Friday, 29 May 2015

A Debate in the Huffington Post

I have not kept up this blog very regularly over the last year or two.  Sometimes I feel I have said all I need to say on the subject of mental health, and that by continuing to delve into it I am not doing myself any favours.  An example - during the last few days I have made a few comments on the Canadian Huffington Post, under an article which bemoans the state of 'mental illness literacy'.  The last thing I wrote was in reply to someone who said that I am dangerously trying to persuade people to stop taking their medication, and that 'mentally ill' patients need their drugs in the same way as a diabetic needs insulin. 

I replied that I am not trying to persuade anyone to do anything but that I do believe people should have a choice about their treatment.  The science just does not support the link between psychotropic medication and insulin.  I was once told that I needed my meds like a diabetic needed insulin and I have been free of them for more than fourteen years now without ill effects.

I also said in my comment that I think anyone who is violent should be treated in the criminal justice system and not in the mental health system, regardless of their state of mind.  I am sure that will upset people so I just wanted to explain my thinking here.  (I actually started to write this blog post yesterday but held off from publishing it because I didn't want to upset anyone.  Then I read a comment on another Huff Post piece by Toby Chapman which propounded the same point of view regarding prison v hospital, and which gave me strength).

I understand that people whose loved one has committed an atrocity while psychotic will be convinced that the person could not have behaved in that way while they were in their right mind.  However, in my opinion, it is the fact that the mental health system has become tangled up with the criminal justice system that has caused a lot of the stigma around mental illness, especially schizophrenia. 

If someone commits a crime, as Toby Chapman said, the matter of why they did it is irrelevant - it is how we respond that matters.  The purposes of prison, as I recall from the law degree I took about a hundred years ago, are punishment, retribution and rehabilitation.  Which purpose is uppermost in individual cases, and how the prisoner should be dealt with in prison, depends on the particular circumstances.  Judges are very good at whittling out the facts and dealing with people appropriately. 

I suppose the idea that somebody shouldn't be punished if they are mentally ill makes sense in some ways.  However, many people are mentally ill and are not violent - they shouldn't be treated in the same place as those who are.  It just causes confusion and leads to institutional abuse in hospitals.  People are treated with force when they shouldn't be and this negatively affects their chances of recovery.  Also, the whole 'mental illness' thing is open to discussion and debate - what exactly is mental illness?  How do we define it?  I read a bit about this when I did a Psychology A level recently - it's an interesting subject. 

Only yesterday I saw a small piece in The Times which said that a schizophrenic had been detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act.  He had stabbed a prostitute in the neck.  The treating psychiatrist said that the man was responding slowly to treatment but that he was worried about a relapse.  He was sent to a medium secure hospital. 

The thing is, in that hospital there will be a lot of other people being treated who have not committed crimes, some of whom have been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Leaving aside the fact that such diagnosis is a subjective matter, based on observation of behaviour not, as is thought by many people, a scientific process, it is easy to see how stigma developed and is being fed.  (It also concerns me that violent people are only treated in medium secure facilities - surely the public need to be better protected from people like this?  And if the 'schizophrenic' guy does recover, he can be paroled, only if all the necessary safeguards are in place, and only after he has been punished for what he did and rehabilitated, under the same criteria that are used for all criminals).

I know it might seem unfair to imprison a person who acted out of character when they were psychotic.  However, many people are psychotic and do not commit crimes.  Some of these people are provoked by their treatment in hospital - if you have ever seen someone being forcibly medicated, or experienced it yourself, you will know what I mean. 

Also, I met a woman once whose son had been treated in prison and in hospital and she said prison was much more humane.  I trust the criminal justice system to do the right thing by people - the mental hospitals mete out their own version of justice and there is too much opportunity for abuse. 

I have been thinking of returning to study recently. It has occurred to me that a relevant subject for a thesis might be how people who have not committed crimes are deprived of their liberty in mental hospitals, outside the judicial process and outside any proper legal review.  I have long thought that this is a human rights issue.  At the same time I could research how the law could be changed so that all criminals are treated the same, not differently because they are 'mentally ill'.  'Mental illness' is easy to feign and easy to conceal.  It is such a nebulous concept.  (As was shown by the famous experiment in which a group of professional people feigned symptoms and were duly incarcerated in hospitals but then were not released when they said they felt better.  I would look up the name of this experiment, but I don't want to be writing this for too much longer.  Was it Laing who masterminded it?  I am sure lots of you out there will know!)  

I don't know if I have the stomach for all this though.  I have just spent an hour or so re-writing this and replying to other people on that original Huff Post piece, then reading and responding to another one by the same author.  It seems to me that too many people refuse to see the other side of the argument when it comes to mental health issues.  I have read a lot of literature on this subject and come to my own conclusions, but other people will have had their own experiences and will never agree with my point of view, however I put it. 

In some ways it seems to be a waste of my time - although actually I have enjoyed the intellectual side of the debate.  Also, because I have had to sit at the kitchen table with my laptop, there has been a lot of interaction with the kids during this hour - my younger daughter has come in with her revision and her music and she has been playing me clips of Pitch Fever 2, which she saw at the cinema the other day with friends.  Her company has made me laugh and distracted me from the nastier comments online (some people get personal about all this, it would be better if we could all discuss things civilly and kindly).   

I do think that the mental health system and its interface with the law needs a huge shake up and that I would be well-placed to do some proper academic research on the subject.  I have been reading some academic papers and books over the last week and I had forgotten how much I enjoy thinking and writing about legal matters.  It has been a long, long time since I took my degree (although not quite a hundred years) and I am surprised that some of it is slowly drifting back to me.

So what do you think, everyone?  Do I go back to study?  Might I be able to make a difference?  Or should I just keep battling on with the fiction (I must have started ten novels in the last few months, haven't finished any of them, but maybe, you know, one day...?)

All advice gratefully considered.       

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Mslexia Advert

STOP PRESS - My book - the original memoir - is going to be featured in the next issue of Mslexia magazine!  Only because I have paid for an advert, but still...

A couple of years ago, when I was invited up to Newcastle Uni to talk to staff and students there about Surviving Schizophrenia, the Public Engagement Officer there told me that she had called Mslexia (who are based in Newcastle) and tried to get them to cover the event and feature the book in their magazine. They told her that this would not be possible and she was quite indignant on my behalf.  

I understood though.  I told her that although Mslexia is only a small, women-only literary magazine, it is REALLY prestigious.  Top authors are featured in Mslexia, not first-time, self-published ones.  I would never have expected such an honour.  Anyhow, I was confident that my book would get the recognition it deserved as and when the time was right.  I knew I had written something that mattered.  Newcastle University was just the first step, I believed. 

Two years on from Newcastle (or is it three?) I am still waiting for the world to sit up and notice my book.  I have been really lucky in lots of ways - I have loads of wonderful reviews on Amazon.  Other authors have read my book and loved it.  Raymond Briggs praised my writing, for goodness sake!  That should be enough for ever, for anyone, and in many ways it is for me.

And yet.  I have to admit it, I still yearn for a wider readership.  There is still something in me that feels I have missed out.  And not just that, but that more people could benefit from reading this book.  There is so much injustice, still, in the mental health system and so much potential in so many people who are labelled, wrongly, with brain disorders.  I have found my way through but I am still held back by the label of schizophrenia, and I know that people are still being diagnosed with this spurious condition.  I know of several recent cases personally, and I don't go out of my way to look for them!

Perhaps I need to acknowledge that my memoir is just one more book in a sea of others - sometimes, when I read a really brilliant book, I think I must be delusional to think mine is any good, any use at all.  (Recently, I was blown away by Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, an incredible read).  Sometimes I think, okay, move on, write something else, something better, keep working.  And I do that, although not always as regularly or in as a disciplined way as I could, maybe because inside me some sulky child is still waiting to be noticed for that memoir. 

So, I have placed an advert in Mslexia, hoping that more people will read my first book, Surviving Schizophrenia, that perhaps an agent will notice it, see the Amazon reviews, sit up and pay attention.  I might be flogging a dead horse, but the same instinct that told me to write the book tells me that it still has potential, that something good will happen in relation to it, perhaps soon.

The sequel, Surfacing, is more about recovery and mostly about how the label itself stands as a barrier to that recovery.  I still wish it was better written, as in more entertaining - I could have done with an editor there and perhaps I should have paid for one.  But mental health often seems like a serious business - the system as it stands is not doing an awful lot to help people in severe emotional distress and lives are, literally, at stake. It's hard to be funny about that. 

Ah well.  I need to go now.  I am working on an entry for the Bridport First Novel Prize.  Maybe this will be the break I have been looking for... if I can get my entry in by the end of this month.  Which is actually really soon...Right, definitely going now! 


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Should the Mental Health of our Children be an Election Issue?

Below is the article on child mental health which I wrote for the Huff Post.  I haven't got around to putting it up on there yet, for various reasons (not least, apathy) and because it is linked in with the election I thought I might as well publish it here meanwhile - although here I am largely preaching to the converted.  Anyway, I didn't want it to go to waste.
Yesterday's blog post seemed to be a bit open-ended, waffling.  I knew what I wanted to say but I didn't want to be too precise - ie I didn't want to name the persons and situations that have recently upset me.  After I published the blog post, I clicked on Rossa Forbes' blog, Holistic Recovery from Schizophrenia, and to my delight I found several new posts on there that I hadn't realised existed.  Rossa had migrated from Blogger to Wordpress, and her new posts had not updated on my sidebar. It was a very welcome surprise to find them - anybody who has not read Rossa's blog recently really should. 
Anyway, here's the article:

Should the Mental Health of our Children be an Election Issue?

Child mental health seems to have become a bit of a buzz topic in the build-up to the general election.  ‘Vote for us and we’ll see that this is improved,’ all the main parties promise.  Is it appropriate though, to use child mental health as a bargaining chip?  Apart from anything else, how are these promises to be fulfilled?  When a new Government is formed, will there be enough counsellors and therapists in place to provide a better service?  If not, however much funding is allocated, things won’t change in a hurry.  Also, mental ill-health is notoriously difficult to treat.  I am not sure that pouring more money into the current system can ever really help, because psychiatry, which is based on a medical model, does not address the problem of what is wrong, of why the person, or the child, feels unable to cope.   

Parenting is hard and there is nothing worse than seeing your child suffer.   I think we, as parents, need to concentrate on preventing emotional distress, on bringing up our children to make them feel safe and to foster resilience in them.  I think it would be helpful to address the issue of why so many young people currently have mental health problems.  I honestly don’t think there was so much of it around when I was young – although personally I did have quite major difficulties.  Perhaps mental health issues were just not as visible then or maybe I didn’t notice the suffering of others because I was so wrapped up in my own troubles.  But self-harm, for instance, was certainly not as prevalent.   

It seems that society is much more child orientated these days.  When I was young, children seemed to be incidental to the lives of the adults around them, now they are central to their existence and this should be a good thing.  However, wanting the best for our kids and being concerned about their future lives means that often we can inadvertently put pressure on them.  Kids are very sensitive to the burden of parental expectations and as a parent it can be hard to find a balance. 

There are excellent grammar schools in our area and because my husband and I believe that a good education will give them more choices in life, we have helped our children to gain places in these institutions.  They have never struggled with their studies, perhaps because they are lucky, possibly also because we have brought them up to believe that they are capable.  And we don’t pressurise our kids at all – on the contrary, we assure them that even if they failed all their exams, things would still work out fine. 

I hold myself up as an example of someone who despite having a good degree has never held a professional job.  I am very happy to be a stay at home Mum (and now a writer too) but I am well aware that this would not work for everybody.  I do think, though that we should teach our kids that we have choices in life and always be positive and upbeat about the path we choose to follow.  Vicky Pryce (Chris Hume’s ex-wife) is a role model for working mothers.  ‘Don’t look back’, she said in a recent interview in The Times, ‘Don’t start feeling guilty, or you’re sunk’. 

I think all of us, as adults, should do our best to be good role models to our kids.  For a start, we could stop pursuing materialistic goals, show that we value ourselves for who we are, not for what we possess.  Yes, we all need to earn a living and there is pleasure to be had in a career and in the rewards it brings, but we need to find that elusive balance between work and leisure.  We need to value our relationships, to be kind to ourselves and to others.  We need to show our children that life is not a competition but a journey, a precious gift that can be and should be enjoyed.  Then our kids will grow to be strong, capable and resilient.  My hope is that as time goes on the current mental health system will require far less investment of public funds, not increasingly more.    


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

New Huff Post blog and other stuff

I have just written a piece for the Huff Post about child mental health and about how, instead of pouring more money into the current, very imperfect, mental health system (as all the main political parties are promising to do if we should vote for them in the coming Election) we might be better to focus on preventing the manifestation of emotional distress in our kids, for example by teaching them resilience. 

The piece should be up in the next day or two, and when it is I will link to it on here.  I wrote it more than a week ago and Paul (my rock of support and number one Fan) has been pestering me to upload it to the Huff, but I have been hesitant because I find it hard to keep telling people how I think things should be done.  I am only an expert in my own mental health, I keep saying apologetically. 

But I have been thinking about that and I have come to the conclusion that nobody, regardless of how many qualifications they hold, can really claim to be more that an expert in their own mental condition.  And having had three psychotic breakdowns in my youth and spent many of the subsequent years puzzling over the hows and whys of these manifestations of emotional distress means that I do understand more about these issues than a lot of people. 

I have been feeling quite isolated recently.  I have experienced quite a few stressful events in recent months and although I am dealing with them it has not always been easy.  I have suffered a crisis of confidence, and what I have learned from that is that I need to be stronger.  There have always been people in my life who misunderstood me and who criticized me, and because of the books I have written and the stance I hold on mental health (basically, that medication is not the answer to alleviating human distress) there seem to be increasing numbers of these people as I grow older.  I have always been over-sensitive to the opinions of others, always suffered from low self-esteem and always wanted people to like me, so I do not often stand up for myself - rather, I tend to stay quiet in the face of opposition, or to give in to it. 

However - I am getting older.  Life is too short to waste on people who don't care about me, who have only their own interests at heart.  I also need to be a role model to my kids.  I want to show them an example of strength, I need them to learn that they should always put themselves first, never let themselves be bullied or cowed by others. 

So I am not going to opt out of the debate on mental health.  I will continue to write fiction, but I will also continue my mental health writing, because I know that I have helped a lot of people already and that I will continue to help more. 

'It's never too late to become the person you were meant to be,' I read somewhere the other day.  I may be long in the tooth, but I am going to give it a try.