THE BLOG

When Is a Joke Not a Joke? Mental Health, Politics and Popular Culture

23/11/2015 14:38 GMT | Updated 20/11/2016 10:12 GMT

This week saw the use of jibes between politicians about mental health hit the headlines following comments made by Ken Livingstone about Kevan Jones, Britain's first sitting Member of Parliament to speak out in the House of Commons about his experiences of depression.

'Jokes' and slurs between public figures using stereotypes about mental health and mental illness are nothing new. They have been commonplace for many years, a staple of our culture, drawing on our fears and insecurities about mental health; a quick and easy way to denigrate a political foe by questioning their 'sanity' or ability to hold public office.

The fact that Livingstone's comments have caused uproar this week is in some ways a sign of progress, a hint to anyone thinking that it's okay to denigrate someone in this way might not be perceived as harmless good humour.

Debates about whether such comments are harmful or not recur regularly. Despite the great progress that has been made in making racist or homophobic language socially unacceptable, and the broad agreement that they are, the use of demeaning terms about mental health remains commonplace and rarely gets challenged. Such challenges are too easily dismissed, in the most unfortunate of terms, as examples of 'political correctness gone mad'.

The recent, otherwise enjoyable, James Bond movie (spoiler alert) saw the eponymous hero compare the villain of the piece to 'people in psychiatric wards' in a supposedly humorous retort. What is shocking about this is that it was not an off-the-cuff remark but a piece of dialogue that the writers, actors and editors all must have thought was acceptable. Had this comment been about any other group of disabled people, would it have made it to the silver screen?

The storm about Ken Livingstone's comments will hopefully give other public figures pause for thought before resorting to similar remarks, planned or spontaneous. Such comments, about any group of people who face discrimination daily, do not merely cause offence. They perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices about people as being less worthy of esteem, objects of mockery and on the edges of society.

This week has perhaps shown we are making some progress in challenging the denigration of people with mental health conditions, but also made clear just how far we have to go still.