming celebrities fake mental illness for publicity
  3. CSPC: Britney Spears Popularity Analysis
  4. A Tory responded uncleverly to ‘I, Daniel Blake’
  5. Kanye West reveals to Donald Trump that he was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder by doctor
  6. Sick benefits: 75% are faking
  7. Inaccurate, exploitative, and very popular: the problem with ‘Poverty Porn’
  8. When do I need a fit note?
  9. The NHS is to hire 300 employment coaches to find patients jobs to “keep them out of hospital.”
  10. What I Wish I Could Tell People Who Stereotype OCD
  11. The myth of ‘mad’ genius

Photo Credit

Photo by Marie L