The Guardian asked me for a piece yesterday on the news that Catherine Zeta-Jones was being treated for bipolar disorder. Here is the piece I wrote for them.
In an ideal world, it would not take a film star to get the media focused on mental illness. But we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in a celebrity culture where Catherine Zeta-Jones being treated for bipolar disorder can soar to the top of news websites’ ‘most viewed’, and relegate Andrew Lansley’s woes or even David Cameron’s pre election views on immigration.
I am an ambassador for Time to Change, the campaign to change attitudes on mental illness, to break down the stigma and taboo which still surround it. Attitudes are being measured and the campaign appears to be having some success. When England cricketer Michael Yardy left the World Cup because of depression, the ‘pull yourself together … what has he got to be depressed about?’ brigade were in the minority. There is greater understanding but there is still stigma. Some people with mental illness say the discrimination can be worse than the symptoms.
What the mental health charities find deeply frustrating is that they can only get on the media, where attitudes can be challenged and changed, via celebrities. If Catherine Zeta-Jones had been diagnosed with cancer, we would be talking about cancer. It is as though the celebs attached to an issue lead a debate, rather than the issue and how it affects millions of people.
When it comes to mental illness, there is a danger that focus on famous people tends to get in the way of one of our central messages – it can happen to anyone – or that it reinforces one of the myths, that mental illness hits ‘creative, achieving people.’
If you are the charity in question, trying to raise your profile so as to raise funds and awareness for the services you provide, you have to play the game. I was inundated with media bids yesterday and the charities wanted me to take them up. But isn’t it better if a doctor or a nurse goes up? Ah, but they want a name.
So here’s an idea for the Guardian. Take Catherine Zeta-Jones as the ‘peg’. But open a few pages of G2 to fellow sufferers most of us have never heard of. The charities will help find them. Put a teaser at the end of this piece and they’ll come to you. And then your readers will see that not all bipolar sufferers look like Stephen Fry or Catherine Zeta-Jones … They look like the woman next door, the guy on the bus, the colleague across the office, the kid you met on holiday last year.
One in four of us will have a mental illness at some point. That is a lot of people. Very few are film stars. Catherine Zeta-Jones will help raise the profile of the issues, whether she wanted it that way or not. That should lead to better understanding. But as I said when I spoke on mental health, including my own issues of breakdown and depression, to the Royal College of Nursing on Wednesday, better understanding must be an accompaniment to good treatment not a substitute.
I join the many others who wish Catherine Zeta-Jones well and thank her for the support her name alone will lend to our campaign. But there are people with the same illness who cannot get the support they need, who still feel they have to lie about their condition to get or keep a job, and who really worry about the impact of government cuts and reforms that will fundamentally change the way mental health services are run. Those issues should be getting an airing regardless of celebrity support or involvement.
@@@ Alastair Campbell has asked for his fee for this article to go to Rethink