Monday, March 30, 2015

Out of your Mind

I know the moment I switched on the radio on Friday morning and heard that Andreas Lubitz, the now-infamous Germanwings pilot, had suffered from depression, I knew there’d be trouble. Sure enough, I soon found the tabloids trying to whip up hysteria, effectively branding all sufferers of mental illness as a grave and inherent danger, intent on the destruction of all around them, and calling for a blanket ban on anyone flying. Before long, the “general public” had been invited to join the scrum, and were doing so joyfully in every comments forum on every media website that offered the opportunity. Many of the contributions were vicious, personal, and with very little basis in fact.

I was relieved, then, when Mind issued a statement responding to the event, inviting its readers to complain to the media about their reporting of the tragedy and the fact that it was not “responsible”.

What happened next was arguably the very definition of ironic. Inevitably, the post elicited many comments. Many simply missed the point, responding with outrage that Mind were somehow supporting mass murder (which clearly they were not); others responded with a kneejerk reaction already echoed in the press that depressed people clearly shouldn’t be allowed to fly, ever. Some went further and suggested there were many jobs that depressed people should not be allowed to do. And a few used it as an opportunity to make cruel, unfounded personal attacks, like this example (one of many):

I messaged Mind on Twitter querying the unchallenged presence of such posts on their Facebook page, and was actually rather shocked by the response (over 3 tweets) which read: “We do moderate comments and remove those we think are v likely to be triggering but we do not censor on the basis of someone having disagreeable views. It is a delicate balance and if you could like to complain about our handling please contact our complaints department.”
I was horrified for several reasons. Firstly, I object to being spoken to like a naughty 6-year-old: I felt the reference to censorship to be patronising and rude, implying that somehow I do not agree with free speech; secondly, I’m appalled by their definition of a “disagreeable view”; thirdly, I felt they were challenging me to make a complaint: “go on then, complain, see if we care” – because clearly they don’t.

Let’s be clear: many people do, sadly, have highly disagreeable views – this event has shown this only too starkly - and when they are aired they are often challenged (though perhaps to no avail) by other posters. This is fine. This is "debate", as much as one can debate with ignoramuses. But deliberately going to a mental health support page and directing comments at potentially vulnerable individuals, branding depression as indulgent and sneering at their opinions, is not “disagreeable”. It’s bullying. And Mind are saying they support that.

I also take issue with the fact they claim not to censor, when everybody else effectively does. Many a time I’ve logged onto the Guardian and seen “This comment has been removed by the moderator” in place of a post, because that post is deemed to have contravened forum rules. You cannot ever, for example, say something racist –it’s against the law. Similarly, comments of a sexual nature on a forum aimed at young people might be deemed inappropriate and probably be removed. Some things are simply not OK in certain situations: I manage a Facebook page as part of my job which is aimed at international students. If someone were to come on there and say, for example, that all international students should leave the UK, and I did not remove it or challenge it, I would fully expect to be called into my manager’s office and be asked what the heck I was doing. It wouldn't be an illegal comment, some might even think it a valid opinion, but it would be entirely inappropriate for that forum and potentially damaging for its client base

Mind is an organisation that sets out to support those with mental illness, to campaign for better services and equality, and to speak out against injustice. As an extension of this, one would expect that these values would be adhered to on their Facebook page too, and that (as much as is ever possible on Facebook) those struggling with mental illness would expect to feel safe there. Mental health sufferers know only too well that many have “disagreeable” views and do not need to be reminded of this, condescendingly or otherwise, but would reasonably expect that, when such views appear on the page of a mental health charity (especially if aimed at an individual), they would either be removed or challenged. Mind did neither. And then defended its lack of action to someone who had raised concerns. Perhaps it would have been wiser and more honest to simply admit they did not have the staff capacity to police it properly, and put a disclaimer in the post to warn people of this? I think that's probably closer to the truth, but instead it was implied to me that I was being illiberal and should suck it up.

Mind proudly claims the following on its website:
Our values
Mind's values are at the heart of everything we do.
Open
We reach out to anyone who needs us
Together
We're stronger in partnerships
Responsive
We listen, we act
Independent
We speak out fearlessly
Unstoppable
We never give up

Yesterday, as I read their tweets in disbelief, I did not feel "reached out" to, I felt abandoned; I did not feel listened to, I felt preached at; I had not seen them speaking out. My perception instead was that they were condoning bullying; a page surely aiming to provide support for those with mental illness was instead being harnessed to give the tormentors a voice, with Mind’s blessing; and, worse, Twitter was being used to put someone reaching out for help firmly back in their place: “not happy? Fine. Whatever. Go complain.”

The last few days has shown that mental illness is one of the last acceptable prejudices. It has shown up a shocking amount of misunderstanding, assumption and even hatred. It has hurt me and made me reluctant to challenge unacceptable or misinformed views, and it must have hurt and scared others who are in a far more vulnerable place than I am. The message to sufferers once again is that they should keep quiet about their problems, for fear of a negative reaction, or even unemployment, that those with mental illness are a problem at best, or a threat at worst. And now, for me at least, there is one less place we can trust to help us when we need it.

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