Friday, 10 October 2014

World Mental Health Day 2014 - Schizophrenia Awareness



It's World Mental Health Day today and after the loss of my brother to suicide, a day I'm always keen to support. This year the focus is on raising awareness of schizophrenia. It is a condition I know little about, as far as I know I don't know anybody with it (although of course the stigma surrounding the illness may mean I do know people affected but they haven't disclosed it). So it's not a condition that directly affects me nor am I a carer, family member or friend of somebody living with schizophrenia. So why am I writing about it today?
My brother's death was a thunderbolt for me, not just in losing him but also the sudden and stark reminder that mental illness can affect us all, either directly or through the suffering of those close to us. We need to accept that mental illness is just that, illness and we are all susceptible. Therefore just because I don't currently know anybody with schizophrenia it shouldn't mean I don't educate myself about the condition and days like World Mental Health Day mean I can learn more and add my voice to those asking for better understanding, more money to be spent on treatment and support, improving access to care and  ensuring people in need receive the benefits they are entitled to without stigma and discrimination. I believe we have a moral duty as fellow human beings to offer solidarity and advocacy, being a part of society means recognising our obligation to help even if we are not directly affected because ultimately being in that society means we are all affected.
Schizophrenia affects approximately 26 million people globally, people with the condition live 15 - 20 years less than the general population, they are 6 - 7 times more likely to be unemployed, are more often homeless and in contact with the criminal justice system and 5 - 10% more likely to take their own life. Yet treatment and recovery is possible. Around 25% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover fully and a further 25 - 35% show considerable improvement and lead relatively independent lives. It is therefore a major health inequality that so many people with schizophrenia die at a younger age than average. People with schizophrenia are often in poor physical health due to side-effects from anti-psychotic medication, the Mental Health Foundation wants that addressed by requiring that GP's carry out regular health checks for all people with severe mental health problems. It also wants NICE guidelines for the treatment and management of schizophrenia and psychosis to be correctly adhered to, to ensure that people diagnosed with the condition have full access to a range of treatment and support, with the best care possible to help them manage their condition and recover. People also need high quality, safe and rapid access to help when they are having a mental health crisis, that means hospitals should provide comprehensive liaison psychiatry services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A typical misleading and scaremongering headline
We need as a society to demand these rights for people living with mental illness, in the same way we demand the best treatment possible for people suffering physical illnesses. Many people believe mental health and physical health shouldn't be considered separately, the brain after all is a part of the body and people with mental health issues often have physical symptoms too. Indeed the World Health Organisation definition of health is as follows, " Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Recognising mental illness as a physical health issue could go some way to reducing stigma. We need therefore to learn to look beyond the scaremongering headlines, schizophrenia isn't a Care in the Community failure with hordes of dangerous psychotics roaming the streets, 99.7% of people suffering with schizophrenia will not be convicted of a violent crime in a given year, in fact sufferers are 14 times more likely to be a victim of violence. We need to revise old prejudices and realise that one way or another we are all living with schizophrenia and we all have an obligation to educate ourselves, to stop discriminating and to work with sufferers and advocates to ensure those diagnosed receive the full help and support that should be their right.
Statistics and facts taken from the Mental Health Foundation website, please click the link for more information on what schizophrenia is, living with the condition and what needs to be done to help.






Thursday, 8 May 2014

UKIP Go

Yesterday on Facebook I posted a comment about how every day I see so many anti UKIP statuses and links on my timeline and that I've chosen my friends well. One of my friends replied, "Now if only I could say the same about links to bloody Frozen..."
Being the good friend I am (!) I could only respond one way - so with sincere apologies to the writers of Let It Go from Frozen, I give you...

UKIP Go
Farage grins wide on the TV tonight
"No immigrants to be seen
A kingdom for the English
And it looks like I can win

The EU is letting all these foreigners inside
Couldn’t keep them out, heaven knows I tried

Don't let them in, don't let them breed,
Be the English you always want to be
They'll take our jobs and claim the dole
Well I say no"

UKIP go, UKIP go
Can't hold it back any more
UKIP go, UKIP go
Go away and slam the door

I don't care
What you're going to say
Let the bigots rage on
Your lies never bothered me anyway

It's funny how your policies
Cannot be found at all
And the fears you try to pass on
Don't get to me at all

It's time to see what I can do
To stop you racists coming through
I'm right, you're wrong, no lies for me
For I can see

UKIP go, UKIP go
You don't speak for me, don't try
UKIP go, UKIP go
We all know that you lie

Here I stand
And here I'll stay
Let you just rage on

UKIP will run the NHS into the ground
Pregnant women, sick and disabled rights will not be found
And so we need to keep this resolution fast
UKIP can't win, let's consign them to the past

UKIP go, UKIP go
This country won't be torn
UKIP go, UKIP go
I won't rest till you're gone

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let you just rage on
Your lies never bothered me anyway.



Friday, 2 May 2014

Peaches Geldof's death; tragic, not selfish



Yesterday we learned that "Recent use of heroin and the levels identified were likely to have played a role" in Peaches Geldof's tragic death. As well as the many thoughtful comments I read yesterday I saw several which were quick to condemn her actions as those of a junkie mother who deserves no sympathy. Rather than being so quick to start pointing the finger we need to think about what demons drove her to drugs. She was clearly a mother who adored her children, so to be at a point where she would need to take heroin in their presence (if reports are true she had one of her children in the house with her when she died) then that doesn't say selfishness to me, it suggests an overpowering desperation. Addiction is not enjoyable, it's an illness that controls and destroys lives. There is so much stigma around mental health and addiction possibly gets the worst of it. Heroin use can be a destructive vicious circle; the short term high may relieve physical and emotional pain but the long term effects of taking it are dependency and depression relieved only briefly by another hit. We can't know why Peaches turned to the drug that killed her own mother, what dark place she may have been in. Instead of being so quick to judge why people become addicted to something maybe we should accept we don't know their lives and what led them to their drug of choice? Even if elements of our lives are similar we are not them, we've not lived the same lives, not felt the same emotions,  not experienced the same pain and the desperate need to end that pain.
My brother was a heroin addict. He killed himself in 2012. Not with heroin, he gassed himself in his car but his postmortem showed he had drugs in his body at the time of his death. The last thing we as his family needed to hear after he died was that he had been selfish (and we did hear it a few times). When your world has been tilted from its axis, when your head is so full of every emotion imaginable you fear it might explode, when it feels as though part of you has been violently ripped out you do not need to hear that the person you loved chose to leave you through selfishness. The note he left showed we were in his thoughts, he had been thinking of us but he believed the pain he was feeling had become such that dying was his only option, he couldn't bear it any more.
Peaches deserves compassion; none of us know what she was feeling in her last few moments, but so too do her family, they need the time and space to grieve the woman they loved. What they don't need is strangers making cruel judgements on a situation they know next to nothing about. They will be experiencing  overwhelming emotions right now and anger will probably be one of them. That is normal and is their right, it is not our right to feel sanctimonious anger on their behalf. Their anger is not likely to last, it's just one feeling amongst the horrible confusion of feelings that come with a sudden and unexpected death. They don't need an uniformed public being angry and critical on their behalf. Her children in particular don't need to grow up in the glare of publicity as "the poor children left by the selfish and tragic Peaches Geldof." They need to know their mother loved them totally, that she didn't choose to leave them but she needed the unbearable pain that engulfed her to end and that is what led to her tragic loss of life (the same holds true for whether she hoped for a temporary respite from hurting or wanted it to end permanently). It wasn't selfishness nor recklessness, she was driven by the sort of anguish that most of us should count our lucky stars we can't even really imagine.
If you can't accept that then perhaps just consider this is one of those times where "if you can't say something nice..." should come into play.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Marriage, homosexuality and the matter of choice.

Equal marriage is back in the news as tomorrow (29th March) same sex couples will be able to marry in England and Wales. Predictably those who disagree with the law are raising their voices again in what is hopefully a last gasp feeble protest.
If we ignore their suggestions that equal marriages undermine the foundation of marriage and marriage is for the procreation of children - marriages are undermined by factors like infidelity, abuse or contempt not by the institution no longer being an exclusive club for heterosexual couples, and couples who wed after the woman was fertile, who are unable to conceive and those who decide to remain child-free are also presumably wrong - we're left with the matter of choice.
Firstly the choice to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. If that's a choice then I and millions of others chose to be straight. I don't remember making that choice...because I didn't. Therefore why the assumption that people make a decision not to be heterosexual? It's clearly nonsense.
So then the assertion follows that if people don't choose to be gay they at least choose to act on it and here's where bigotry really rears its ugly head. What these people are doing is trying to deny mutually consenting gay people the same basic right we straight people have. The freedom and right to form sexual relationships. Instead they believe people should ignore their feelings and live an abstinent lie. Such arrogance (for that's what it is) is unbelievable. What gives anyone the right to take away somebody else's choice just because they don't like it?
If you are getting married soon then I wish you every happiness. The only effect equal marriage will have on my marriage is that finally I won't be in that exclusive club, I'm glad the doors are finally open to all. Now we just need to start calling it "marriage" regardless of the sex of the couple tying the knot.


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I am judging children's books by their covers

This is my six year old daughter, Maggie. She likes princesses, fairies and kittens. She also likes superheroes, aeroplanes and dragons. She has a Lalaloopsy mermaid and a Playmobil pirate ship, a Rapunzel dress and a Spiderman costume. She plays with soft toys and with her remote controlled car.




She also likes books, mostly when I read to her but she's beginning to read to herself too, she recently loved The Dinosaur's Packed Lunch by Jacqueline Wilson. Her favourites are The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Fox in Socks and Zog.
As she grows older I don't want her being told that certain books aren't for her. I want her to choose a book based on whether she thinks she will find it interesting or fun, not because she's been told it's meant for girls. More importantly I don't want her rejecting books because the front cover tells her it's for boys.
Let Toys Be Toys has recently been campaigning against gendered books for children and in the light of this The Independent and The Independent on Sunday announced they will no longer be reviewing gender-specific children's books. Whilst many people have applauded the campaign not everybody agrees, with the usual cries of censorship and accusations of not accepting that girls and boys have different tastes and shouldn't be forced into books that don't interest them just to prove a point and to create a homogenised society that doesn't recognise the natural differences between the sexes.
Surely though by telling children that a book isn't for them they have less choice? Yes more boys may choose books about tractors and pirates and more girls may be drawn to fairies and butterflies (at 5 or 6 my eldest daughter would have picked the fairies every time) and that's fine but not all of them will and they deserve the right to make their own choices. There can still be books called "The Big Book of Tractor Driving Pirates" or "Pretty Fairies Fly with the Butterflies" but neither also needs a "helpful" blue or pink cover and the words "boys" or "girls" emblazoned on the front. Just imagine if well-loved children's books were marketed like this; "The Gruffalo - A Monster Book for Boys" or "Tales of Peter Rabbit - Bunny Tales for Girls". Once a young child can read they will be led by what they're told and if they see a book labelled as not for them they won't read it for fear of being wrong, even before then colour will influence their choices. Do not underestimate how quickly children start to believe that certain toys or books are gender-specific, Maggie even came home from school saying a boy in her class said her umbrella is for boys. Her umbrella is a clear dome with a green tortoise on it. All this campaign is asking is that children are allowed to be guided by their tastes and interests and not by prescriptive - and restrictive - front covers.
You can sign the Let Books be Books petition here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

But what if one life is saved...?

Last Wednesday I wrote about The Sun's Check 'Em Tuesday campaign, No More Page 3 retweeted the link and posted it on their Facebook wall. The response was phenomenonal, to date it's had over 14,100 views and I've been touched by the many kind words I've received, clearly this is an issue that has affected many people.
Naturally I've been reading other people's responses too, both for and against the campaign. One thing that has struck me is the view that it's somehow churlish of those of us who have been angered or upset to complain because if one life is saved it will have been worth it. I don't believe for one moment that anybody will be hoping that no lives are saved nor do I believe that they won't be as pleased as the next person should there be an early diagnosis. However, I don't think that this means The Sun should be free from criticism, that we shouldn't question their motives and discuss whether they could achieve more success by handling the issue differently. To use a clumsy analogy, when the Titanic sank the response wasn't "well at least some people were saved." Lessons were learned resulting in a complete overhaul of maritime safety laws around the world.
I am not against The Sun joining forces with Coppafeel to run a breast cancer campaign aimed at young women and I'm not naive enough to believe that newspapers align themselves with charities for purely philanthropic reasons. I realise they do it to sell more copies. Nevertheless I still think there is an important distinction between hoping increased goodwill leads to more sales and using a campaign to justify an increasingly criticised feature within the paper. The former can be overlooked as nobody is harmed, the latter has led to people affected by cancer, either directly or through loved ones to be hurt and outraged. And this isn't an empty manufactured outrage. When I first saw the front page of The Sun last week I was momentarily stunned. Losing my mother has shaped my life, the day she died is burned into my memory. The woman who I was closest to in the world, who could laugh until she shook, who despite being only 5 feet and half an inch could make men who towered over her meekly apologise when she was angry, didn't recognise us any more. Dosed up on morphine in a hospital bed we didn't get to share any meaningful last words, we sat and we watched until her breathing slowed and then stopped. One of my brothers killed himself in 2012, his depression quite possibly originally triggered due to her death when he was only nineteen. The Sun has cruelly and blatantly trampled on people like me and the many women and men who have ever been diagnosed with breast cancer and for that I am furious. Regardless of whether a life is saved The Sun still deserves to be criticised for what is an unforgivable decision. They could have made it The Sun v. Breast Cancer, foregone any Page Three involvement and featured ordinary women. After all they managed it later in the week with their feature on men's cancer for the far less publicised Going Commando campaign.


A telling comparison of the images used by The Sun last week.

Lives may be saved but what if more lives could have been saved had they done it differently? Page Three after all exists for men, will that many women really respond to a sexualised image of a perfect body or would they be better reached by less salacious means? Will this campaign really lead to a permanent change in the habits of young women or will this see a short-lived increase in self-examinations that will be forgotten once The Sun moves on to another headline grabbing stunt?
I grew up in a council house, my dad worked in a factory and read The Sun. Twenty years ago I was one of the women allegedly targeted by this campaign. Twenty years ago I was on the verge of losing my mum to breast cancer. Any life saved by Check 'Em Tuesday is a success but let's not pretend this is anything other than cynical exploitation. Does the end justify the means? Perhaps...but that doesn't mean we shouldn't shout loudly when the means could have been done differently and better.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Breast cancer awareness should be much more than tits out for the lads.

In 1992 when I was 20 my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her own mother died in 1986 and her mother was also killed by it. For two years I watched her fight, after she had a double mastectomy we soon learned that her cancer was terminal and treatment would be palliative only but she was determined to live as long as she could and as well as she could. We went through some dark times, when she was hunched over the toilet bowl after another round of chemotherapy, when she reacted badly to the antiemetic drugs, when she cried at the thought of leaving us. It wasn't all awful though, she had a wicked sense of humour and we laughed a lot during those two years, people who knew her will remember somebody who was a positive force and an inspiration and comfort to other cancer sufferers.
She died in 1994 aged just 42 years. I am now 41 and so have lived most of my adult life without a mother. With my family history I've always been aware of my own risk and last year had my first mammogram which was thankfully clear but I've been told I should have them yearly.
So breast cancer awareness is something that is very close to my heart and I would love to be able to applaud The Sun for their latest campaign but when I saw the front page of their paper yesterday I was upset and angry. How dare they use the disease that killed my mum to justify Page 3? How could they be so insensitive as to show a model cheekily posing in just her knickers as the face of breast cancer awareness when there are women who have undergone mastectomies? How dare they patronise and demean the young women of this country by suggesting this is the best way to raise awareness of the disease in the under thirties? I do think that people need to be reminded that breast cancer isn't just a disease of older women, it affects young women and men too but how is a Page 3 model the best choice for that? Why not feature a young woman with breast cancer on their front page? Why not feature a man? Male breast cancer is rarely discussed.
Some people have said that if the campaign saves one life it will be worth it and despite my own opposition to their tawdry and cynical attempt to make Page 3 respectable I hope that they do succeed. However, let's not pretend this is anything but self-serving. An early diagnosis to The Sun will mean an opportunity for a gloating headline, nothing more than that. If they want to change the minds of those of us who feel this is exploitative publicity grabbing for all the wrong reasons then they need to stop linking the disease to sexuality. They need to show us front page pictures of the women who have been affected by cancer. People like my friend Tigs Barnes who had had a double mastectomy eight years ago. Several attempts at implant reconstruction failed and in 2008 she had a  successful bilateral diep reconstruction -  the gold-standard method - which uses skin, blood vessels and fat from the patient's abdomen.  After I took to Facebook to rant about The Sun yesterday Tigs bravely made the decision to post photos of herself showing her scars.


 This is what women who have fought breast cancer look like. They may not be the media's idea of perfection but they are beautiful and strong. Most importantly they are still here, so when I discuss breast cancer and the importance of checking your breasts to my daughters I won't be showing them a tacky picture from The Sun, I'll be showing them Tigs and telling them that breast cancer doesn't need to be a killer. Not always as I know only too well but early diagnosis can be the difference. Isn't that a better message for young women?

I have published Tigs' pictures here with her full knowledge and consent.

 Jessica Dean of Brighton has set up a petition at change.org suggesting that if The Sun really wants to prove it cares about raising awareness of breast cancer and not publicity for Page Three then it should feature this image on its front page.