14 Dec 2007

The dangers of stigmatising mental illness

It's been quite a week.

7 days ago, I learned that a very close friend lost a family member in the most shocking and terrible way. I visited their home, and sympathised with them in their grief and pain. The loss is severe, the victim was a wonderful, kind, vibrant and beautiful person who appeared to have been doing really well recently. It has given us all cause to question the current provision of psychiatric services in this province.

The following morning, Gordon and I flew out to Malaga in southern Spain for a 3 day holiday, booked months ago for his birthday. We really needed that time together. Both of us were low and worn out by the past few months, and our time away was wonderful and rejuvenating. I was upset to hear when we returned, that Duncan, who with the other children had been cared for by their wonderful grandparents, had been a bit unwell and miserable.

Yesterday I spent a while with Duncan curled up on my lap, making up for lost cuddle time, just browsing my favourite blogs and web sites and catching up on the latest news. It made for dispiriting reading.

I read on Abfh blog, of the NYU 'Ransom notes' campaign. It appears to be an 'awareness' raising exercise by the Child Study Centre of the university, to highlight the impact of mental illness on children. That might be worth doing, but this is not the campaign to do it. This is disgusting, degrading, inaccurate and dehumanising. The autism 'ransom note' that they intend to splash all over New York and put in magazines and newspapers, says,

'We have your son. We will make sure he will no longer be able to care for himself or interact socially as long as he lives.'

How can anyone think that such a statement on a billboard will benefit a single autistic person or their family? How would I like to explain that message to any of my children? I pity the autistic people who will face such a sentiment in huge letters as they go about their city. What fear and ignorance it inspires. They have similarly awful notes on other conditions too; bulimia, OCD. depression, Aspergers and ADHD.

There is a petition that I would encourage anyone who reads this to sign. It consists of a well composed and thoughtful letter endorsed by several disability organisations, and addressing the justifiable objections to this campaign.

Via Autism Vox, I read the New York Times article about the controversy. The center’s founder and director, Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, is quoted as saying, 'Children’s mental disorders are truly the last great public health problem that has been left unaddressed.

He went on to say (in the NYT article),

'While we knew the campaign was edgy and we knew it would be harsh and upsetting, the facts of mental illness are even more upsetting.

'I am disappointed. I thought the people we’d be arguing with are the people who believe psychiatric illness doesn’t exist or those who believe children are being overmedicated.'

'I thought we’d be fighting ignorance. I didn’t think we’d be fighting adult patients or the parents of patients whose feelings have been hurt.'

While there clearly needs to be more understanding of childhood mental health issues, this campaign only serves to increase fear, stigmatisation, ignorance and misunderstanding. This is not about something as nebulous and unimportant as 'hurt feelings' and I don't know why he considers those of us opposing the form of the campaign, as 'fighting' them. We just want to come to a resolution.


Ed said...

Thanks Sharon,
Great post. Coming to a resolution needs to factor in that this man has had a lifetime to create these views and they are very reflective of what alot of people have thought for along time. The fear they are telling others to experience is the same fear that they feel.
If he is too afraid to listen to us, he may listen to those who are brave enough to listen to us. I like the way you described things in this post and I think it brings us closer to that resolution.

hcd said...

My main issue with it, I suppose, is that I don't see Autism, Aspergers or ADHD as psychiatric conditions. If you want to call them anything I suppose they are neurodevelopmental differences. A difference isn't something that needs campaigning against.

Sharon McDaid said...

Ed and Helen, you have both raised important points.

Ed, it is so true that the messages probably do reflect the views of Dr Koplewicz and others. It is telling that these experts on children's health hold such medicalised opinions on these issues. They do appear to fear these conditions.

Helen, indeed neither do I consider autism, Aspergers or Adhd to be mental illnesses. I don't know much about depression, OCD and bulimia and would not categorise these conditions with the other developmental conditions. I don't think that the campaign is properly thought out for any of the conditions highlighted.
I know that depression is very serious, and in many cases fatal. That sets it apart from all the other conditions, marking it as one which would especially benefit from sensitive attention. I really worry that the campaign will further stigmatise depression in particular, making it more likely to ruin or even end lives.

Sharon McDaid said...

I meant to write; I worry the campaign will further stigmatise people with depression.

Neurodivergent K said...

I don't think any of these conditions deserves this kind of stigma, nor does saying so make anyone's argument any stronger. The "less crazy than thou" thing really isn't attractive on anyone.

It's not like anyone CHOOSES *any* of their target conditions, or like we know the exact basis of any of them.

Sharon McDaid said...

That is true Kassiane. This campaign increases the stigma for all these conditions, and does harm to all affected by any one of them.
When I said in the comment that I would not categorise OCD, bulimia and depression alongside autism and ADHD, it is because I think of the latter 2 as developmental but not the former. I fully accept that I am limited in my knowledge of these conditions and apologise for what I get wrong. I'm open to having my mistakes pointed out.

I do think that media and billboard depictions of depression in particular, need to be sensitive and accurate. Depression is worrying and can be fatal, as shown by the terrible suicide statistics in Northern Ireland and by what happened to a person I care about just a few days ago.

Casdok said...

Great post and interesting comments.

Marla said...

I am sorry for your loss. I too signed and appreciate your message in this post!