We’re all pretty bored of hearing about Jeremy Corbyn, right? Sure, we might be on the precipice of a radically new era of political discourse but, like, change the record guys. Get some new tweets.
Well, sorry. Because here is yet another Jeremy Corbyn thinkpiece. I’m not arguing whether or not he’ll make a good Prime Minister or even a good Labour leader, though. I’m just excited by his newly appointed shadow Cabinet.
I appreciate this might make me sound like the dullest dinner party guest of all time, but bear with me. What Corbyn has done to interest me is announce a brand new position – of which there’s no current equivalent in the existing Tory Cabinet – for shadow Minister for Mental Health. And while in-depth details of the role are still to be forthcoming, its mere existence could mean the start of a far more open conversation around mental health. (Corbyn also eschewed the Andrew Marr Show to attend a mental health rally, where he highlighted the importance of frank discussion around the topic, so he’s proving to be pretty good on this stuff already).
You might be questioning the need for the Minister – do we really need a specific department to deal with this stuff? The answer is yes. Recent stats around NHS funding for mental health are shocking – since 2010, mental health funding has been slashed by 8% (the equivalent of nearly £600m). And that’s despite the fact referrals have risen by nearly 20%.
Culturally, too, the language of mental health is still used to denigrate, to patronise, to condemn. Only this week a Telegraph article referred to new shadow Chancellor John McDonnell as a ‘nutjob’ – and even when the term was subbed out it was changed to ‘is living in cloud cuckoo land’ which is faintly but barely more palatable. The journalist later apologised but added the caveat that it “hadn’t even occurred” to him that the the term ‘nutjob’ might be offensive.
And that’s kind of the point. Whether he was being disingenuous or not, the fact is that many people don’t even think of mental illness as being something oppressive, of it being an identity people are discriminated against for. The language of mental health is thrown around on a daily basis – “the weather is so bipolar” or “it’s Bedlam in there” – with absolutely no regard for what it might actually mean. But the subtext is clear: mental illness is A Bad Thing. I’ve never heard anyone use the term ‘loony’ in a positive light, for example. It’s always because someone has said something stupid or bad or unreasonable. Which, by extension, makes actual loonies feel like we’re also stupid or bad or unreasonable.
Most people who use this language don’t even think about those consequences, though. They don’t think about what they’re saying at all, really, but if they did they would never connect real mentally ill people with the image they have in their heads. Those mentally ill people are out of control caricatures, ‘off their heads’, moods swinging wildly from euphoria to despair like a horrifying pair of theatre masks. They don’t think about how those words – nutter, loonie, mental – are used against us on a daily basis, how they’re used to make our experiences less legitimate, make us feel small and worthless, make us feel like we’re broken. It would be nice if they were ‘just words’ but there’s no such thing.
It would be naive to think that a ministerial position is going to be a panacea for all of this, but it may prove to be the perfect springboard for open discussions about where we’re going wrong. And, most importantly, it lets us nutjobs know that someone, for once, is taking us seriously.
Main image © iStock/marrio31