• Gavin Bates
  • 18 September 2012

If it ain’t broke…

In a capitalist society it is common to discard things that we deem no longer fit for purpose. We replace or upgrade them and consign the ‘broken’ item to the scrap heap.

Some humans are treated in a very similar way for a number of reasons. Different groups have campaigned for years to remove the stigma created from the assertion that certain types of people are ‘broken’. One of the last stigmas to remove from the workplace is the idea that those with mental health conditions are broken and not ‘fit for purpose’.

We have reached a point, at least through regulation, where if someone faces a physical disability then ‘reasonable adjustments’ are made to accommodate them within organisations. Whilst some discrimination still exists in this area it is at least openly regarded as bad practice. Yet the mind, so heavily connected to the body, is still treated in a completely discriminatory way, should any sign of perceived weakness be shown.

A survey released last week by St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin found that over a fifth of people surveyed believe that those suffering from mental health problems are of below average intelligence, whilst 42% felt that undergoing treatment for a mental health problem is a sign of personal failure.

Stephen Fry – below average intelligence? Elton John, Robbie Williams, Freddie Flintoff, Russell Brand, Ewan McGregor, Sheryl Crow – failures?

It is, without a doubt, going to be a massive task to overhaul such massively sweeping generalisations which are not based on fact but on personal opinion. Getting a legal framework in place that protects those with mental health conditions in the same way that physical conditions are protected is a starting point, but whilst this may create a layer of protection it will not transform the discrimination and stigma that exists through general ignorance.

Last Friday a Bill proposed by Tory backbencher and Croydon Central MP, Gavin Barwell, which aims to outlaw certain forms of mental health discrimination, passed through its second reading in the House of Commons. This is good news but just the tip of the iceberg.

In reading about what this Bill is fighting, I was amazed to find out that anyone who admitted having ever been treated for a mental health condition at any point in their life would not be allowed to perform jury service. This existing legislation, which similarly can potentially also prevent the same people acting as MPs or company directors, means that I could not perform one of the most basic functions and civil services I had always assumed I would offer society.

61% of respondents to the aforementioned survey said they would discriminate against hiring someone with a history of mental illness on the grounds that they may be unreliable, and 31% said they would not willingly accept someone with a mental health problem as a close friend. Yet of the respondents many had indirect experience of people close to them being treated for mental health problems; 40% cited a close family member, 53% cited someone they worked with and 60% cited close friends.

I don’t believe that these opinions are based on anything malicious; rather they are ill informed, stemming from a basic lack of understanding and knowledge and a fear of the unknown, specifically how to deal with ‘broken’ people.

What it will take to shift the attitudes of the nation is to get people talking, both those who have experienced mental health conditions directly and those who feel uncomfortable when faced with it. When I started talking was when I began to take control of my life and when I realised I was never broken. Not only that, but in talking I then connected with people I have known a long time who I would never had suspected of having faced similar things. Without talking, how can anyone connect and get the support that they need? And until the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health is broken through, how will we ever get the nation talking?

Charities, campaigning organisations and politicians are starting to get into gear by pushing this to the forefront of the nation’s collective consciousness. I am confident that in the next 15-20 years there will be massive social movement in this area so that we not only remove the stigma but we also begin fostering an environment where wellbeing – mental and physical – is a primary consideration for everyone, to the betterment of each of us individually and of society as a whole.

Of course, to get this started it requires brave people to stand up, be heard and share their experiences, and given the very nature of some mental health conditions this in itself is a massive challenge. This can be inspired by those living in the public arena who already have a great deal of influence.

On last week’s Commons reading, Shadow Health Minister, Diane Abbott, said:

"Mental health is probably the last remaining great area of stigma in public life. It is striking that there were MPs willing to come out about their sexuality before you could find MPs willing to come out about their mental health challenges. It speaks to the level of stigma."

Yet a handful of MPs did come forward to talk of their experiences. And there are no doubt more who may now start to come forward, and not just politicians but musicians, footballers, writers, teachers, and so on.  

Some vocations by their very nature where ‘strength’ is a required personality trait – company directors, salesmen, top sportsmen, politicians – are blocked even further by the notion that to admit to a mental health condition is a sign of weakness and instantly would make you not fit for the role.

In an documentary shown earlier in the year Freddie Flintoff, one of the most successful English cricketers of the modern game, and known for his cocksure personality, spoke openly about his battle with depression and also discussed the matter with other major sports stars such as boxer Ricky Hatton, snooker player Graeme Dott, Celtic boss Neil Lennon and Flintoff's ex-England team-mate, Steve Harmison.

Possibly most surprising of all to some viewers was the appearance of Vinnie Jones – Hollywood’s go-to hard-man and former captain of the ‘crazy gang’, Wimbledon FC. 

Within the show he said that talking about depression in the 1980s and 1990s “would have been taken as weakness. It was something that wasn't recognised”.

He continued:

“They (managers) are not trained in that sort of thing. In sport, when I was playing, there was nobody to talk to. If you had turned around, and you are bottom of the league, and one of the lads says, ‘I've got depression’, you would smack him round the side of the head, wouldn't you? And say, ‘Pull yourself together’. I think it was ignored. I think it would have been taken as weakness.”

And yet, in the last 20-30 years, nothing much has really changed. It is great that Vinnie has spoken out about it, but how many current Premier League superstars would share their experiences?

Just as no two humans are the same, neither are two mental health conditions, and to just presuppose that anyone who lives with one is ‘broken’ and not ‘fit for purpose’ is not only a massively incorrect generalisation but also a waste of incredible talent and skills. Anyone who watched Channel 4’s World’s Maddest Job Interview will have seen that the candidates with mental health conditions were those deemed best for the job roles. Yet, had the interviewers known this then their minds would have already been made up before the interviews had even taken place.

The maddest thing about all of this is not the people who face mental health issues but that as a society we treat them as completely alien to everyone else. The chances are that everyone reading this blog will either have a mental health condition themselves, will face one in the future, or knows someone close to them who has one.

There are a few things I know as fact. I know that I have suffered mental health issues in my life. I know that I was prescribed medication and saw specialists. I know that I am now fully in control of my life and more than capable of performing jury service. Yet some draconian law, and quite a large amount of public opinion it seems, would deem me unsuitable – having previously been ‘broken’ I am regarded not fit for this purpose.

There is at least an appetite to transform the law but it will be a much tougher task to transform opinion.