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John Amaechi OBE

Stereotypes, suffering, sympathy - mental health and the media

05 May 2017 | by John Amaechi OBE

The story of footballer Aaron Lennon’s detainment under the Mental Health Act has been all over the news in the last few days and, unfortunately, some of the coverage has played to the old stereotypes that there is a scale of sympathy for those suffering from mental health issues.

If you’ve ever “partied” too hard or lost your temper in public, if you’ve splashed out on material things for yourself or have become - through your own talent or not - rich and/or famous, then your mental health challenges are apparently not just diminished, but somehow deserved.

The utter contempt shown for the unknowable struggle of Mr. Lennon, the incredulity that anyone should be sympathetic to his plight, was summed up in this headline/article by the Daily Mail:

 

— Daily Mail U.K. (@DailyMailUK) May 3, 2017

 

It’s been clear for some time that the education of the general public around issues of mental health will not come from the tabloid press.

Too many have shaken their heads sagely as we have strived to better understand the role of mental health in family breakdown, homelessness, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide - including the shocking fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

These harsh societal challenges are not excused, or even fully explained, by simply invoking mental health issues, but when practical action is required to make our society more psychologically resilient, we seem all too eager to move away from nuance in favour of the simplicity of stereotyping - unwilling or unable to rebuke the damaging stereotypes that affect men, women, and children, and instead falling back on the court of public opinion, where women with mental health issues are all-too-often accused of a modern day hysteria, and men of a systemic weakness that makes them unworthy of manhood… or indeed of sympathy and support.

It’s ironic that this (mostly disgusting) first tranche of Aaron Lennon media reports came hot on the heels of recent tabloid coverage of Princes William and Harry, and their revelations about their struggles with depression and anguish after the death of their mother.

In their case the tabloids fell over themselves to speak of the Royals as modern men, who were:

"break(ing) mental health taboos for a new generation”

Another former footballer, Rio Ferdinand, received equally rave reviews for talking about his abject despair at losing his wife and taking over the primary care of his children.

The worry here for me is that, rather than ‘breaking a mental health taboo’, the good work of the Princes and Rio has actually prompted a convenient recalibration of the media and society’s perspective on surviving a brush with a mental health issues - rather than actually experiencing one.

With the Princes and Rio one couldn't help but be moved, at points to tears, by the stories of their pain, uncertainty and loneliness, but we did so secure in the knowledge that they spoke of their pain ‘from the mountain top’ so to speak, after they had endured and survived.  As such, their mental health challenges were ‘beaten’ and that, as the denouement, is laudable. 

In that scenario, we can happily share in and, perhaps more accurately, revel in the memory of  someone’s mental health misery only as a foil to their eventual success - it’s reality-lite - someone’s mental health ‘rags-to-riches’ story as a familiar and popular parable. 

It’s also safe because, while our heartstrings may break and our eyes water, we never actually witness their distress first hand, or feel the confusion, the worry, the transferred shame and lamentable impotence that close family and friends, and even emergency services and psychological professionals, experience in the face of a mental health crisis in progress.

The initial Aaron Lennon coverage (now augmented by a rebuke from right-minded people to such a level that the Daily Mail deleted the tweet I quoted above) tells us that educators and psychological professionals still have much work to do.

The moment people are thrust head-first into the utter chaos and almost alien pain of the throes of a mental health crisis, too many revert to our old stereotypes and chide individuals in pain as weak and unworthy, as we search for reasons in their education, their profession, their wealth or their lifestyle, to give them no quarter and no sympathy.

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