Public wrath has finally moved from the Daily Mail, and to the Sun over its splash yesterday on the mentally ill. It’s deemed especially offensive because this is apparently Mental Health Awareness Week.
For some time now mental illness has been becoming the new victimhood du jour, and among the reasons is that mental illness is so spectral and ambiguous that lots of people can join in (especially journalists). Laurie Penny wrote that it was unfair to use stereotypes about mad axe man because: ‘Like a lot of people, I sometimes get depressed and anxious. On precisely none of these occasions have I flown into a murderous rage and stabbed up a stranger.’
Mental illness is as broad as physical illness, and anxiety and unhappiness are common, indeed part of the human condition. Saying ‘my recurring common cold is more representative of illness than tuberculosis’ may be true, but it tells us nothing about the latter.
Another reason for mental illness’s popularity is that it is an effective way to escape censure. Among the most prominent critics of the Sun is Alastair Campbell, who as far as I know has never shown any remorse for the things he did while in power (compare with Damian McBride, whose frank apology was so rare as to unnerve people) but instead has re-branded himself as a victim.
And victimising the mentally ill is unlikely to be effective because it tends to involve ignoring reality, or at least probability. Some forms of mental illness can be dangerous, and tabloid exaggeration should not blind us to this; schizophrenics, for example, are seven times as likely to commit homicide than the public at large (and I think that statistic does not take into account that many are sectioned). That doesn’t mean they’re all mad axe men, but it’s a probability that people will bear in mind when dealing with sufferers, however many awareness days there are.
It was the politicisation of mental health that helped to bring about Care in the Community, which was influenced by totally misguided ideas about what schizophrenia is (and Tory penny-pinching). Now we increasingly see mental illness in Darwinian, biological terms, and progress is being made, but it would be naive to treat the mentally ill as another victim group, and possibly harmful if it deterred people from openly debating the risks. They don’t need to be made martyrs; they need treatment.
But then I’m only sceptical because I’m a conservative, the political equivalent of depressive realism. Will there ever be a cure for that?
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.