Well that was a blast. Ok, I’m sure when I say I was at the SeeMe international anti-stigma conference you’ll think I’m being ironic.
And if I say I was as happy as a kid in a sweetshop prior to the implementation of the sugar tax, I know you’ll be thinking I really ought to get out a bit more.
This was a great gathering of professionals and punters under the same roof, talking about all things anti-stigma.
There folk from the USA, from Denmark, from New Zealand, Spain, Canada and someone from a far off land you may not have heard of…England.
Everyone passionate about what they’re doing – passionate about ending mental health stigma.
It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s end mental health stigma,’ but what does that mean in reality?
New Zealand had led the way by being the first country in the world to have a national anti-stigma campaign – closely followed by Scotland and the other nations.
It really feels like the Scots are leading the way through funding SeeMe, by putting financial weight behind the project and recognising that human rights are at the centre of it all.
From my perspective, and I appreciate this isn’t the experience of everyone with a mental health malady, I’ve found that when people are approached individually – where we take time to just have a conversation – they’re just fabulous – interesting, interested, hospitable, compassionate, empathetic and kind…
My problem is with structures.
Bear with me, this is hard for me to get my head around. Structures, yes, that are created by the very same people I’ve said are fabulous.
We have a human rights act that gives us these inalienable rights –
Right to life
Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
Right to liberty and security
Freedom from slavery and forced labour
Right to a fair trial
No punishment without law
Respect for your private and family life, home and correspondence
Freedom of thought, belief and religion
Freedom of expression
Freedom of assembly and association
Right to marry and start a family
Protection from discrimination in respect of these rights and freedoms
Right to peaceful enjoyment of your property
Right to education
Right to participate in free elections
Yeah, I know, political correctness gone mad, eh?
We all know of situations where the state – that clumsy plodding, thick-skinned beast – has run roughshod over these rights for folk with mental health problems.
And yet…what have we done?
What have we done about benefit sanctioning?
About landlords being able to discriminate against folk on benefits?
About buy to let mortgages that won’t allow private landlords to let to people on benefits?
About the fact that around 75% of people in prison have a mental health problem…
About the fact that many people with mental health problems are dying around 15 years earlier than the general population…
That roughly 20% of people with long term mental health problems are in employment…
That we’ve got a government that’s happy to lop off £30 a week from people’s incomes….
There’s more – we all know there’s more – it’s like a fucking shopping list of state sponsored stigma.
But there’s hope. I put the question to the panel of folk who’d visited from around the world.
Their answers – from what I can remember and in no particular order…
Focus on specifics – for example how people with mental health problems are hugely over represented in the world of benefit sanctions.
Don’t be afraid to use legislation
Find unlikely partnerships – for example, in the States, mental health stigma campaigns have paired up with the civil rights movement.
In England they’ve used vloggers – mainstream youtubers (yes, that does sound like a potato based insult) to talk about mental health…
We can – we will change things…
Oh yes, I mentioned a ghost…
Unrelated but…well…you decide…
In amongst all this I met Paula, a social worker I’d shared an office with just before the wheels completely fell off my wagon.
Along with the lovely William, we’d shared a room and, as much as you can in the world of social work, we had a lot of fun.
William’s sage message, ‘You’ll get on a whole lot better if you accept the job’s impossible,’ resonated with me – although I couldn’t quite ever believe it.
Seeing Paula, I was taken back to that time at work – where I slipped in and out of reality – where I was flat out – working as hard as I could at home and at work and yet I was still sinking – if only I could just keep on keeping on…one foot in front of the other…
I remember Tom, one of my colleagues coming into my office, I think he was wondering what was going in…I remember resurfacing long enough to say to him, ‘I don’t know who I am,’
So, back in the room, Paula was smiling, we were chatting…it was lovely to see her…she had to go to the loo…
As she walked off a cascade of thoughts just poured through my head, memories of – dissociation – feelings of failure – desperation – suicidal thoughts – self harming – of failure – of fucking emptiness – standing in my office as Tom tells me, gently, I need help.
I remembered my leaving do near the Falkirk wheel – my puzzled (ex) colleagues reading my ever so witty card that declared ‘You’re never alone with multiple personality disorder…’
And back in the room. The day was winding up. There was a feeling of hope in the room – Judith, the director of SeeMe is moving on to human rights pastures new.
I gave her a big hug – it had been a great day – we’ve got so much to do…so much…
Speaking with Eleanor, who’s been a great colleague and mentor over these past months, there was a great feeling that we’re doing the right thing – I’m sure we/ I’ll make mistakes, but it certainly feels we’re pointing in the right direction.
I gave Paula the details of the website – I wonder if she’ll keep in touch?
I realised that the old fear of rejection…of being misunderstood…of failure…fucking bastard failure… was still there.
This was nothing to do with Paula.
The ghosts are all mine.
I…we…are doing the right thing.
Inside and out, I/ we’ve got work to do
Walk a mile