In many ways, attitudes towards people living with mental illness have improved vastly in the past decade. Look beyond the surface though and a less pleasing picture emerges.
Lazy media stereotypes, deep-seated prejudices and the perennial struggle to access services, mean that people living with mental illness are still struggling for recognition of sometimes even the most basic rights. Popular culture also too often still presents them as a ‘problem’, rather than as members of one of the many communities making up our society.
Matters weren’t helped a couple of weeks ago by the comments made by Tory MP George Freeman that people with anxiety are just sitting at home popping pills and aren’t suffering from an illness that can be as limiting as any physical disability. Our sainted Prime Minister might talk about a ‘shared society’ where those living with mental illness are no longer excluded; it doesn’t seem like one of her pet policy advisors got the memo.
Individuals and charities do much to redress the balance, but there is a lot of needless duplication and when spoken by more than one voice at a time an otherwise strong message can end up being diluted.
What we need to do is celebrate in a positive way the possibility of living an empowered, productive life despite mental illness. One way of doing so could be to bring back Sanity Fair, the festival of all things relating to mental health held in the city up until a decade ago.
It could work rather in the way ‘Pride’ events have for the LGBT community, as a way for an unfairly marginalized community to say, ‘We’re here and We’re proud of who we are; get over it.’
The problem, of course, is how to pay for such an event. Council budgets are shrinking, so is that of the NHS.
The answer is to look to local employers, many of whom are slowly coming round to the idea that the mental health of their staff matters as much as their physical health and safety. Mental ill health in the workplace is a serious drain on productivity, profits and staff retention.
Concern for their bottom line, along with the slow realization that a good reputation is the best form of advertising should make business open to demonstrating social responsibility on such a major issue.
It is certainly an idea worth considering, if only because organizing a new Sanity Fair would bring the disparate mental health charities and support groups who do so much good work, often in isolation together to pull in the same direction.
It would also help to blow away with balloons, music and good spirits the clouds of stigma and suspicion that hold so many people back from reaching their full potential. Along the way, it would help to remind the wider world that Stoke-on-Trent is a modern and inclusive city, not the stereotype people locked within the embrace of the M25 like to think.