Dave's Progress. Chapter 80: More than just a Label.

You may recall that in August last year I sadly reported that a member of our group for those with severe or sometimes long-term mental ill health (the "Pathways to Recovery" group) had passed away. His name was Matthew Aitken and was known to his many friends simply as "Matt". In my blog about his passing (Dave's Progress. Chapter 34: In Memoriam) I tried to say that Matt was a much-valued member of our little enclave; that he was a warm, witty and bright individual, not without his talents, who was so much more than the label which had been applied to him, that of "schizophrenia".
Now, as Matt's death has been the subject of an inquest, our local paper, "The Sentinel", has seen fit to report the circumstances of his untimely death. And so, in the brazen, insensitive way of the media, the first paragraph of the report reads, "A SCHIZOPHRENIC died from a combination of health problems aggravated by his heavy drinking". Not a man, a human being, or even a name (which is not mentioned until the second paragraph), but "A SCHIZOPHRENIC", sensationally emblazoned in capital letters.
I cannot stress enough how dehumanising such reporting is. And when it is someone you actually knew in the flesh, its absence of anything like understanding or sensitivity really hits home. Why is it that the media constantly gives diagnoses of mental ill health this type of, what Professor Graham Thornicroft has referred to as, "master status", where a person's mental health condition is given a primary position over all other things about them? Surely, this is not the most important thing about an individual.
Without wishing to be insensitive myself, it sometimes irks me that those who suffer from other physical diseases, such as cancer, and particularly those who "beat" the dreaded disease, are regarded as virtual heroes. Only the other month a local lady who had campaigned while suffering from this terrible disease passed away herself, only the response from our local paper was staggeringly different. Her contribution to campaigning was praised to the heavens and many came out to pay homage to this brave, suffering lady. So where is Matt's praise? Where does it mention that he was an integral part in the making of a film, funded by our local council, which challenged the stereotypes of mental illness and attempted, as closely as it could, to reflect the experiences of those with long-term or severe mental ill health? What about his heroism in recovering from a terrible and debilitating disease?
Instead we get a piece of journalism that dehumanises Matt to the extent that, at least I, did not readily recognise the portrait of the man that the paper painted. Indeed, the article goes on to mention that Matt was "unemployed", that he "was regularly prescribed five different types of medication" and that he had "overdosed twice before". Anyone reading this would think that Matt was an accident waiting to happen, or worse, that his life really wasn't worth that much. You know, a schizo, a drinker- a general loser.
However, I will remember Matt as the personable, polite, witty, bright person that he was. As a lover of music and a contributor, with his poignant, sensitive and professional voice-over, to our film, "The Search". For some, for us, he will be sadly missed. For some he was so much more than just a label.
That's all for now from your normal, average delusional and paranoid man.


Anonymous said…
klahanie said…
Dear David,
Once again media 'sensationalism' and insensitivity rears its ugly head.
The Sentinel and all those that would convey such an unbalanced message are a disgrace and sadly proves we do have some ways to go in alleviating the unfair stigma and the labels still attached to those with mental health concerns.
Matt, first and foremost was a human being with feelings. To report the cicumstances in such an undignified manner is an outrage.
It seems that reporters do not have the ability to write about the inspirational stories of those who challenged their symptoms and tried to live their lives as best they could.
Your posting is provocative and I am angered that the Sentinel would give such a disrespectful account of a man trying to cope with his illness. Indeed, I have no doubt, that you never noted his 'label', you noted only friendship.
Very best wishes, Gary.
David said…
Dear Gary,
You share my outrage, and rightly so. The media, indeed, has a lot to answer for. And you are right, I never knew Matt's diagnosis until I read it in "The Sentinel". AS you say, I noted only friendship and a personable man who seemed to get along with everyone.
I think his funeral was a more fitting epitaph for Matt, as it was attended by many, who, I think, if they had read this article, might feel the same as you and I.
Thanks, Gary.
Yours with All the Best,
Anonymous said…
nessa said…
i stumbled on your 2009 posting earlier this evening and have been trying to find more info ever since. i think the article you speak of here is one i read, and you know, those were my thoughts exactly. i have MS, depression and anxiety and am well familiar with labels and the press and the treatment of mental illness and *people* who are labeled. and the fear the press generates around mental health. i was very frustrated that i couldn't find a simple respectful obituary with a photograph honouring him (and that would confirm if he was the Matt I knew or not) and all I could think of when reading that article was "damn the press, you didn't print a photo because of his label which made him untouchable"! sorry for the rant. i would have still thought that, even if it turns out that your Matt isn't the one I knew. I am so so so sorry to hear this news. (even if I didn't actually know your friend...but I really do think it was the same Matt... I would have known him about 15 years ago.)
David said…
Dear nessa,
Thank you for leaving a comment.
It is such a shame that Matt was reduced to nothing more than a label in the article of which I speak, and you confirm that such reporting is offensive, especially to those who knew him.
One hopes, then, in a way, that it was not the Matt you knew, as anyone would deserve a better "obituary" than the one given by "The Sentinel".
On the other hand, if this was your old friend, I hope you have fond memories of him, as we at The Pathways Group do, and know, of course, that he was more, as we all are, than just the label applied to him.
With Very Best Wishes,
nessa said…
could you tell me please, david, did your friend Matt go to Aberystwyth Uni, and come from Newcastle-Under-Lyme? It would help me know if you speak of the same Matt that I used to know. Thank you. I'm sorry if you didn't want to post that detailed info. You can e-mail me privately if you prefer. thanks.
David said…
Dear nessa,
As far as I know, the Matt I am speaking of did not go to Aberystwyth uni, nor did he come from Newcastle-under-Lyme, but rather lived in Abbey Hulton.
I would suspect, then, that this is not the same Matt Aitken.
I hope this helps, nessa, and feel free to drop by anytime.
Yours with Very Best Wishes,

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