Time To Talk

I first started writing about mental health - badly, clumsily and shakily - several years ago. I've always tweeted about my own life, but never with the idea of "mental health" at the forefront of my mind, even if now I look back at desperate, 4am tweets from 2012 and wonder why I didn't see myself as somebody who might need help. After a particularly bad psychotic episode, which started with my believing somebody had been breaking into my university halls room to use my shower when I wasn't there and ended up with me not leaving bed for three days because I believed that I was dead, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I might actually be "mentally ill".

So I started blogging - anonymously at first, and then more publicly to approximately six readers on a badly designed (now thankfully defunct) Wordpress blog. I talked to people online about it, too - a little secret cabal where we'd talk about treatment and medication and make fun of stupid things our care workers or therapists had said. We often talked about politics. 

Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically. My own career is evidence of that - though I also write about gender and science and tech, and love to do so, my work is overwhelmingly about mental health. I'm hardly rolling in money, but a career like mine simply wouldn't have been possible five years ago. There's an appetite for it now, a marked shift in the way that publications want to cover mental health, and how much they want to do so. Charities who have been helping mentally ill people for years are gaining more traction, bigger campaigns, more coverage. Mentally ill people are here to stay, my friends, and my god are we ready for our close up. 

Out of this discourse has emerged one particularly prominent issue: stigma. I've written about it myself: here, for The Pool, and here, for Huck Magazine, if you're interested. Campaigns like Time to Talk, billboard and online campaigns from the Samaritans and other charities, even celebrities sharing their own experiences: all aimed at making people feel less ashamed of their mental health problems and more willing to seek help. 

A focus on stigma is good, valid and important. I strongly believe that and will never criticise anyone who chooses to focus both on stigma and on the way that it impacts upon people's real lives, careers and relationships. But what I'd also like to see mental health campaigners do is talk about politics, and to get politically engaged.

One of the key tenets of tackling stigma is increasing people's willingness to seek help for their mental health problems. This is a particularly important issue for men: men are far less likely to talk about depression, something charities like CALM are rightly taking on. But I'd raise the question: what if you ask for help and it's not there?

That, unfortunately, is the case for many people. The NHS, which the Conservative government seem so intent on carving up, is under immense strain in every area - you've probably all seen the Red Cross call conditions in the NHS a "humanitarian crisis", something Jeremy Hunt unconvincingly denies. As I wrote for the New Statesman, "anyone who has spent time on a psychiatric ward, or even tried to get a timely referral to NHS therapy services, will know that there are serious structural problems". 

There's also the caving in of the welfare system: people are not only dying en masse because of current cuts to the benefits system but also killing themselves. Local NHS trusts are given smaller and smaller budgets with which to administer mental healthcare, but finding themselves using the funds for other things because they simply do not have enough money to cover both primary and secondary care. Teenagers are being sent halfway across the country, away from friends and family, to CAMHS wards in places they've never even heard of because of lack of inpatient beds. Out of hours community care has been cut in line with broader cuts to the NHS, leading to the number of people turning up to A&E with psychiatric emergencies rising to 20,000 a year in 2015 - a situation I myself was put in when no adequate care was available elsewhere. The list goes on. 

What is clear here is that mental healthcare in the UK is undergoing significant, devastating strain, that this strain is impacting mentally ill people, and that those two things are inextricably linked to governmental policy. This is why Theresa May's repeated use of the word "solidarity" in her speech a few weeks ago bothered me so much - why, in fact, it made me absolutely furious. Because politicians like her - right wing politicians, specifically - are using ideas like stigma as a way to avoid practical and structural problems that they continue to exacerbate through thoughtless, illiberal policy implementation.

Where's her solidarity for people who have killed themselves because their benefits have been unfairly taken away? Where's her solidarity for people with chronic mental health conditions, mired in a bureaucratic system that seems designed merely to "get them back to work" and "increase their productivity" rather than to help them stay safe and stable? Where's her solidarity for the people who work in these services, who are watching their wards or their clinics or their teams being absolutely destroyed by budget cuts? Where's her solidarity for people of colour with mental health problems, more likely to be detained by the police than given appropriate psychiatric care? An article in the British Medical Journal found that there are "no properly commissioned mental health services in Yarl's Wood", a detention centre she herself oversaw as the Home Secretary. Where's her solidarity for the women and children unfairly detained there? 

Caring about these things is solidarity. But for Theresa May and her ilk, "solidarity" is just a meaningless buzzword you can roll out in an attempt to distract from wider structural problems. For those of us who are desperately in need not only of support but of solidarity, it's offensive at best and devastating at worst. 

I understand why charities can't condemn whole political parties or movements – they don't want to alienate anyone, for one thing, and they need to work apolitically alongside whichever party is in power. I would never expect for a second for CEOs of large charities to come out against any political party or figure. No matter how they feel about austerity measures or political policies - they simply can't. 

But many of us don't have to tread so carefully, and we shouldn't. Those of us who really do care about solidarity, about marginalised groups, about people with non-media friendly conditions like personality disorders or schizophrenia, about anyone with mental health problems: we need to remember that, beyond all shadow of a doubt, mental health is political. 

On Nice Guys

When I met Ben, I just knew. I fell in love almost instantly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; he was charming, good looking, outgoing.

And most of all, he was nice. Every time I was introduced to a friend of his, they’d spend hours gushing about how nice he was, how nice it was that he’d found somebody. He was a good bloke, basically; solid, dependable, “a laugh”. And he was romantic, too – I got jewellery, notes, flowers. He made a fuss of my birthday; he charmed my parents. He wasn’t ostentatiously charismatic – he was outgoing, but quietly so. He never showed off. He was kind.

So how, eight months later, did I end up cowering on the floor of my flat as he smashed a bowl into my head?

When you think of someone who is violent to their partner – as Ben was to me on this and other occasions – you don’t think of someone as effortlessly charming as he was, as outwardly kind, as respectable. You think of someone moody or temperamental; someone more obviously unpredictable. But this doesn’t reflect the reality of a vast number of abusive relationships.

“Abusers manipulate their victims carefully and purposefully,” Sandra Horley, chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge, told me. “They switch readily between charm and rage like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. To an outsider, the perpetrator may appear to be the perfect, caring partner.”

Domestic abuse predominantly affects women – according to the Office for National Statistics, 28.3% of us have experienced it. It can include physical violence, but also encompasses sexual abuse, emotional abuse, harassment or stalking, online abuse and “coercive control”, which Women’s Aid define as “a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control”.

“What a lot of these men have in common is that they are invariably the last people anyone would suspect of abusing their partners,” Horley said. “They are the ‘nice guys from next door’ who are always willing to do a neighbour a favour: they’ll mend the plumbing, weed the garden, jump-start the car. They may be the men who seem to uphold strict moral standards, who are popular at parties or in the local pubs. Or they may be quiet, ‘steady’ chaps, the ones you can always rely on. They present a likeable face to the rest of the world. Charm obscures the abuser.”

This is never clearer than in the complete absolution of the numerous celebrities who have attacked their partners; Chris Brown, Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen… all more or less cleared in the court of public judgement, even once officially charged with attacks. Why? Because we like them. Because we don’t think of them as “abusers”. We think of them as charismatic or funny or talented or maybe even misunderstood; Charlie Sheen even, for a while, became a meme.

And when the recent (and as yet unsubstantiated) claims against Johnny Depp from wife Amber Heard hit the headlines, many of his fans were quick to defend him. He couldn’t possibly have done it, they said, because he just isn’t ‘the kind of man’ to attack a partner. His friend Paul Bettany tweeted that Depp was the “sweetest, kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever known”. This defence is less about facts or evidence and more about moral judgement, more about character traits and what those character traits might imply about his ability to hurt someone.

Charm doesn’t just obfuscate the impact of domestic abuse, either – it can also perpetuate it. Emotional abuse, which was criminalised in 2015, can be far more insidious than physical violence, but just as psychologically damaging. Horley told me that controlling behaviour can be “incredibly subtle” – things like possessiveness can appear caring to begin with, but later become more forceful, and in some cases violent.

The things that initially attracted me to Ben slowly, and without my noticing, turned into something more sinister. His pride at being with me curdled into terrifyingly dark jealousy; protectiveness turned into control, with friends he carefully warned me about literally banished from our lives. The gifts he gave me, which had once been simple gestures of affection, became transactional; if he gave me something, even if I hadn’t asked for it, he would expect sex and become violent if he didn’t get it.

But because he was so charming, I believed him when he told me it was all my fault. “I’m not like this with anyone else,” he’d tell me after a particularly vicious argument. “You’re the only person to bring it out in me.” He’d once bitten my face after I’d asked him to stop during sex and I remember lying there afterwards, asking myself what I’d done wrong. I scolded myself for saying no; I wondered how I could make amends in the morning.

It was a common pattern in our relationship – he’d be violent or aggressive or verbally abusive, yet I’d be the one who apologised. I’d be the one to send a regretful text the next day saying I loved him and hoped he still loved me too; I’d be the one to buy a make up present or cook dinner to paper over the cracks. I never stopped to question his assertion that it was all my fault – he was so nice, after all – it must have been me who was the problem.

Horley noted how important it is for women to realise they’re experiencing domestic violence without ever being physically abused. Many men, convinced of their own inherent niceness, never hit their partners – but they do abuse them psychologically or emotionally. “If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused,” she said. “The grinding impact of emotional abuse can chip away at a woman’s sense of self. She may gradually begin to believe her abuser when he tells her, day in, day out, that she is worthless, that nobody cares about her but him.”

Polly Neate, CEO for Women’s Aid, agreed.

“We live in a culture that romanticises the kind of behaviour that can be masking something much more sinister – ‘he loves me so much! He wants to be with me all the time! He wants to know where I am all the time!’ So that also has a very damaging impact on women,” Neate said.

And this stereotype often means that survivors “just do not realise what’s happening until too late”. Both Women’s Aid and Refuge encourage women to edicate themselves on different kinds of abuse; as Horley notes, it doesn’t always get physical. Both charities also have resources for women who are worried about their relationships, and have advice for women who are still in relationships with their abusers as well recent survivors. Refuge also urge people who are concerned about friends to get in touch with them in order to offer the best support.

I can’t say I’ve really experienced any closure from the relationship, although my romantic feelings faded a long time ago. It’s not that I’m not over my ex – far from it – but more that the psychological scars have continued to have an impact on all of my subsequent relationships. I often have nightmares about it, and I find it hard to trust partners; when I upset someone or we have a fight, there’s always a tiny part of me that expects them to be violent towards me, even if the person I’m with has shown no signs of emotional or physical abuse. And even years later, I still catch myself thinking that maybe he was right, and that maybe I really was the problem. I come across pictures of him and his current girlfriend on mutual friends’ feeds, and I wonder how he acts with her; it’s hard to imagine that the gritted-teeth, red-faced fury he turned on me could ever apply in what seems like a picture perfect relationship.

Then I remember the things I did to placate him, the sex I didn’t want but submitted to anyway, the desperate pleas for him to calm down. I look at my face and see a tiny purple scar on my cheek from where he bit down on it, I feel the tiny dent in my forehead where ceramic hit skull. It’s only then I remember that his appearance and his demeanor meant nothing; he wasn’t so nice, after all, and it definitely wasn’t my fault.