Friday, 19 August 2016

A Sorry State.

After writing in my last post about how the Tories, under Theresa May's leadership, seem to want to convince us that it is they who are the true party of social justice, I thought I'd just give a taste of what's happened to mental health services in Stoke-on-Trent since the Conservatives took office. It's a sorry tale, told from my own perspective, full of sound and fury and signifying, hopefully, a great deal. As I take the pulse of our beloved NHS, it's once mighty pounding now seems but a faint, hollow, weak ticking, drowned out by the roar of the philosophies of free marketism and austerity.
It has always been my aim in this blog to give a positive spin on people's ability to recover from even the most severe of mental illnesses. By using my own experience as an example, I have sought to say, in numerous posts, that leading a so-called "normal" life is possible, given the right support and treatment. However, as I look at the sorry state mental health services appear to be in within my own locality, I am beginning to think that such things, if not entirely eroded, are certainly becoming more difficult to achieve.
I was actually discharged from secondary care for the second time around 18 months ago. By all accounts, this should really be a success story. I have recovered well and achieved many things. But, not everyone shared this perspective. My GP, for instance, said to me that he was "extremely annoyed" that I'd been discharged as, according to him, I should be being monitored, if only because of the nature of the medication I take. Indeed, I have been told in the past that my condition is a chronic one which would require life-long support, but this belief seems to have soon faded in the light of the many cuts that have been made to our mental health service. Those in practice have argued that these are not the days of the long-stay asylums and when well enough, people have to be discharged. However, with the central government policy of austerity cuts came thick and fast. Around 34 nursing jobs were lost, our local resource unit was closed, and the group I attend once a week was forced out into the community and the staff who once facilitated it were withdrawn. Indeed, the group remains my one avenue of help, but without professional support and dwindling numbers of attendees, it is hardly the dynamic aid to people's recovery it was in days of old. So, it may be suggested that this is merely progress by some, but to others, my GP for example, it is an abrogation of responsibility on behalf of mental health services. He sees it as people being wrongly discharged back into his care, and we all know of the strain faced by GP surgeries. Even within our group, it has been noted that more and more people are being discharged from secondary care, only to find scant support beyond that point.
After expressing his anger at the way I had been dealt with, my GP, who had been with me for many years, also seemed to let me down, leaving to work at a different surgery. So  now it seems as if any professional who really knew or understood my history of illness has gone from my life, and I'm left feeling slightly unsure about the quality of the care I'm receiving. In fact, you could say there's very little care or support there at all. Indeed, with the group as my one avenue of help, my life may well rapidly descend into one of loneliness and isolation. The voluntary work I once did has all but dried up, so I'm left with plenty of time to ponder just where my life is headed and to wonder what is going to happen. Will I find a way out of this, or with the way things are going, will it just become increasingly hard?
Even the group I attend, as I've suggested, is not without its problems. To give one example, a new member was introduced to the group (a couple of years ago now) by an Occupational Therapist. It so happened that she had discharged him from secondary care and had sought out our group as something which may have given him at least some support. We welcomed him in, as it is a rarity that those who come to our group are not made to feel welcome. He liked the group and so was left with us, but after only a couple of weeks began to complain of suicidal thoughts and indeed, had harmed himself with a knife which he had taken to his stomach, wrists and neck. This was no empty bleating either. I saw the marks which had been left myself. He asked me for advice, to which all I could say was that he should return to secondary care. But he didn't want to and the result has been that, on occasion, other members of the group have had to act as some kind of de facto nursing team. We asked for help but in the long run received none, and I still can barely restrain my anger at the OT who saw fit to not only discharge a clearly unwell man, but to bring him to a group which she must have been aware was a  user-led entity without even the slightest bit of professional support.
So, as  our mental health service seems to decline more and more, it would appear that more and more unwell people will be left to virtually fend for themselves. And I wouldn't begin to feel safe even if your problems are of the physical kind. Only yesterday I read of another local hospital losing beds. Management justified their loss by saying that this would give more people the opportunity to be cared for at home. Without adequate social care one wonders how this will happen without disastrous consequences, and indeed it was the same rationale which was used by mental health services to try to paper over the fact that cuts were being made and it was going to hurt. Our local drug and alcohol service is also going to be affected, and as many feel such addictions are self-inflicted one can't imagine any great public outcry over that.
However, a public outcry is exactly what should happen, Our beloved NHS is being dismantled and is falling apart in front of our very eyes. It is sometimes hard to know who exactly to be angry at when one receives shoddy care, but for me one must trace things back to the source of the problem, and that is our current Conservative government. Welcome to the era of Tory social justice.                  

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Will the Real Party of Social Justice Please Stand Up?

So, after "Brexit" and all the ensuing hue and cry, here in the UK we are finally getting a new Prime Minister. After David Cameron's resignation later today, Theresa May will go boldly where only Margaret Thatcher has gone before her by becoming the second female Prime Minister of our green and pleasant land. Indeed, it seems that May wants to usher in something of a new era for the Conservative Party, and has spoken of being that much fabled of things, a "One Nation" Tory. As such, it seems she wants to create a land of social justice, where opportunity is open to all, not just the privileged few, and  where things like tax avoidance and evasion by large corporations are scorned and tackled with an iron fist. But, hold on a minute, before we get carried away here, this is Theresa May isn't it? That would be the same Theresa May who was previously Home Secretary and, as part of the last cabinet, oversaw some of the most divisive and destructive policies to have ever been implemented by any UK government. The same government that has seen the rise of the food bank, the stagnation or reduction of wages, the spreading of the zero hours contract and the corresponding shrinkage of workers' rights, not to mention its ongoing zeal to privatise more or less everything, cut funding to public services and thereby create crises in social housing, social care, the NHS, education and mental health. In the light of all that, is it really possible that May can stand there, with a straight face, and profess that actually, her party is the real party of social justice?
At the previous general election, Ed Miliband made similar appeals, but was roundly vilified in the press and generally made out to be some kind of left-wing radical, which he decidedly was not. The upshot was, though, that so-called "red" Ed lost the election and then scarpered seemingly as fast as he could. In stark contrast, the media has yet to tackle May about her new position and its jarringly evident contradiction to the reality of Tory governance, and she is, by most accounts, reported to be a statesman-like, calming character - something which our nation sorely needs at this moment of historical import and turbulence.
Meanwhile, in much the same way as Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn is raked over the coals for being of the "hard left", for his style of dress, for his lack of leadership skills. But does anyone really listen to what he's saying? While May is allowed to concentrate on policy, Corbyn is left defending his position as leader of the Labour Party, seemingly facing a challenge from most of the PLP. It doesn't appear to matter to the media or the public that May might be something of a hypocrite, but it does seem to matter what colour tie Corbyn wears. Nor does it seem of any importance to them that Corbyn is by far the more sincere and principled person with a proven record of fighting for a fairer society.
So, as the Conservatives steal Labour's clothes, the Labour Party itself is said to be "in turmoil", and with the media's seeming inability to point out the hypocrisy in May's position, and with an electorate who seem, at best, misled, at worst, unable to remember one day to the next, it may as well be as if the last six years never happened. And, of course, we all know that the "real" party of social justice is the Conservative Party.

Friday, 8 July 2016

It Says Nothing to Me About My Life: The Hollywood Hegemony and Me.

Walking into my local multiplex cinema the other day, I noticed a rather large poster advertising a forthcoming attraction. It was for a film called "Last Vegas" and it stars Robert DeNiro, Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman and Michael Douglas, and by all accounts is a sort of version of "The Hangover" for older people. As I walked by though, all I could think of were the strains of "Panic", the song by "The Smiths" in which Morrissey implores his listeners to "Burn down the disco/ Hang the blessed DJ/ Because the music that they constantly play/ It says nothing to me about my life." OK, so this isn't music, but surely the same sentiment could be applied to film distributors and producers, because the films that they constantly make and peddle, well, they say nothing to me about my life. So, I began to wonder why it is that the great majority of films shown at cinemas like the one I was walking through are Hollywood products which appear to have little to do with our own experience. I'm not saying that all films shown in cinemas should only reflect our own, more local, affairs, but rather that there should simply be more choice on offer. More European and British films, and perhaps even films from farther around the world, mightn't go amiss.
So, after a brief scour of the internet, I discovered that this is by no means a new or only recent problem. Indeed, by as early as 1926, 95% of films shown on British screens were American, a statistic which would lead some to object to this new cultural hegemony. For instance, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes made an early plea for diversity in our culture, stating, "let every part of Merry England be merry in its own way: Death to Hollywood."
But what gave Hollywood and America its seemingly vice-like grip on the type of product which would be seen by other countries and cultures? It seems that the Hollywood film industry began earlier than most others, its nascent origins coming to the fore in the late 19th century. This would lead to Hollywood studios owning most of the means of production for making movies, which obviously gave them a head start. In more recent years this has been made even more evident by the rise of the multiplex cinema. While smaller, independent movie houses die off, the multiplex acts as a virtual distribution outlet for the major Hollywood studios, continuing its evermore consumerist rise. So not only does Hollywood have a hegemonic grip on the means of making films, but also over which films get shown, and it's inevitably their own product which is most vociferously peddled.
All this is rather worrying to me as it does seem to create an environment in which we are all, on some level, perhaps even subconsciously, taught to talk America, think America, and dream America. And I'm not the only one it concerns. French auteur Jacques Rivette once spoke of his wish to still have the right to "dream in French", and not have his very consciousness overtaken by some imperialistic monolith. And meanwhile, films like Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake", which won the Palme D'or at Cannes this year, have been sadly absent from any of my local cinemas. Loach's film is about a disabled carpenter struggling with the red tape surrounding the benefits system. Such content would be of great interest to me, and indeed to many of my friends, and would perhaps have merited a trip to the cinema for our Pathways Group, but unfortunately it would appear that the Hollywood hegemony has too firm a hold at present for even the great Ken Loach.
So, it's more inane, star-led comedy like "Last Vegas" for now, but one can hope that, in the future, we can begin to celebrate film as the truly diverse art form it is. Death to Hollywood indeed.

Please Note: this post was first drafted in 2013.       

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Writing from the Nadir, but Reaching for the Zenith.

When I was at university in the heady old days of the early '90s, I read a book as part of my research for my dissertation on African-American literature called "Writing from the Nadir". I can't remember now who wrote the book, but the title has stuck in my mind, being, to me at least, somewhat poetic. The idea of writing as a means of improving one's lot appealed to me greatly. and it was as if the title of this book was suggesting that even if one was stuck at the bottom of the social, political and economic heap, one could at least write to explain one's position and attempt to educate wider society, and by doing so even effect change. Indeed, I found out that the first so-called "slave narratives" were such instructive texts, written largely in the hope of expressing the plight of the enslaved African-American community to a wider, white readership, in the process aiding the abolitionist cause. Perhaps one could go even further and suggest that such writing affirmed the existence of a selfhood within society which that society either sought to deny or eradicate. It was as if the authors of these texts literally wrote themselves into being.
Perhaps writing is different than other art forms in that anyone can do it. All you need is a pen and some paper, or nowadays a laptop and a blog, to get started. As the poet Simon Armitage has attested, anyone can write a poem. It may or may not be any good, but unlike with film, for example, you don't need to have vast swathes of money to do it. And so it is that writing can be the most personal and expressive of all the arts, and as some of the early feminists would say, the personal is also sometimes political.
In my last post I wrote of my sometime consternation that more interest isn't taken in my own writing endeavours, but I would hope that this blog will serve as a document of what it is like to experience mental ill health. Hopefully this personal account has its own political agenda, and will at least change the perspective of some who read it. Indeed, I feel that, like the slave narrative authors, I write to affirm a self in a world all too ready to neglect and discriminate against that self, and as I look over past blog posts I am reminded of who I was then, and who I have become, and I truly believe that this writing has formed part of who I am. I have written myself into being. And, as Oscar Wilde said, we are all of us in the gutter, bit some of us are reaching for the stars. So it is that I've written from the nadir, but hopefully with the thought always in mind that we are all of us reaching for the zenith.                

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Troubling Deaf Heaven with My Bootless Cries.

"When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:..."

From Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare.

It just struck me that I've been beavering away at this little blog for nearly nine years now. My first post, somewhat prosaically titled, "Is there any alternative to medication?", was published on 11th July 2007. In those nine years I've covered many issues surrounding mental health, but most of the posts have been merely my own observations on mental illness, its treatment, the stigma which surrounds it, and my own experience of it. As you may have noted from the "About Me" section to the right of this page, as such the blog does not contain professional advice, and as my subheading attests, is simply the passing thoughts of a normal, average paranoid and delusional man. I don't know whether that subheading elicited any laughter, or perhaps even just a wry smile, intended, as it was, to be an ironic comment on what it is to be judged sane or insane. Indeed, after nine years of largely pounding away at the same message (i.e. trying to demystify aspects of mental ill health and dispel stereotypes and stigma) one is left wondering just what impact, if any, one has had. Do people who read this blog read it regularly? Has anyone, carer, sufferer, or layman, actually been helped or enlightened by it? Or is it that I simply, as Shakespeare put it, "trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries" by talking of such things? As "I all alone beweep my outcast state", is anyone really taking any notice?
Okay, so I get the odd comment and around 20 hits a day, but by any standards that's not really that many. Indeed, the popularity of the blog seems to have descended over the years rather than increased. My friend Gary, whose blog, "klahanie", is regularly visited by many more people and gets many more comments, has also entered his ninth year of blogging recently. Indeed, my and Gary's blogs were started as part of the same charity project. "Mindbloggling", which was run by the then Media Action Group for Mental Health, was an innovative scheme and, as far as I'm aware, one of the first of its kind. It attempted to get those with their own experience of mental illness to blog about their conditions in an effort to alleviate stigma. Many started the project, but only Gary and I remain. Gary assures me, though, that the reason his blog gets more hits and comments is that he regularly visits other sites, leaving comments and even forging friendly relationships with other bloggers, something I've been rather loath to do. All the same, it's kind of difficult sometimes not to desire "this man's art and that man's scope", and to wish myself "featured like him, like him with friends possessed".
Indeed, where next for this blog? I remember quite clearly that we were once visited by the editor of our local newspaper at the Media Action Group. The paper had recently reported on the opening of a new psychiatric hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, quoting the opinions of local residents, which, as I remember, were anything but enlightened. I brought this up with the editor during his visit, and I can only say that his response was not exactly politically correct either. He said, when I complained about the headline that had been used, that I was "arguing semantics". One could have said in response that semantics, or the words we use to describe those with mental illness, are part of the issue. He went on to say that, anyway, your average man in the street couldn't have cared less about mental health. To which one could have replied, why then was there an article about it, albeit a derogatory one, in his paper? And if his paper was indeed, as he put it, "the voice of the people", would he have allowed those people to air prejudiced views on, say, black people, women or homosexuals? Indeed, there were many arguments that could have been made to counter his jaundiced view, but his opinion, that your average man in the street couldn't care less about mental health stayed with me. Perhaps things are changing now as more people begin to talk about their experiences and the media seems somewhat less stigmatising and sensationalist. But still, when I think of this little blog, and the apparent lack of interest in it, I can't help but think that it may be time for this particular normal, average paranoid and delusional man to hang up his straight jacket, put away his meds, and slowly merge into the background of dreaded normality, whatever that is. I suppose it's entirely down to me. Should I carry on troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries? If you do read this blog, I suppose you'll just have to keep coming back to check.