The normality trap

I remember taking a bus to London Bridge when, after a few stops, a woman got on who seemed to move with a subtle but twitchy disregard for her surroundings. She found herself a seat among the Saturday shoppers and divided her time between looking out the window and responding to invisible companions, occasionally shouting at her unseen persecutors.

By East Street, the bus was empty.

You’ve probably encountered fellow travellers who are strikingly out of the ordinary, sometimes quite distressed, scattered among the urban landscape where they seem to have a social forcefield around them that makes crowds part in their presence.

If you’ve ever worked in a hospital or support service for people with psychological or neurological difficulties, you’ve probably met lots of people who are markedly out of step with the mundane rules of social engagement.

They seem to talk too loud, or too fast, or too much. They can be full of fantastical things or fantasies. They may be afraid or angry, difficult or disengaged or intent on rewind-replay behaviours. Their dress can be notable for its eccentricity or decay.

So why don’t we see people like these in anti-stigma campaigns?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of the great work anti-stigma campaigns do. Everybody is susceptible to mental health problems and the reason these campaigns are necessary is that they often go unrecognised by other people and instead of help, too often people receive misunderstanding and ignorance.

But there’s more to mental health than normality.

That woman on the bus shouting at her voices, she deserves respect too. That guy who posts those leaflets about Masons and thought-stealing all over town, deserves your time. The guy that speaks in a clumsy monotone voice and doesn’t look you in the eye, is also worthy of compassion.

Disability charities don’t base their campaigns solely on ‘nice people in wheelchairs’. They’re happy to show people who represent the full range of appearance and presentation. So why not mental health?

Step up mental health organisations, you’ve got nothing to lose except your conformity.

13 Comments

  1. Posted June 25, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting that there have been several movies made over the past couple of years that have gotten a lot of acclaim for honestly examining how our society deals with things like race and sexuality. But probably the movie (of the best-reviewed films of the last couple of years) that most directly dealt with mental illness was Silver Linings Playbook, which portrayed depression and bipolar disorder as somewhat easily-overcome problems in two beautiful people’s lives. It reinforces to me the lack of appreciation we have for looking at the reality of mental health issues.

  2. David
    Posted June 25, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Don’t often comment on posts but loved your challenge in this one-a necessary challenge at that.David

  3. Posted June 25, 2014 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
    A lovely and thoughtful essay. Thank you Vaughan Bell.

  4. andreasaltermann
    Posted June 25, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Yes, to abandon the normal as a goal for all, and say all of us, schould try the much more challenging quest, – who can you really be when you go to your extreme limits, – and still, be tolerated – and tolerate others?

  5. Posted June 25, 2014 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Another Hope Entirely and commented:
    This is brilliant. I totally agree.

  6. Posted June 26, 2014 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    A while ago a man drove a truck through the closed gates of a family employer. He had mental health problems and was convinced the employer was holding some imaginary children hostage. (most mentally ill people are not dangerous, I should add)employees were given a name and a descripton. My boyfriend and I searched the internet to make sure we could recognize his face if we ran into him. We were mesmerized right away. His sentences were so garbled we couldn’t understand what he was saying – until we kept listening, then it almost began to make sense. It looked like he was filming from some kind of storage basement. He was a painter and had a manifesto. He was organized, passionate and meticulous. Incredibly imaginative. He had created an entirely new world. His art was beautiful. I was still afraid of this guy but, strange to say, I’d call myself a fan of his work. I can’t help it, he’s fascinating. If I had heard him rambling on the bus yeah I probably would not want to sit near him, I certainly might not have felt total respect as I do now. He was eventually caught and the last I heard he’s being kept in a psychiatric hospital. How sad that his creativity won’t ever be appreciated the way it should be.

  7. Delia O' Riordan
    Posted June 26, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid I disagree. The people described in the article are the product of official neglect and pathological indifference that was made into law by Ronald Reagan and the tax-obsessed political Right in the Republican party and Thatcherites in the UK. Prior to 1980 it was rare to see homeless, obviously mentally ill people wandering the streets. There have always been some of course but not tens of thousands of them as there were when Reagan’s social thugs rammed a law through Congress cutting Federal funding to the State Hospital system and its supporting agencies in the early 1980s. The same thing happened when Reagan renegged on the Federal mandate to maintain interstate bridges, airports, and Federal highways. The result was obvious: mentally ill patients forced on to the streets and a crumbling physical infra-structure. And for what? To “cut tax rebates to States”. Reagan inherited a balanced budget with a SURPLUS from Pres.Carter and within eight years cut or reduced every Federal service whilst running up the highest deficit in history (up to that point!). Compassion is a universal human repsonsibility but individuals cannot replace entire service sectors of government. Citizens must insist on the government providing out-patient care for those who can function with the help of medication and regular health care and the provision of publicly-funded mental health care facilities for those who cannot cope on their own.

  8. Posted June 26, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post. So much care has been given to NOT stereotyping those with mental illness (though I prefer the term brain disorders)that they are always portrayed as no different than everyone else around them. The truth is those with brain disorders, just like the rest of us, are individuals, and there are so many factors that affect how they appear…..what’s important is that we afford everyone the respect, and care, they deserve.

  9. Harish
    Posted June 26, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Vaughan. Sterotypes need to be targeted, rather than the victims.

  10. Posted June 27, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I almost agree with the original reflections and with most comments. I don’t consider most mental health problems brain-problems or illnesses. I think even compassion can be patronising and can push the person into an infantile dependency state, which is, often, a suppressed desire in all of us. In the psychiatric and mental-health services, esp inside hospitals, the role of the “patient” is precisely that of a child. If s/he tries to behave as an adult, the behaviour is normally interpreted as not-cooperating, lack of insight etc I think often it would help the person who is experiencing internal torment, to be given SPACE and TIME and RESPECT to express the torment. E.g. permission TO SHOUT, cry, laugh, and to be given TOOLS to CREATE. Piroska

  11. Posted July 6, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Are you asking why those people don’t show up at rallies, or why they aren’t invited? They don’t show up because they know they’ll get the same treatment they always get from people: shooed away, hidden where they can’t interact with anyone, laughed at. They aren’t invited out because the people running those rallies have some of the same prejudices that they’re fighting against. Yes, that’s hypocritical, but to them they’re the “good” crazy people, the ones who try to fit in, who don’t rock the boat, who don’t stand out, the ones with the invisible problems. The visible ones are their own category, not the same as the invisible ones.

    Even beyond that, rallies are held to change people’s perceptions. It’s a hateful thing to admit, but if people were capable of fixing prejudice themselves, we wouldn’t have these problems and change wouldn’t take so long. The fact is that people are bad at changing their views. They can’t take huge leaps of progress; they have to take baby steps. Right now, people believe that mental illness makes you dangerous and permanently “stupid”, always volatile, prone to a full scale meltdown from anything at any time. If people who believe those things are shown the visible type of patients, all of those beliefs will be confirmed. No progress will be made. This is why only the invisible people are at those rallies. Only once some progress has been made towards acceptance for the “good” patients can we then work on progress for the “bad” ones.

    Does it stuck and is it unethical? Yes. Is it a necessary consequence of human nature? Yes. Are those who know better excused from showing respect for those who are visibly afflicted until the general public catches up? No. Does that mean we ignore the visible people, contribute to their marginalization, and not help them until progress for the invisible group is made? No.

  12. Catherine
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    The shouting woman deserves respect. I am also entitled to protect myself. Her obvious disregard or unawareness of the superficial aspects of the social compact are a red flag that she might disregard the more serious aspects (like, don’t hit other people). What are the chances that her apparent delusions will include the delusion that I am an enemy to be attacked? (I don’t know.) Also, I tend to avoid people who are visibly angry, because angry people sometimes lash out at bystanders.

    So while I respect that person, I do not have to sit next to her on a bus.

  13. Jen
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m always just real with people like that. I often take my lunch in an urban park where the homeless (mostly an older male black population – and I’m a young white chic, y’all) spend their days waiting for the shelters to open back up in the evenings. If they’re talking out loud to nobody I ask “Now you are you fussin’ at?” and generally they tell me a quick, weird, funny story and move on. Sometimes I have good talks, and sometimes if I’m being asked for money and I think I’m getting a BS story, I call ‘em on it while giving a big bratty smile, “Are you giving me some BS story?” and if they confess they are, I’ll still might give but they have to give me real story about their life in return.

    But, if a person ever makes me uncomfortable, as has happened on occasion, I simply tell that person that what they are saying or doing is making me uncomfortable. In all cases I have received apologies and something like “I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.”


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