Archive | April, 2013

Laughing at mental illness – good news for Russell Howard

25 Apr

Russell Howards Good News 3

I really enjoy radio and TV comedy and comedy clubs. As I tweeted a couple of weeks ago:

“I love laughing. And this comedy series with @RussellHoward always ends with an uplifting story.”

My tweet included a link to the BBC Three show Russell Howard’s Good News. This show, now in its eighth series, is written by Howard and is a light hearted upbeat sample of the previous week’s news stories. The show includes lots of humorous video clips and newspaper headlines, a mystery guest with a whimsical skill which Howard samples on stage, and ends with an unashamedly cheesy story. The show’s material is tested in front of an audience on Sunday, filmed on Tuesday then the show airs on Thursday. It’s the channel’s most successful entertainment show ever.

Last Thursday, to warm people up for the new series that started tonight, Howard’s 2011 stage show Right Here, Right Now was broadcast. The tour played to over 200,000 fans and is one of Howard’s best selling DVDs. That’s a whole lot of people laughing along to the series of jokes I was shocked to see Howard tell on the theme of “madnRussell Howards Good News 5ess” and “lunacy”.

Here was Mr Upbeat, Mr Uplifting Story, Mr “It’s not all doom and gloom”, telling jokes using mental illness as an insult. Not only that, the routine repeated inaccurate and damaging stereotypes, linking mental illness with violence.

I wondered why Howard, in particular, was going for cheap jokes and easy stereotypes. Perhaps comedians have run out of groups to laugh at. Perhaps they think laughing at mental illness is still okay, now they’re not supposed to tell racist or homophobic jokes any more. Why not laugh at people who can’t stand up and challenge it, for fear of being the subject of stigma and discrimination themselves? Go for it. It’s easy to laugh at autistic children, as Howard did in his mental illness routine. Fair game.

Last week, a flyer came through my letterbox for a local comedy club. I’d love to go again. I used to sit in the front row with a foot resting on the stage, waiting to be picked on, enjoying every moment of the show.

Would it be the same if I were to go now? How would I feel now if I were in a comedy club and the comedian started telling jokes that make fun of mental illness? What would I do? Laugh along? Sit it out? Heckle? Leave?

What about you? You’re in a comedy club. You’re enjoying an evening out with your friends. The comedian’s really funny. And then the jokes about mental illness start.

Not jokes based on the teller’s personal experience – it can be good to laugh at ourselves after all, especially if the joke is really funny. But no. Jokes that use mental illness as an insult. Jokes that equate mental illness with stupidity. Jokes that repeat dangerous stereotypes, like people with mental illness are violent. Jokes that aren’t clever and aren’t funny. Jokes where the mental illness punchline is throw in where in the past a racist or homophobic stereotype would have done the same job.

Would you laugh along at the jokes, trying to blend in? Would you sit it out, hoping no-one noticed you, waiting for that segment of the routine to pass? Would you excuse yourself quietly and go to the toilet or get a drink from the bar while the routine played out, then rejoin your group? Would you quietly walk out, leaving the comedian and audience to laugh at mental illness while you go elsewhere, or go home?

Would you walk out noisily? Would you heckle the comedian? Would you call out something witty to make him think twice about poking fun with people with mental health problems? How would you feel? What would you do?

Take a look at the varied responses of the lovely twitter people here.

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Constipation: embarrassment, discomfort … and Poo Pride!

14 Apr
Alternative Bristol stool form chart from rewarm.co.uk

Alternative Bristol stool form chart from rewarm.co.uk

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On Thursday 1st August at 8pm, the #PooPride tweet chat with We Nurses took place – woo Update smallhoo!

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Having been on twitter for a little over a year, I’ve seen lots of topics discussed. Bowel problems aren’t one of them. Which is odd, given the effect many psychiatric medications have on your digestive system. My hints on twitter about my debilitating bowel problems seemed to go unnoticed. However, since there are a lot of people taking psychiatric medications, and for long periods, there must be a lot of people out there with constipation and other bowel problems who are suffering in silence.

At Easter, Charlotte Walker (@BipolarBlogger) blogged about a weekend away and how medication and bowel problems had affected her. I recognised the juggling act and stress of taking medications and planning toilet breaks. Then, yesterday evening, I spotted a tweet by Charlotte about constipation, to which I responded. When Charlotte asked me if I had any recommendations, it turned out that, after years of managing my own bowel problems, I could come up with 20 off the top of my head! (See below.)

That started up a spontaneous tweet chat. (All the tweets are linked below.) Then, because the issue is much wider than our personal experiences, because people were suggesting medications and treatments to try, and because constipation can cause serious complications, I decided to see if we could have an organised tweet chat involving medical professionals too. Watch this space!

Here’s the tweet of Charlotte’s that caught my eye:

“Dear antipsychotics, love what you’re doing on the bipolar, great stuff. Just concerned my bowel may RUPTURE, ease off a bit there, maybe?”

Charlotte explained that she was experiencing antipsychotic-induced chronic constipation which had flared up into faecal impaction. Not fun. Not fun at all.

Problems with your digestive system – whether it’s too much movement, or too little, or both; whether it’s frequency, consistency or volume; or colour, smell, blood or mucus; or some other charming symptom – can be a blush-making topic. I know, because I’ve blushed those blushes.

The first time I plucked up courage to mention to a medical professional the bowel problems I was experiencing, I received a reaction I hadn’t anticipated: laughter. As a result, I didn’t raise the issue again till an Atos medical. Through bodily sobs and streaming tears caused by shame, I forced myself to describe my symptoms. This time, the reaction was disbelief: zero points. Laughter; then disbelief. After that, through trial and error, a keen  memory for toilet locations and a well-stocked handbag, I gradually found ways to manage my bowel problems myself.

That was no longer possible, however, when I was detained in hospital. The combination of enforced inactivity, a diet devoid of fibre and the side effects of psychiatric medications meant my bowels came to a halt. There was one fortnight when I passed just one motion. Thank goodness for stretchy trousers that could accommodate my massive and growing belly, taut as a drum, as I waddled round the ward in pain, unheeded and untreated except for senna.

Since then, through my own efforts and working with my GP and the specialists she’s referred me to, I’ve found a way to manage the problems. And I can talk to pretty much any health professionals without embarrassment now so I know that, if problems come up in future, I’ll be able to talk about them and, hopefully, get the help I need.

You know you’ve got constipation when your digestive system has slowed down so you pass motions less often than you want to or when your stools are hard and difficult to pass. You may also have indigestion. It’s uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing. It’s even potentially dangerous. It’s an important topic.

Normally, constipation is a short-term problem which responds well to lifestyle changes and, if necessary, treatment. However, if constipation is drug-induced and there isn’t an alternative, you may be looking at a multi-pronged approach in order to successfully keep on top of constipation. So, for those of us taking medication, it’s a topic of even more importance.

Below, as a starting point for discussion, as food for thought, are the twenty tips I came up with off the top of my head for Charlotte to try out, plus a few more I thought of later. They are things that have helped me personally (or people I know) to manage the impact of drug-induced constipation. They’re aimed at someone who’s otherwise physically healthy. They’re tips you could use as a springboard for discussion. They’re common sense, not rocket science. They’re not comprehensive. For medical advice, take a look at the NHS website or ask your medical practitioner. Maybe they’re worth a try. We’re all different, after all.

As Charlotte tweeted later that evening:

 “Goodness! What a lot of people have followed me since @Sectioned_ and I started talking about constipation! #goodtoshare

And, as Phil Dore (@thus_spake_z) tweeted:

“Poo Pride! :D”

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Bristol stool form scale

My personal tips on dealing with drug-induced constipation:

1. Keep a poo diary

If you keep a record of the motions you pass, you may start to see a (monthly or other) pattern. Women in particular can find their bowel movements are affected by their monthly cycle. Maybe it’s not a relapse or a remission; it’s just your monthly cycle. If you get to know the effect (if any) that your monthly cycle has on your bowels, you’ll be better able to distinguish what works and what doesn’t for your constipation. And improving constipation involves trial and error.

What to include in the poo diary? Time of day you pass (each) motion, what you were doing at the time (eg had you just smoked a cigarette). You’ll need to keep a record of what you eat and and your fluid intake, to see what effect that has too.

Also, include your Bristol stool scale number. It classifies stools into 7 different types. The ideal is around around a 3 or 4. The official Bristol stool form chart is above.

Bear in mind when looking at the chart above that your poo may not be the same as the colour shown: stools vary in colour depending on what you’ve eaten. I’ve pooed red after beetroot juice and green after spinach. Taking an iron supplement can (I’m told) blacken stools (and harden them). If there’s blood or mucus in your poo though, that’s not a good sign. Mention it to your medical practitioner.

Such a detailed diary won’t be necessary forever, but it’s a useful tool to see where you are now, and to identify any patterns emerging. Try to keep one for at least 2 weeks (men) or two cycles (women).

2.Eat or drink something

Stimulating one end of the alimentary canal (the long tube that runs from your mouth to your bum) can stimulate the other. Therefore, when you want to poop, first eat or drink something. I find that, if it’s going to work, it does so within around half an hour. So if I need to leave the house by 10am, I’ll eat drink or something (however light) at 9am to give it a chance to work its magic.

3. Try a stool softener

An effect of some psychiatric medications is to reduce the fluid content of foods. A stool softener (or osmotic laxative) is a medication that draws water into the stools, making them softer and therefore easier to pass. Lactulose is the stool softener I’ve tried and it’s worked for me. Brilliantly. Movicol is another one, though I haven’t tried that.

A downside is its taste: exceptionally sweet. But hey, just clean your teeth afterwards. Especially as another side effect of some psychiatric medications is dry mouth, or rather reduced saliva – and hence reduced protection for the teeth.

4. Use a jug

If your problem is hard stools, it’s water that will soften them; so you’ll need to take in sufficient fluids during the day. To ensure I push through enough fluids, I fill a jug with water on rising and fill my glass from it throughout the day. That gives me a goal to work through during the day.

Don’t drown yourself in fluids late in the day and end up wetting the bed. And yes, I have done this too: the meds I take knock me out so I sleep like the dead and wake up in a puddle. The way round that is to spread my fluid intake throughout the day so it’s not gulped down in a rush towards bedtime.

5. Prunes

Fluids rock. As do prunes. Drinking prune juice helps me too. And it’s super yummy. As are prunes with custard. I’ll take any excuse to eat prunes.

Beware though: don’t take too many. Once, before I knew the laxative effect of prune juice, I drank a whole litre in one go. That’s how I know it works. Now, I just drink a glass.

6. “Doing a Paula”

If you’re just not going, your bowels may be sluggish. Your digestive transit time (the time it takes from something going in your mouth to it coming out the other end) may have been slowed – whether caused by medications, or enforced inactivity if on ward, or lack of motivation to get active (a side effect of some drugs). If you want to know your transit time, you can do the sweetcorn test (eat some sweetcorn and see how long it takes to spot it in your stool – transit time should be around 24 hours).

One way to get the bowels moving is high impact exercise, which can stimulate the bowel to open. If I’m indoors, I’ll fire up my trampet and bounce along for a song. Jogging works too. Just be sure you know those toilet locations or have a handy pack of tissues in your bum bag.

Incidentally, if you normally have healthy bowels but find yourself almost or actually involuntarily evacuating your bowels during a run (pooing yourself), that may not necessarily mean you have a bowel problem. It can happen to normal, healthy runners the world over. It’s an occasional downside of the pastime. After all, the phrase “Doing a Paula” derives from the reason Olympic athlete Paula Radcliffe had to retire from the Athens marathon. Don’t panic. Just plan ahead. And learn the technique that enables you to delay passing a motion.

7. Vitamin C

Heard of the vitamin C “bowel tolerance dose”? Taking over 1g vit C gives me the trots. Everyone’s dose is different. I know the trots aren’t ideal, but sometimes you just need to pass a motion.

Incidentally, if you’ve recently changed your diet to include a high dose vitamin C supplement and find your stools are loose, the vitamin C could be the problem. Don’t automatically assume you’ve caught a bug or got IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Experiment with the dose till you find the one that works for you.

8. A bathroom step

Essential bathroom kit is a little step (about 8” high), so that, when you sit to poo, your knees are a little above your bum. Sitting in this position relaxes your lower body and places your bowel in the correct position to pass a motion easily. It reduces the need to strain (which risks causing haemorrhoids/piles). And, bonus, it also means you can rest your reading material on a flat surface!

They’re cheap as chips (mine cost £2). Once you’ve used one of these, you’ll never want to poop any other way. If you’re visiting, you can usually find something to stick  under your feet – eg a couple of thick books, a pack of loo rolls – so your knees are at the right height. Simples.

9. Try training/routine

This is a controversial point because some bowel specialists I’ve seen say it’s impossible to train the bowel and others say the opposite.

The idea is that, at the same time each day – eg half an hour after breakfast (when you’ve stimulated the bowel by drinking or eating something) – you go into the bathroom whether or not you want to pass a motion. A sort of potty training for adults. You sit on the toilet, hang out there for 5 minutes, then leave. If you pass a motion good; if not, no problem. Maybe next time.

10. Latex gloves

This comes from a little trick I recall my mother showed me as a child. To get newborn kittens to poop for the first few weeks, rub their little bottoms. It worked. Why wouldn’t it work for humans too?

The idea is to very gently circle the anus with a gloved finger to relax it and, hopefully, give it that little extra  nudge it needs to stimulate the passing of a motion. Use lubrication of some sort (eg vaseline).

11. Smoking

Seriously. There’s a reason people smoke after a meal! I nearly took it up  in hospital again because I was so blocked. (Also because only the smokers were allowed into the garden.) Before I became a non-smoker, smoking a cigarette was a guaranteed way to bring on what I believe the Girl Guides call the “daily clear out” (though I suspect they don’t get the little girls to smoke).

12. Coffee

Again, there’s a reason people drink coffee after a meal. If you don’t like the taste, think of it as medicine: it may not taste good but, if it does the job, that’s what matters.

13. Stimulant laxatives

Senna is a laxative that works by stimulating the muscles of the gut to push your poo towards the anus (a stimulant laxative). Maybe this is just what you need. Bear in mind though that that senna is aimed at relatively short term use because it can, over time, make your bowels lazy.

Personally, senna was not good for me. When the nurses offered me various medications on ward, I made the mistake of thinking that, because it is a natural product, it would be the best choice. Wrong.

In fact it’s what caused me to blow up like one of the sheep in Far From the Madding Crowd: I wanted someone to spike me in the guts to relieve me of the terrible pain. I felt like I was going to die. In one fortnight, I only passed one motion.  I didn’t know what was causing the problem. I thought I’d be even worse without the senna. Luckily I was able to speak to a hospital pharmacist for an hour, and he helped me to work out what the problem was and what would help. If in doubt, seek medical advice.

Bulk-forming laxatives such as Fybogel are a third type, which help stools retain fluids.

14. Fibre

It’s a key recommendation for the prevention and management of constipation to have sufficient dietary fibre. Most adults don’t eat enough, and constipation is your clue that that means you.  You can increase your fibre intake by eating more fruit, vegetables, wholegrain rice, wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread, seeds, nuts and oats. Eating more fibre helps keep bowel movements regular by helping food pass through your digestive tract more easily. High fibre foods can also make you feel fuller for longer, in case you’re struggling with cravings (another side effect of psychiatric drugs which contributes towards weight gain).

If you decide to increase your fibre intake, however, do so gradually: a sudden increase may make you feel bloated, produce more flatulance and give you stomach cramps. Eek!

15. There may be no magic bullet

Bear in mind that, though the hard stools and slow transit may be caused by psychiatric drugs, they may not be fixed just with drugs. It may take a package of measures to bring constipation under control. But finding the right drug/combination can surely go a long way to helping.

And be prepared for the fact that you may end up taking more drugs to deal with side effects (like constipation) than the number of drugs you take for your primary psychiatric symptoms. That’s just the way it is. Just as every surgery causes scars, so every drug has side effects. It’s just a question of finding the side effects profile you’re prepared to live with.

16.Experiment

You could try each of these suggestions to see which ones work for you. Perhaps put them together into a morning routine, tweaking as you go to work out the right combination for you: we’re all different.  However, it’s hard to tell what’s working when you’re doing lots of different things at the same time. You could consider doing them all at the same time and then gradually cutting each one out, one by one, to see what works; or stopping everything then adding them back in one by one.

17.Input and output

Reducing food intake (a little) can help. I wouldn’t have got quite so bunged up if I hadn’t eaten quite so much! Obviously we all vary and some people are under-weight or need to follow a special diet. On the whole, however, many of us would benefit from cutting down a little on what we eat. And, the less you put in, the less there is to get stuck inside!

18.Wet food

If the problem is constipation & hard stools, eating “wetter food” (eg soups, stews, curries) can also help a little. If you live on crisps, you’re asking for trouble.

19.We can all learn

Even clued up healthy eaters who think they know a lot about diet and lifestyle may benefit from a food diary & having their diet tweaked by a dietician. I’ve learned new stuff from the professionals I’ve seen. Even if we’re doing everything we know 100% spot on, science might have moved on since then. There are lots of fad diets and food myths we might have fallen prone to without noticing, so reviewing a food diary or having a professional do so can lead to improvements – even small tweaks – being found. And, with constipation, it’s these little things that add up.

We might even learn that things we thought were healthy options were actually contributing to bowel problems. For instance, taking supplements is always good, right? Wrong. For instance, taking too much vitamin C can cause loose stools, whilst taking iron tablets can harden stools. Fibre is always a good thing, right? Wrong. For some, a high fibre diet can irritate the bowel and lead to bloating and frequent loose stools. What you may think is IBS may resolve entirely on a lower fibre diet. Exercise is always good for you, right? Wrong. For some, high impact exercise can lead to involuntary bowel evacuations (“Doing a Paula”). If so, stick to gentler exercise. Or practice bowel control techniques.

20.Try it

Even if you’ve tried something before, it may be worthwhile trying it again. Bowels can be contrary beasties. “I’ve tried everything already” may mean you miss out on doing something that now works.

21. Tummy massage

Another way to stimulate the bowels to start moving is with tummy massage. Use the heel of your hand to make a big circle in a clockwise direction (the direction the bowels go in). Alternatively, lie on a hard surface face down and roll around. Or lie on your back with your legs in the air and cycle, to get the tummy muscles moving. All very elegant!

22. A hot bath

As Sylvia Plath wrote in her novel The Bell Jar, “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” A hot bath is another great way to get the bowels moving.

23.Specialist help

Ask your GP for a referral to a specialist clinic. If at first they say there isn’t one (my otherwise excellent GP did), do your research so you know the right terminology to use when asking for the service. For instance, I’ve had referals to a community dietician; a colposcopy clinic; a continence clinic; a bowel education group; a colonoscopy consultant; and a hospital consultant for anatomical investigations.

24. A tricky balance

Once you start taking steps to actively treat constipation, you might push your bowels the other way. Oh joy! Your bowels become as unpredictable as climate change. You might swing back and forth between the two before getting it right. Ho hum. You’ll get there. And in the meantime, be prepared.

25. The pitfalls of syndromes

If, along your constipation journey, someone mentions IBS, be careful how you use the diagnosis. With family and friends it may provide a label that helpfully enables you to side-step that awkward conversation about symptoms. However, if you’re going for medical treatment and you mention IBS, you’ll most likely see the doctor’s eyes glaze over. In essence, a syndrome is the medical profession’s way of saying they don’t know what’s wrong with you. It’s saying you’ve got a collection of symptoms they don’t know how to treat. It is a label that says to a medical professional, “Nothing you do will make the patient better. Next!” Use with care.

If you have any tips for easing constipation that you’d like to share, please feel free to comment below. Happy pooing!

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.Bristol stool chart NOV 2013

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The economics of the lunatic farm – and farming!

7 Apr

Lunatic farm - man and woman in field

“That is the economics of the lunatic farm.” Say what? This curious phrase was used by Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, during an interview about the budget. It was such an odd phrase that it struck me that perhaps Balls had caught himself about to say something else then corrected himself, clumsily, at the last moment. Or perhaps that’s exactly what he’d meant to say, having in mind a particular badly run farm he’d come across during his economics studies at Oxford and Harvard.

This phrase lead me to think about the real life “lunatic farms” – farms within the grounds of long-stay lunatic asylums that existed until the last century, where inmates were required to do unpaid labour as therapy. (The pair pictured above were working on one such farm, based in a Canadian insane asylum.) It also lead me to think about city farms and present day farm-based mental health recovery programmes. And, finally, the Wurzles! A feast of farming thoughts inspired by one oddly-phrased remark. Read on.

When he made his comment. Balls was being interviewed by guest presenter Jeremy Vine for the BBC’s Sunday morning political programme, the Andy Marr Show. It was 3 weeks ago, days before the chancellor George Osborne was due to deliver the budget (Osborne was also interviewed on the show). In a tone of utter incredulity, Balls said:

“Spending cuts and tax rises have choked off recovery: let’s have even bigger spending cuts and tax rises. That is the economics of the lunatic farm! You’ve got to get the economy moving.”

Balls was, it seems, using the phrase in order to brand the chancellor’s “Plan A” not just a bad economic decision but, because of its association with lunacy, an outrageously foolish one too. The phrase was repeated throughout the day in news bulletins on all channels. As I tweeted at the time:

The “economics of the lunatic farm”? I guess Balls isn’t on Labour’s mental health task force, trumpeted by Ed Miliband at the Royal College of Psychiatrists last October.

(I blogged about the new mental health taskforce here and wrote a piece for the winter edition of One in Four magazine.) I had a bit of fun on twitter speculating what a “lunatic farm” really was. Perhaps, I suggested, it’s a place where lunatics are propagated under glass, before being planted out in polytunnels to grow, then harvested – a place where lunatics are farmed. Or, as Charlotte (twitter @BipolarBlogger) responded:

“Or like an ant farm, where they scurry about in transparent pipes for the amusement and interest of those outside?”

Or maybe Balls had had in mind a real life farm, whether existing or historic, that he’d come across during his studies of economics here and in the US, one that was really badly run. Had Balls studied farm economics? I wonder if farm management software (such as the one I came across online) would be useful to the farm Balls had in mind.

Whatever Balls meant, there did used to be real “lunatic farms” (whether badly run or not). Before they were closed down, some of the old lunatic asylums had working farms within their grounds. I wonder what it might have been like for people living in those old institutions and working on those farms.

An online search turned up the Asylum on the Lake, from where the image at the top of this blog post is taken, and which had such a farm. Based in Ontario, Canada, it was called the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital when it was closed in 1979. When it opened 90 years before, it was called the Mimico Insane Asylum. As the website says:

This site attempts to portray the long and interesting history of the hospital, as well as honour the memory of the patients who lived, worked, and died there.”

Looking at the picture above (and there are more here), I wonder what mental health problems the man and woman had. What were their lives like on the farm? Did they enjoy their work? It’s one thing working a field on a sunny and mild April day like today, but quite another to do so mid-winter or in the heat of summer. How did the lives of asylum farm workers compare with those of others who worked on traditional farms in the same era? The website throws up some interesting details of the lives of its inmates.

As I was musing about “lunatic farms”,  Jon Beech (twitter @_jonb) sent me a link to what looks like a wonderful project in the West Midlands: a modern day scheme where farming is used to promote, amongst other things, mental health recovery. There are several such schemes. Search “care farming”, “farming on prescription” and “farm buddies” if you’re interested in the work of these modern day “lunatic farms”.

If you’ve been inspired by my farming musings to find out more or get involved, there are plenty of opportunities. For instance, if you live in a city you can get a little dose of the farming life by visiting or volunteer at one of the many city farms. I visited one only last week and it was an enjoyable (though bitingly cold!) afternoon out. Otherwise, you can get a taste of farming through the radio and TV (for example, on the BBC there are programmes such as Farming Today, On Your Farm and Countryfile). Or why not enjoy a light-hearted spoof on the farming life with the Wurzles’ 1970’s hit record Combine Harvester? That’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

I still don’t know what Balls meant by “the economics of the lunatic farm”. But I think I’d have rather been outside working the land than locked up in hospital with a weekly art therapy class and a windowsill full of plants. So, as I tweeted to Balls after seeing the Andy Marr Show interview:

“Where is this lunatic farm of which you speak? It sounds like somewhere I’d like to go.”

Wurzles - Combine Harvester

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Using mental illness as an insult – Mick Philpott, Jon Snow & lunatics

4 Apr

Jon Snow twitter profile pic

We’ve all done it: casually thrown around as insults terms related to mental illness. This evening, Jon Snow, Channel 4’s lead news anchor, posted a blog in which he used the term “lunatic” as an insult in the tragic Philpott case. When picked up on it, Snow swiftly apologised and earned brownie points for doing so. At present, however, Snow’s blog post still contains the term.

The problem with calling someone convicted of manslaughter a lunatic is that lunacy is a synonym for insanity, a legal defence to murder; its use in relation to the Philpott case is sloppy and inaccurate. And the trouble with casually using terms related to mental illness to insult people is that it turns mental illness into an insult.

As background, Snow’s blog post was in reference to distasteful and misleading political posturing reported during the day. Various pundits and politicians (in particular the Chancellor, George Osborne, later endorsed by the Prime Minster, David Campbell) sought to capitalise on the sentencing of the Philpotts and their friend for the manslaughter of 6 children. (Take a look at the links at the foot of this page to explore the subject further.) To take one example of the coverage, the Telegraph newspaper said:

“The Chancellor has questioned why British taxpayers should be “subsidising lifestyles” such as those of Mick Philpott, who was today sentenced to life in prison for killing six children. Mr Osborne made the controversial comments during a visit to Derby shortly after Philpott and his wife Mairead were handed their sentences for intentionally setting fire to their home. Asked whether the Philpotts were a product of Britain’s benefit system, Mr Osborne said: “It’s right we ask questions as a Government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these.”

Jon Snow has, in addition to his platform on a national broadcaster, nearly 300,000 twitter followers. He also introduced Channel 4’s 4 Goes Mad mental health season. He’s influential. Earlier this evening, I saw a tweet of his containing a link to a post on his Snow Blog about the tragic Philpott case. Snow’s post was titled: Can abnormal behaviour affect the welfare policy debate?

Snow, in a strongly worded rebuttal, asked whether there really was a case for regarding Mick Philpott’s behaviour as a valid ground for reforming welfare policy. He referenced, amongst others, statistics showing there were just 50 families in the UK with the same number of children as the Philpotts.

Philpott is not representative of people who are currently in need of the state safety net due to ill health, lack of private pension or inability to find paid work. And of course it is highly distasteful to use the tragedy of the deaths of 6 children for political purposes. Snow’s blog was robust and well-written, apart from this, which caught my eye:

“The idea that an entire system should be re-jigged to cope with a lunatic who burnt to death half the children he’d fathered seems questionable at the least.”

Here, Snow uses the word “lunatic” as an insult, in order very deliberately to convey the deepest disapproval. The trouble with using terms related to mental illness as insults – especially when it’s done by a figure as prominent as Snow – is that it’s just this sort of casual stigma that adds to the big fat stigma pie we’re being served extra helpings of at the moment.

As I then tweeted:

Disappointed @jonsnowC4 refers to Philpott as a “lunatic” when he was judged criminally responsible #casualstigma

Snow swiftly responded:

I apologise..that was sloppy of me.

And, in a response to another tweep, Snow tweeted:

I’m sorry the word ‘lunatic’ was very absuive [sic] usage..thoughtless..I should know better

I tweeted in response:

Credit to @jonsnowC4 for apologising so quickly for calling Philpott a lunatic. (Wish I was so good at apologising when I stuff up.)

Snow received plaudits for his quick apology, as my Storify of tweets shows. His fans hold him in even more affection now. For example, Rich Humphrey (@RichMHumphrey) tweeted:

“completely agree! Few in the media would hold their hands up like that. Even more respect for him now”

Finally, I also asked Snow:

Could you tweak the blog to remove the reference to lunatic? That’d be good.

At present, the blog has yet to be revised. Fingers crossed. There are so many expressive insults in the English language that there’s really no need to resort to using references to mental health as insults.

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web links 5Links related to the story above

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Links on the debate about what (if anything) the Philpott case tells us about welfare benefits, in light of the notorious Daily Mail headline (pictured below right) and George Osborne’s subsequent comments:

Firstly, coverage on 4th April:

Coverage from later dates (added to this blog subsequently):

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