A few weeks ago, I was sorting through some old papers and came across my first ever published article. It was a piece on Christian attitudes towards mental health, published in the (now defunct) New Christian Herald in October 1998. I was 21. It was several years before I began to make my living from writing.
The topic may surprise people who are familiar with my more recent writing. I haven’t mentioned my mental health problems publicly for a long time. Today is World Mental Health Day, and it seems an appropriate time to talk about them. This is not least because people with mental health problems, like disabled people generally, are under attack from the ConDem government and its cuts agenda.
Ill health is real and can be experienced anywhere. The mental distress I experience is real. Just like physical pain, it can be found in any society and culture. I would much rather not have it. Pain, distress and impairments do not exist solely because of society or culture.
But do they lead to disability? What sort of disability? Whether an impairment is disabling is dependent on society.
A society that stops people with mobility impairments from accessing buildings is disabling them. A culture that treats deaf and blind people as objects of pity is disabling them. An employer that refuses to employ someone with dyslexia is disabling them.
We are disabled by society.
This understanding is commonly known as the social model of disability.
The right-wing press seem intent on further disabling large numbers of people by portraying them as scroungers. The government are forcing benefit claimants to be re-assessed by Atos. Atos know that the government want people to be thrown off benefits. Their willingness to find people fit for work would be comical if the consequences were not so horrific. I recently heard from a partially sighted woman who was told by Atos that she had “no difficulty seeing”. This was the first time that any test on her had reached this conclusion and she was deprived of benefits. In York, a woman was reportedly found fit for work despite being sectioned under the Mental Health Act at the time.
The evidence is not only anecdotal. Around 40% of appeals against Atos decisions have been successful.
David Cameron last week claimed that people had been able to receive disability benefits with “no questions asked”. This is a lie. It’s a measure of this government’s approach to society that it is now considered acceptable to demonise disabled people.
In my early twenties, I did a lot of campaigning on mental health issues. I co-founded the Churches’ Campaign for Awareness of Depression (CCAD). It was a short-lived organisation, but I still think it was worth it. Since then, I’ve campaigned on other issues – such as war, the arms trade, sexuality, education and economic inequality.
I’ve not avoided mentioning mental health, but it’s not been a major focus of my work. It’s still a vital issue in my life. I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I experience anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. In the past, I had depression, but I’ve been very lucky and not experienced depression for some years. The severity and frequency of my mental health problems varies considerably. Sometimes I am really quite ill, while at other times my health is pretty good. I am usually somewhere in between.
My difficulties with mental ill-health have also varied a lot depending on the context of my life and work. When I worked office hours in Monday-Friday jobs, it was much harder to deal with my mental health than it is now that I am mostly freelance and can to a large extent manage my own time.
This style of work has a less disabling effect on me. I can, for example, work in the night if I can’t sleep. I can be more flexible about timing to include things that help my health, such as walking or talking with friends. Most people are not so lucky.
I am less disabled because I am not forced into work patterns that make me more ill. But I am still disabled by society’s prejudices, assumptions, structures and economic set-up. When I describe myself as disabled, I am not putting myself down or asking for pity, but describing my experience of society’s priorities.
It is no surprise that many people prefer not to mention health problems or impairments which are associated with prejudice. Some years ago, when desperately looking for work, I was reluctant to mention my mental health problems when applying for jobs. I don’t judge anyone for choosing not to do so.
But when we can identify ourselves as disabled, we take a stand against the structures that disable us. At this moment in particular, we speak out against the assault on disabled people perpetrated by Cameron and the Daily Mail. We make clear that we mention disability not as a cause of shame or pity, but out of a desire for social change.
Speaking in a different context, the gay US politician Harvey Milk said, “The most political thing you can do is come out”. Today, I am publicly coming out as disabled.