Piles of paper and island mentality: an austerity story

I finished my final university exams last week, which gives me time to write this blog again. I also started a new course of medication recently, and wanted to share a story about it.
I went to the doctor’s, the day after the election. That day as I walked through Brockley I had the distinct, uncomfortable sense of being on an island.
Physically, of course, I’m always on an island. And in the UK, the siege-like island mentality is pervasive. But the gap between rich and poor people, middle-class and working class, and the other prejudices at work in our society – well, it’s impossible to ignore that gap any more. It’s hard to imagine a developed country where rich and poor are more isolated from each other.
My flatmate and I stayed up all night on May 7th, watching as the Tories swept the board and the map of England gradually turned blue.
I saw Birmingham, where I grew up: a small oasis of scarlet in the midst of a solid expanse of blue. I remembered the chasm between the area where I grew up, with its run-down terraces and ’60s tower blocks, and the smug mansions in the suburbs.
Then there was London, my beloved adopted city, showing up as a small splash of red (‘communist island’ I heard it called) in the middle of the solidly Tory Home Counties.
To me it had been solidly proved that nobody – in the surrounding counties of either of my cities – particularly cared about the suicides of people who had been told they were fit to work or had their benefits cut, the rapidly growing number of food banks, the rent crisis, the closed-down libraries, the overloaded health services – or, indeed, any of the problems affecting people who live in poor areas and don’t have much money.
We are in a social crisis, which the Tory government has fuelled and encouraged. But it seems plenty of people are doing well enough to afford not to notice.
How much can you shrink the island mentality?
You can keep shrinking it, down and down, till it’s just you in your living room.
Earlier that day I’d written “Once upon a time there was a smug couple, spiteful and narrow-minded, envious of their neighbours and afraid of the outside world, and their house was an island; they were isolated by their fear of the world and their greed.
I left the doctor’s with a small story, one that could be added to the great web of austerity stories people have been sharing.
So: this time I get a kind sensible female doctor.
She says I seem to be coping well; well, you learn how to cope with chronic lifelong anxiety, somehow. Medicine helps, and so do books. Then I explain that I’ve had a problem with the referral.
I say, “I’ve been trying to push the referral through all year. I have phoned the IAPT service and emailed them -” and also asked the doctor about it repeatedly; his response was to ask me to phone the IAPT service myself. I’d phoned them again, several times, and got no response. The doctor looks concerned and says she will ring them. “They’re very disorganised, I’m afraid. They need a lot of nudging.”
Because she is not in a hurry, I press her on this point. It turns out exactly as I suspected.
She says, “Unfortunately most of our referrals don’t go through.” Oh, why not? “Well, they’re very short of time and they have long waiting lists. Almost all the referrals have to go to people who are severely psychotic or suicidal.” Otherwise, the referral goes on a pile of pieces of paper in an office already avalanched with dead trees.
And what of all those people? People who are struggling, but not struggling enough. People who are suicidal, but not suicidal enough. People who are ill, but not ill enough. Medical abuse of extremely sick people is an awful thing, and so is systematic neglect.
It’s not enough.
Yes, it varies by area – some services have more funding than others. Nor should it be blamed on staff, who don’t control the system they work in. But NHS mental health services have been cumulatively overstretched for years, and the system is formulated so that mental health is shuffled down on the list of priorities. It has to be that way, said someone I brought it up with; if you come into A&E with a bleeding hand they’ll put you in front of someone with no injuries. But at least in A&E, everyone gets treated in the end.
Austerity is destructive. It was designed by politicians with no compassion for the mentally ill or disabled. (The story is still fresh in my mind of the disabled ex-soldier who was found dead in his flat, near a pile of CVs.) 1 in 3 people in Britain will suffer from a mental illness at some point, so why should help be so limited?
The doctor writes a prescription. We talk about possible solutions. She says if I have the means I should look for solutions outside the NHS. I say, “It’s not looking good at the moment, is it?”
No, she says gravely, it’s not looking good at all.

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“Most depression is just sadness”: why the faking rhetoric hurts

Hi amigos. I haven’t written in a while because of the mounting pressure of exams, dissertation and essays. Also, I’ve been lying low because this is an especially bad time to be mentally ill in Britain.
With a General Election coming up, there’s a slew of news about how benefits cuts continue to hit disabled and mentally ill people, and in the next couple of months we’ll be used as a pawn in endless political debates, whether it’s by people who hate us, or politicians who just want to score points off the opposition.
On top of that, after the tragedy in the Alps we’ve seen even more stigmatising of people with depressionShe Who Must Not Be Named wrote in a tweet: “To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illnesses for many. The ultimate passport to self obsession. Get a grip people.”
In another tweet, she flippantly wrote: “Most depression is just genuine sadness at a social situation. Like being caught in torrential rain with a bag from Primark”.
Usually I’d shy away from quoting Katie Hopkins, but in this case I think she’s crudely expressing a view that, unfortunately many people share (including leftist Guardian columnists). It’s easy to write Hopkins off as an attention-seeking troll without realising that she sometimes represents the views of many; you forget that people come up to her in the street and thank her. “You’re saying what we’re all thinking”, they say.
She Who Must Not Be Named is not at all exceptional. Like Jeremy Clarkson, she’s an extremely privileged person who portrays herself as a sort of Everywoman. She mostly panders to sections of the British white conservative middle class, and delights in expressing their unspoken dislike of people of colour, Muslims, Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and the mentally ill and disabled. Hopkins’ audience know not to openly express their views because of this goddamn politically correct society and the risk and discomfort of being labelled bigoted, so they applaud her for ‘bravely’ speaking out.
People who hold these views are not at all unusual, nor is it just a select group of white well-off people who think these things. Like every society, British culture has its deeply unpleasant side; insular, belligerent, suspicious, selfish. It’s fed by our island mentality, and informs modern-day conservative views. And I fear that at the moment we’re only seeing more of that way of thinking.
In a lot of ways, living in an ableist society is like living in a heavily polluted town. You’re not the one causing the pollution, but you swallow the toxins every day in the air you breathe. It’s easy to internalise ableism, and it’s probably even easier if you actually have a mental illness or disability. For a lot of people take the struggles of other people more easily than their own. It’s easy to care desperately for others, but to be hard on yourself and end up thinking “Maybe I’m faking. I’m probably exaggerating. My problems aren’t that bad.”
We’re taught to hate ourselves for not fitting in with society’s expectations. Then we end up underestimating the problems we suffer from.
For me, learning about ableism was like acquiring a pollution sensor. Suddenly you can see just how foul your environment is, and are astonished. Then you realise how much of the stuff you must have swallowed without realising it.
The ‘faking mental illness’ rhetoric that Hopkins spouts is particularly dangerous, because it’s a form of gatekeeping. Many mentally ill people absorb from an early age that you can only be genuinely mentally ill if you’re extremely sick, in a hospital, or on the edge of killing yourself. That stops us from getting help at literally any stage.
And we’re told these things by people who love us, too. I’ve written before that as a 12-year old, I sat down with my father one night and said “I think I’m depressed.”
“No you’re not,” he replied. “12-year olds can’t be depressed.” He then told me about how he had to section a friend who had bipolar disorder. “My friend was really ill,” he told me. “You’re not mentally ill at all.” And obviously, he said this with the best intentions – to calm me down, to stop me from thinking that I might be sick.
So, the faking rhetoric is hurtful. Even joking about it is hurtful; for all you know, the person you’re joking around with might be secretly struggling, and might decide that you’re not safe to confide in.
For a lot of people, it’s a huge step to say to a parent, teacher, or friend, “I think I might be depressed”, or “I think I might be mentally ill”. If someone comes to you with a problem like that, listen to them. Let them speak. Let the words get out. Don’t turn them away before they’ve even had a chance to tell you the whole story.

Why I love sad stories

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket

The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.

There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:

“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”

hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
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