IntroductionI will start with an admission. I have tweeted and retweeted in relation to the case of Stephanie Bottrill, the 53 year old woman who took her own life in May 2013 and left a note laying the blame at the hands of the British Government. Like many, my reaction and actions were fuelled by the sense of injustice and the senseless and selfishness of a government that, faced with the real challenges of Austerity, lashes out at the weakest and the most vulnerable in society.
I do not apologise for my Twitter comments, but I do pause for reflection. The despair that many people find themselves in is evident and yet it takes a tragedy for it to hit the headlines. The despair is evident in the in-trays and in-boxes of MPs and Councillors the length and breadth of the country, and if truth be told some of those politicians, and yes I do speak for myself, have a sense of impotence. For immediate and meaningful solutions are beyond my reach or even those of the administration of which I am a part and that impotence is just one element that motivates the campaigner in me.
So why do I “admit” my tweets in relation to Stephanie Bottrill? It has been suggested that there is an inherent danger in publishing this tragic event and the fact that it is not an isolated incident and this needs some consideration. I am not a psychologist, although it is something I have studied and my studies and life experience tells me that there are people predisposed to suicide or suicidal behaviour. How they came to have such a predisposition will vary considerably, but in many case they are likely to have fragility, susceptibility and a vulnerability that commentators should be mindful of. What I am saying is that in addressing the real concerns within society, in examining and reporting on events, and their cause and effect, we need to be cautious that we are not simply piling on the despair. A challenging documentary on sensitive subjects will often be accompanied by a postscript announcement along the lines of “If you have been affected by the contents of tonight’s programme….” followed by contact details for help or support. This is not something you find in our newspapers and something you might struggle to squeeze into 140 Twitter characters (although I regularly tweet and retweet information about individuals and organisations that are there personally or professionally to help others). In short, we do not help those who are feeling hopeless without offering a message of hope or at the very least empathy and support.
These reflections have finally led me to write this blog which has been gnawing at me for a while. In it I will try to explain why I now consider myself to be an active disability rights supporter and what fuels this activity. Those individuals who follow me on Twitter and haven’t yet tired of my repetition will know that I am a strong supporter of the WOW petition – www.wowpetition.com. WOW petition? For the uninitiated it is a petition to get 100,000 signatures to stop the War On Welfare. It calls for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of all cuts and changes affecting sick & disabled people, their families and carers, and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act. Visit the website for more information and please, please sign the petition (39,000+ signatures at the time of blogging).
When I signed the petition in late 2012 I had no idea I would get drawn into this, primarily, online campaign but the sense of outrage, solidarity, support, empathy and almost without exception good humour was overwhelming. Becoming part of what I consider to be the “WOW family” strengthened Twitter friendships that already existed and brought new followers into my timeline that I’m now happy to consider friends. Without a doubt it has fed and fuelled my Twitter addiction and rarely a day goes by when I don’t Tweet at least once in support of the WOW petition and I relish the challenge of find new angles to get the message out there (you can’t send the same Tweet twice, Twitter considers that Spam and probably rightly so).
During the last six months though, as I’ve become immersed in the world of WOW, I have had twinges of paranoia. A little voice (metaphorically speaking) has periodically said – someone’s out there saying “Beckett’s just jumping on the bandwagon, typical bloody politician”; “What does he know about disability?”; “Why the big deal?” Ok little voice – I’m not jumping on the bandwagon, I’m not typical, my knowledge of disability is based on my life experience and standing up for things that are morally right or wrong is a big deal. There – sorted. Well, actually not….
Many of those supporting what WOW calls for suffer from, or care and support those who suffer from Mental Health issues. “Mental Health issues” is clumsy construct for which I apologise but I’m not an expert so what you see is what you get and no offence implied. This is where it starts to get personal.
Family HistoryIn 1946 a caring wife and mother died of cancer leaving behind a husband and two sons age 21 and 15. The eldest of these two young men was my father and both he and his brother would go on to experience severe mental health problems in later life. My father’s illness was a depressive one; my uncle’s was more psychotic and harmful to himself and those around him by all accounts. Both men took their own lives, my Uncle in the 1970’s at the age of 44 and my father in the early 1980’s at the age of 58. I can only speculate at the significance of the loss of their mother at relatively early ages to these two men. I know that my father adored his mother and memories of her often provoked strong emotion and sadness.
My father’s depressive illness predated my birth and pervaded my home life. I have vague recollections of Dad being sectioned when I was very young, literally being taken away by men in white coats; I remember visiting Dad in the local psychiatric clinic where he was frequently admitted; I remember understanding but not fully comprehending the distress that memory loss following ECT treatment caused my father – Electric Shock Treatment, as it was colloquially referred to, proved to be a lot more shocking the more I learned about it. I remember my father telling myself and my sister in the months before he died that he did not love us – so obviously a lie and in hindsight so obviously part of this preparation and planning, for in his unstable mind if he could stop us from loving him then it would make his decision to leave us so much easier. Sorry Dad that was never going to happen. I was almost the same age as my father when I lost him as he was when he lost his mother.
I accept that there is significant evidence of some mental health illnesses having a genetic origin, I certainly believe strongly that the environment in which one grows has a significant influence but I do not accept that it was inevitable that I would experience my own mental health problems. Yet, I have. My three older siblings have not and perhaps being the youngest of four in this environment was also a factor. I don’t intend to detail my full medical history, that is not the point of this blog but my own “issues” emerged in my teenage years, went unresolved for a number of reasons and returned with a vengeance in my late teens and early twenties. My illness, like my father was a depressive one and I remember soon after his death my GP saying to me “You are not your father”. There was however times I felt I was destined to follow his path.
A Downward Spiral and a Turning PointThrough my twenties my bouts of depression were sporadic. I took antidepressants with a degree of reluctance, as if that just dragged me further down the path my father had gone. I was never offered and never felt the need for therapy. My bouts were typically triggered by emotional loss – usually the breakdown of relationships or over-committing myself and becoming overwhelmed by the sense of letting people down. It was many years before I understood these as “triggers” rather than the root causes of my illness.
By the time I reached my thirties I was looking for an escape route. Increasingly this route was lined with alcohol. I attended one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and listened intently but when it came to my turn to speak I said, “My name is Ian Beckett and having listened to other people’s stories I’m pretty sure I’m not an alcoholic”. I was the first to admit that alcohol presented problems for me but it was not one of dependency. Of course, nor was it the solution to, or in any way helpful to, the problems I was experiencing. Alcohol is a depressant and invariably it simply dragged me down further.
Outwardly an extrovert, privately I was increasingly preoccupied with “the need to be needed” and anything that resembled not being needed would fairly instantly transform itself into an expression of rejection. It would take a full blown nervous breakdown in my mid-thirties for the significance of that preoccupation to fully materialise and start to be addressed.
Attempts at suicide are sometimes referred to as “cries for help”. Some suicidal behaviour is indeed that. It is also an expression of hopelessness – it says “I can do no more and I cannot go on”. Sometimes, but not always, that is accompanied with a genuine desire for one’s life to come to an end. I can remember an extraordinary sense of relief one summer evening when I stood in the garden and said “ok, depression, you’ve won again, get on with it, do your worst” – there were times when it was easier to quit than to fight. But by now I was married, I had a mortgage and my spiralling downwards was no longer “all about me”.
At some point my GP referred me to a psychologist, informing me that that there was a six to eighteen month waiting list. Six months later, following a melodramatic “cry for help” of my own I was an inpatient in the local psychiatric unit and eventually fast tracked to the door of a psychologist.
At my first session with Mr R he informed me that he would evaluate me to determine whether or not he could help me. At the end of that first session he informed me that he could. The sense of relief in hindsight is palpable – if I had been deemed as beyond hope, not requiring help (or helpless) my life might have taken a different path. Over the course of eighteen months, initially as an inpatient but then as an outpatient, Mr R gave me to tools to take control of my life. My life, it seemed had been something happening to me, now it would be something I would, as far as possible, determine for myself. I learned that putting my needs before the needs of others was not necessarily selfish, for Mr R showed me that if my needs went unfulfilled, I would struggle to assist other in meeting theirs. The journey I embarked on was not a smooth one – it was a bit like relearning the facts of life or having a second adolescence with the only constant being my acne. The difference that Mr R made to my life cannot be underestimated but, and this is a big but, I fully understand that what he helped me do was to learn how to help myself and protect myself by learning to understand myself.
That Cognitive Behaviour Therapy was roughly thirteen years ago and my mental health has not been a bed of roses since but nor has it been painfully wrapped with the thorns I so associate with the earlier years. I have experienced bouts of depression since my psychological epiphany. At best I have seen these bouts coming and made adjustments before they became debilitating. At worst I have accepted, eventually, though still by no means fast enough for my family, friends and colleagues, that I’ve need help, sought it and done something about it.
My DiscriminationI’ve never been afraid to talk about my mental health with those that I trust. It has been a painful journey but not without its rewards and realistically that is my expectation for the rocky road ahead. I have never considered myself as person with a disability. That’s not how I self-identify. Others may have a different perspective of me and until recently I’ve considered that to be their problem not mine.
Various forms, from job applications, learning surveys, social questionnaires, ask the question in various ways – do you have a disability? My honest answer to the way this question is typical framed is to say “no”. In early 2013 I received notification that I had been selected for Jury Service. I was quite excited – yes, I’m easily pleased. However, as I filled out the form I had a sinking feeling that I was never going to see the inside of a court room. I had to complete and return a declaration form and on it I had to state whether I had ever had a mental health illness requiring hospital treatment. With a sense of foreboding I answered honestly “Yes” and sent the form off. Four weeks later I received notice that my services would not be required.
This is the only occasion on which I have knowingly been discriminated against. It doesn’t feel nice. I have deliberately not worked myself into a frenzied outrage about it – that wouldn’t help anyone, least of all myself, but have simmered and not always gently. Ultimately my experience is a one off and I’ll get over it. Imagine it happening every day though; imagine if it was one of the few things you could be guaranteed to experience on a trip to the shops or the job centre. It’s when I see discrimination of a far great magnitude I cannot but want to join the collective protest which, whether politicians chose to listen or not, Will Be Heard!
Growing up in the Sixties the theme song to the TV series M.A.S.H. “Suicide is painless” infiltrates my memories. Its melodic quality and ironic undertones were lost on me a child and yet the words, which cannot be further from the truth, take on a haunting quality. Suicide is anything but painless and the fact that those left behind or who literally have to pick up the pieces can require Trauma Support is not as widely recognised as it should be. Whether you consider it to be an act of despair, an act of courage or an act of cowardice, acts of suicide are not borne out of the ether and to be able to assign a single factor let alone an individual as a single source of blame or cause is naïve, nonsense and if gone unchecked potentially dangerous.
“So little voice, having almost reached the end of this blog, do you feel better now?” Yes, a little. However, I will feel a great deal better when we see true social justice metered out so that when resources are finite we prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable rather than use them as a punch bag.