“Stigma ties…”

One of the cleverest titles I’ve ever seen in print was for a Guardian Society article in 2002 entitled “Stigma ties.” I was in an extremely invidious position as brother to a sister who suffered from multiple (and severe) physical and mental health problems, but she could not tell anyone and neither could I.

Or rather, that was the pressure that we found ourselves under in our family circle. As fully-paid-up members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the UK, the (sad) reality is that although in principle, theology and constitution this denomination has absolutely nothing to do the the ‘Black Majority Church,’ we might as well be part of the BMC movement – for no other reason than the fact that the overwhelming majority of our church members are from one of: a) the West Indies; b) the African continent; c) the so-called ‘black diaspora’ (the comprehensive failure of our mission to Anglo-European people is not a matter for this particular blog).

Being in a church community that consisted almost entirely of black people, we had been raised with what I would now describe as an almost-pathological (yes, the irony is quite deliberate) fear of mental illness, and the stigmatisation was (and still is) so great that for the sake of our parents – who did the best job that they knew to do as parents, no dispute there – my sister and I both operated under the assumption that her mental illness in particular was something that could not bring glory to God, and so we couldn’t let anyone know about it. An intense prayer sequence was started by my mother with complete healing being the only answer she would accept from God.

This article forced me to confront that fact that all of the major problems of the wider black community here in Britain were in fact present in the church. Problem: as Christians, were we not supposed to have been changed for the better by our acceptance of the gospel? How could people say that they were followers of Jesus and behave in such unloving ways? My poor sister wondered just as I did, but our church is (still) largely not open to certain questions, and she wasn’t ready to think outside the box.

So I had to think on my own.

I then took the decision to tell a tiny number of my best friends that my sister was a mental health service user (ironically, I didn’t tell them – or anyone else – about her physical ailments). Here’s the bad news for my church community: only one of those friends was black, and he was a Christian from a completely different denomination. All the rest were white and secular (bar one Jewish guy). To their eternal credit, they all knew that I’d taken a massive leap out of my comfort zone to tell them and handled the vibe with considerable aplomb. To discover that there were people who would not run away from friendships just because you had those kinds of “stigma ties” – that was profoundly liberating.

It is heartbreaking that despite the story of Job, so many Christians have not understood that God is so much more than we have made Him out to be. He is not only glorified in “success” – He can be glorified as we handle pain and suffering with dignity and grace.

Although I reached a point when I decided that one day I’d study theology, I never once expected to become a fully-fledged theologian. But I have a very important point to make now: there is a great deal of correlation between failed religious expectations and either a) mental health breakdown; b) rejection of Christian faith. This is a huge problem for both psychiatry and clinical psychology. But no coherent Christian response to these challenges can begin without both an interrogation of Christian theology itself AND of the epistemological foundations that govern the understanding and dissemination of this theology.

In this context, “stigma ties” just got a whole lot bigger. The way Christians have all-too-frequently carried on, the gospel is presented as a lifestyle choice which will fix all of your problems. And if your problems continue, you clearly do not have enough faith. So if – as a Christian – your life falls apart, the first people to judge you will be – that’s right – the church members! And if non-church members don’t judge you – what does your theology say about that, eh?!

These are all reasons why people take a lot at church communities and decide not to become Christians. I have never had more sympathy for these decisions where they are taken rationally and thoughtfully, but the faith really does have more to offer than much of what the Church at large presents to the world.

To become a very serious student of theology was not to prepare for a teaching ministry. It was to help me in my own quest for sanity and honesty. It is not nice to have to type these words, but until – at the age of 29 – I embarked upon doctoral studies in theology (and under the strangest of circumstances), I had bee forced to put my deepest questions into a box and hide the key. As certain folks (including in my family) used to say: “Young man, converted people don’t ask such questions.”

[For the Christians reading this: this statement is a grotesque abuse of John 16:23a in much the same way as the anti-philosophy brigade abuses Colossians 2:8. ‘Conservative’ Christians frequently accuse ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ of dishonest readings of Scripture, but their blindness, myopia and anti-intellecuallism is a cancer in its own right.]

My theological ministry has not yet worked in the way that I envisaged, but I now know that what I wanted specifically was literally impossible. But the study of this discipline has saved my life and changed me from the inside out. In these last eight years that have passed I learned so much more about what Christian faith really means and who God really is, and when my sister eventually passed away, the Holy Spirit was a true Comforter to me – and remains still.

It is precisely because of God’s work through the Holy Spirit in my life that I have forsaken a life that was originally dedicated to music, then to theology and music – for a life which will now encompass mental health as well (so that’s all three of those things). My parents took the decision that we would not talk about my sister’s death to any but the smallest number of people closest to us, all of whom had known my sister (the argument went like this: “these people had no interest in her life; why are they interested in her death?”). I joined them in this decision, and the truth is that this decision has been vindicated. Not only that, but I no longer ask people about the manner in which others have died. It’s not important unless they decide it is important to know. At times, I would have preferred to be transparent about everything, but I have become very clear on the fact that while truthfulness is as important as importance itself, this sort of societally-constructed virtue of transparency is in fact a pseudo-virtue. More people across every continuum of race/society/religious faith have become unnecessarily vulnerable to those who are simply not a high enough grade of worthwhile human being to be vulnerable to than would ever be ideal. And yes, I really did say that! What one thinker has termed as ‘judicious self-disclosure’ has never been more important.

I have had to jettison my mother’s emotively-driven theology on more grounds than I ever imagined possible. I have had to abandon my father’s ‘safety-first’ theology in ways that have not been enjoyable for either of us. As I have said elsewhere, I am a Seventh-Day Adventist:

  1. …because of my parents;
  2. …IN SPITE of my parents.

And now, I would like to do what I can to help people from all backgrounds – not just those who share my faith convictions – to be able to live better with whatever mental health challenges they face. I now know that I have my own, so I am right there with those who suffer. I do not intend to force my faith onto anyone, but it is part of the fabric of my existence and without it, I would not be here and in my ‘right mind.’ Thirteen years have passed since the above-mentioned article was published. Seven have passed since my sister died. My parents have not yet healed and in this regard our church has been of precious little help to either of them – as well as me.

It is as well that God is bigger than the Church and can be found in the pages of Scripture for Himself. But some wonderful people from all faiths and none are doing wonderful work trying to help people who don’t have the gift of positive cognitive functionality and who are hurting terribly because of these ‘stigma ties.’

I cannot wait to get trained so that I can become part of the solution.

Thank you for taking the time to come on this journey with me today. It means more than you know.

Emily’s ‘revenge’ on Victoria

Some of you will have picked up on the TV reference within the title of this post – a US drama series entitled “Revenge” starring Emily VanCamp and Madeleine Stowe as Emily Thorne (who is really Amanda Clarke).

**SPOILER ALERT**

If you’ve not watched the series (or at least the finale of Series 3), then the very point of this post means that I have to tell you how the whole thing ends. So you can stop now if you want – or continue reading if you’re okay with that.

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There are two people who (within the story) are most culpable, and they both find their comeuppance. One dies. But the other – Victoria – is allowed to live.

Instead, she is taken down by an elaborate plan which basically results in her being ‘sectioned’ [i.e. forced into a mental health institution against her will by the law enforcement agencies] and the final scenes of the finale consist of Victoria lying in a bed with ‘restraints’ shouting her head off while Amanda swans through the hospital doors. We are supposed to understand that this is the ultimate humiliation – instead of taking her life, Emily takes Victoria’s mind and all the things that Victoria holds most dear – status, power, material wealth, the ability to lever and manipulate other people up and down the social order at will. Indeed, every one of those things is impossible if people think that you have lost your marbles.

So now this gets serious. Mental illness is no small thing. No trifling matter. And this kind of storytelling does more to reinforce the astounding lack of compassion that continues to surround the mentally not-so-well across global society. Most of us would accept that we shun that which frightens us. And all of us would be afraid to lose full cognitive functionality. But we would also be afraid of cancer, and we don’t shun cancer patients – well, most of us don’t.

But there is a world of difference between being afraid of mental illness – regardless of whether or not that fear can be understood as legitimate – and portraying the reality of mental illness as a loss of status as a human being. And this storyline plays right on the edges of that socio-ethical question. Thomas Adés, the internationally renowned composer/conductor/pianist, makes the following statement whilst being interviewed by the BBC’s Tom Service: “Ethics are a distraction the artist can’t afford.” The ramifications of the storyline transcend the story itself (which is precisely what makes it compelling storytelling). Hollywood’s motto is: “show, don’t tell.”

In this instance, mental illness is something that a person could not possibly want. So if we think in a very binary way about this, it means that to have mental illness is to experience a living nightmare. And it can of course be argued that the reality of mental illness is itself simply ‘grist to the mill’ for the story itself – because it serves the story. But what does that ‘show’ us about how mental illness is conceived and understood? What are the ethical implications of this story beyond itself as an ‘entertainment experience?’ Are we left with any real sense of compassion for those who – for whatever reason – find themselves ‘sectioned?’

This storyline extracts a limited set of entirely negative social constructions about mental illness and appropriates them into a story about revenge (‘not forgiveness,’ as the narrative voiceovers state clearly), leaving the viewer with a highly distorted view of mental illness. But there is of course more to the story – Emily’s character has been very badly mistreated by the very same psychiatrist who now – in exchange for her own life (etc) repeats the same trick of falsifying reality in order to sign off the ‘sectioning’ of Victoria’s character.

There are fewer things in life that reduce a person’s personal power (a philosopher and psychiatrist might use a word like ‘agency’) than the loss of mental faculties. But is a person only worth the quality of their mind? How is a person’s worth measured? Elsewhere in the same series, Emily’s character is literally saved from self-destruction by the man she loves, but as she realises what she has done and what he has done, she states clearly that she is not sure that she ‘was worth it.’ Her self-destruction was itself caused by emotive and cognitive breakdowns – and we are left with a clear sense that all of this ‘revenge-pursuing’ activity comes at a very high price.

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This is an increasingly bleak and sordid world, and one in which health itself is not regarded as a gift (and I say this in the context of a religiously pluralistic world) – but as a ‘right’ and as a token of power. One’s worth is dependent on one’s appearance and one’s competence, and the greater the levels of physical and mental health, the easier it is for one to take one’s self-perceived ‘rightful’ place in the world. But I want to argue forcefully that we do not deserve our places in the world because we are ‘well enough’ to ‘do something’ and ‘offer something.’ We human beings have the gift of life if we come safely through the womb and into the world, but we don’t have ultimate control of anything. Some people live very healthily and still contract freak diseases and die young. Others live very unhealthily into their late eighties. And mental health seems to be even more capricious – the more we know, the less we know.

Yes, a person may lose their cognitive functionality and reach a point of self-risk where they may have to be sectioned for their own good. This is a sad, vicious reality of our world. But perhaps – even as we are surrounded by various messages about mental health, most of which are less than holistic – we can remember that what we loosely call ‘madness’ is much closer to all of us than we care to admit. The plotline of this TV storyline has done nothing to humanise people who really are genuinely sectioned for their own safety and that of others – instead, it subtly reinforces the unverbalised fear and loathing that many of us feel at the idea of mental illness. As ‘art,’ it may have been compelling viewing, but what are we left with?

Let’s not allow the media to determine our values for us. Let’s choose our values for ourselves, and continue to rethink mental health. One day, you may be the one who needs compassion…