“What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”
― Albert Einstein
I was recently sent a ‘humorous’ email called the ‘Alberta Mental Health Release Examination’, forwarded as a group email to everyone on a University mailing list for, presumably, light relief. Please have a go at completing it yourself:
Now, it isn’t clear from the Form whether we are reading a knowing satire on the absurdities of (presumably) arcane psychiatric practices, or the piece is trading on a social stereotype equating mental health difficulties with a lack of intelligence and/or a chronic lack of common sense (Common Sense Deficit Disorder – or CSDD – in the new DSM-V anyone?). If the former, it is rank prejudice of a type that would be considered entirely and rightly unacceptable if, for example, it was aimed at gender or ethnicity; at best, it is very close to the mark. Either way, the fact that such an email can be sent on a group list, without any awareness that the content may be considered inappropriate, tells us a lot about what is, or what is not, considered offensive in our society today.
It’s probably too much of an easy target to use the Conservative Party Conference as an example of unthinking prejudice, but as the remarks in question involve the current Minister for Health, I think we can make an exception here. During his speech, Jeremy Hunt made two rather inappropriate ‘jokes’: the first was about having a seizure (funny topic that), the second about how some people think he needs an operation for his head. Whilst I’m sure many of us would agree that there are certain aspects of Mr Hunt’s intellectual credibility that require closer examination (his association with Rupert Murdoch for one) I consider it quite remarkable that such a senior politician could make light of such serious issues, in such a high profile way. I’m sure Mr Hunt meant no offensive by his remarks, and would probably be shocked if he realised how they have been received by some people. However, it’s the fact that he can make such statements unknowingly, and that they can go relatively unnoticed in the national press, which to me highlights how certain (negative) attitudes towards mental health difficulties have become a cultural norm.
If the Alberta Mental Health Release Examination Form and Jeremy Hunt’s comments were close to the line, then Tesco and Asda blundered over same line in spectacular fashion (think rabid bull on steroids bushwhacking its way across a field). Now I’m sure most people reading this article would have already seen these images, but for those of you who have not seen the ‘Mental Health Patient’ Halloween costume, have a look at this:
I’m not sure whether it’s the blood-splattered straitjacket, the macabre mask or the meat-cleaver which I find most offensive; all in all, it adds up to one large, sorry mess. The fact that this costume must have passed several chains of command to reach the shop front is astonishing.
Thankfully Asda and Tesco have apologised for the costume and removed it from their stores, which I guess is a cause for hope. As the Centre for Mental Health Blog highlighted last week, a collective group of people were successful in getting it removed within one day. Less cause for hope however was a recent YouGov poll which indicated that people with mental health difficulties are considered to be the group which experiences the most discrimination in our society. All things considered, it seems we have a long way to go. Einstein would appear to be right: it is truly easier to smash an atom than a prejudice. Unfortunately, the only thing that is being smashed at the moment is the dignity of people with mental health difficulties. The fact that our society is contributing to this smashing should be cause for concern to us all.
Dr Simon Clarke
Clinical Psychologist, PhD student and ex-mental health service user
Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust and University of Nottingham