Last week the British Government, yet again, remembered that October 10th is World Mental Health Day. They do it almost every year - pledging more money for mental health services, shorter waiting times for therapy, etc., etc - and every year things stay exactly the same as they always have been. I get it. In a cash strapped National Health Service, there will always be winners and losers. Only problem is, that mental health is always the bridesmaid. And this is in spite of some very high profile, and laudable, self 'outings' by very prominent people in our society.
Stephen Fry has bi-polar disorder, comedian Ruby Wax is a hugely vocal supporter of people who, like her, live with mental health problems. That's all great. It raises the profile of the issue and gets people thinking. But how much good it does at grass roots level, I don't know. Friends and relatives of mine still sit on endless lists waiting for treatment, they still can't tell their employers they have mental health problems, some can't even tell their nearest and dearest, many don't even consult their doctors.
Until I became a full time writer, I worked first in a psychiatric hospital and then with mentally ill people in the community. My hospital was one of the old 'bins' or asylums that eventually closed when our patients were moved out into a community they didn't know and which didn't want them. I remember going to a meeting once to explain what a small unit for the elderly mentally ill would be like for those who would be living in its vicinity. I was told in no uncertain terms that if the 'nutters' came, the locals would burn the place down. They didn't, but they made life uncomfortable for those residents. And these were people who had already had their share of bad stuff because our old hospital was not much better.
People who are delusional, anxious or depressed are vulnerable. They're routinely dismissed as 'nutters' and in my hospital they were easy targets. Just because someone hears voices doesn't mean that he or she is a liar. We all know when we've been hurt, mentally ill or 'sane' - whatever that is. My job was to fight for those who had been damaged by a system that allows abuse to happen and indeed allows it to be routine and unremarkable. This is not to say that all our staff were brutal and uncaring. Most of them cared passionately about the patients. But for the few who chose to take advantage, the opportunities for abuse were all too easily found, the penalties too lenient and the social pressure not to engage in such activities was often non-existent. Blowing the whistle on such behaviour was tough, I know, I did it.
Why was, and is, this so common in our otherwise civilised society? Because of stigma. You can be violent, you can be a thief, you can be a fat cat who treats people like dirt and you will actually be admired, but don't be mad. Mad is scary, uncontrolled, surrounded by terrifying myths and, most importantly, it frightens people. This is underscored by terrifying newspaper headlines every time a person with a mental health problem hurts someone. The fact that this is extremely rare - 'sane' people are far more dangerous - is irrelevant. Mad people are dodgy, weird, they don't conform, they are inhuman. There's your stigma for you and it's been going on for centuries.
Now, I think, it should stop. Enough. People with mental health problems are not another species the world has to fear. Most of the people I worked with were sick, poor and frightened. Stigmatised, many of those in the community didn't even leave their homes. Those in hospital feared the outside world was even worse than their 'bin'. When even being beaten in an institution is preferable to the outside world, something is very wrong.
So World Mental Health Day is a big day for all of us. For people with mental health problems who hope that things will improve, for the 'sane' who really need to shape up and for me because I have finally managed to write an, albeit fictionalised, account of my time in service as a mental health advocate. The book, Poisoned Ground is a crime novel, and quite rightly so because a lot of what went on in my old bin was a crime. Comments have been made about the violence in the book, but I make no apologies for that. The things that my fictional advocate, Mumtaz, sees in her hospital were things I came across in mine. The forgotten taken advantage of, the ordinary patient thrown away like a sack of rubbish.
The time has come to stop the cruel stigma against those who are different and the time to begin to do that is right now.
Poisoned Ground by Barbara Nadel is published by Quercus.