Hi folks,

The subs are coming in at a very health riverrine roar at present as the deadline approaches. It’s next Friday, November 15, at the stroke of midnight. So be sure to have your submitted stories in by then! I’m delighted at the response so far. No definite dates for shortlists etc yet but the awards ceremony will be in January, so everyone will be updated before then.

After the generosity of people’s interest and response so far to Patricia Casey’s great guest post on language and stigma, I’ve made a decision that every Monday except for Christmas and New Year, there will be a guest post, this to continue up to the awards ceremony. I have a great one lined up for tomorrow and will be seeking out posts for the rest of the year.

Anyone who is interested feel free to drop a comment or hit me up on twitter (@susan_lanigan)  and we can discuss. I’m looking for somewhere north of 500 words about any aspect of mental health stigma that entails challenging or coping with the repressive power structure which encourages it. I would be particularly interested from people who are in the areas where power is wielded over the mentally ill, professionally and psychiatrically, and who have an understanding of its mechanics. We need to get the input of people in the system as well as those exiled by it, because unfortunately that’s how power works. Yes, survivor stories are a great morale boost, but we need to get power back, not just affirm powerlessness, so we need both sides.

Regrettably I won’t be able to pay you, but I’m happy to signal boost your website or any business interests you might have. And I’m going to put the following in bold because it’s the core of the campaign and all interested parties should bear it in mind:

Please note that the philosophy of Walking on Thin Ice is not to promote vague, feelgood, Kumbaya sentiments on the topic of mental illness stigma. I don’t think people who perpetrate stigma upon others, who act out their own hatred and ignorance, require our support and warm fuzzies. They deserve our censure and our punishment. Walking on Thin Ice is about identifying the stigmatising enemy and fighting her or him with all weapons within our power to use. Because we’ve tried asking nicely, and it hasn’t worked. Let’s get tough.

Thanks all and looking forward to seeing even more subs before Cinderella hour on Friday!

Today I’m delighted to introduce this article which was very kindly volunteered by Prof Patricia Casey, Professor of Psychiatry at UCD and consultant psychiatrist at the Mater Hospital in Dublin. I love this article – as Professor Casey says, it is not “political correctness gone mad”, but “instilling basic respect for those who have personal difficulties and health related problems”.  The story I alluded to yesterday shows that we haven’t even got that far yet, alas.

I’d like to thank Patricia Casey for her work with this and with no further delay continue with the article. I think it’s a message we can all pay attention to.

Language and Stigma

Words speak volumes, in every sense. Not only do they convey our own personal messages to others but they are also a reflection of the values we hold in our culture on particular topics. Take our attitudes to those with physical disabilities – in the past we referred to them as “spastics” or “cripples”. And those with intellectual disabilities we called “imbeciles”. Originally these words may have had a benign meaning but over time our use of these terms shifted, because the intent behind them changed from being simply an agreed descriptor to one that connoted derision, mockery and dismissal.

These terms were applied to specific groups marked out for this treatment – in other words these individuals were stigmatised/branded because of some aspect of their appearance (physical disability, height), character (learning disability, mental illness) or tribe (age, sex, race). And it was society at large that identified the groups who should be the butt of this disdain, thus enabling the words to reflect the cultural understanding of these domains and reinforcing them also.

Many groups who once were victims of such prejudice no longer are and this in part is because the words are no longer acceptable to society as a whole – so terms like spastics and imbeciles are no longer acceptable when describing people with physical or intellectual disabilities. Just as we no longer refer to “n***ers” or “midgets”.

Yet the one group still singled out for derisory and negative stereotyping are those with mental illness. Research shows that those with mental illness experience more stigma than any other illness group. This has practical implications for how we regard them and behave towards them. It also means that discrimination in employment is an ever present reality.

The public’s attitude to mental illness is complex and ambivalent. On the one hand reams have been written and spoken about ending the stigma and attitudes directed to those with mental illness when, at the same time, society regards many of the treatments for those with mental illness with disdain. This particularly applies to the use of medication. Furthermore, while lip service is paid to respecting those with mental health problems, the language used in public discourse is negative and even derogatory.

The headlines in our newspapers scream words like ”psycho” to depict somebody who is violent, reinforcing the belief that mental illness and violence fit hand-in-glove. Using the term “schizophrenic” to describe somebody who shows two sides to his personality is an inaccurate usage of this diagnosis since those with schizophrenia do not have, what is mistakenly called a “split personality”.

Words in common parlance for those with mental illness include “looney”, “basket case” and “nutter”. One study of young people in Britain found 240 derogatory words used by young people to describe peers who experienced mental health problems. Comedians regularly lampoon the mentally ill with few objections being raised as do children’s cartoons. For example a study of Disney animations found that 85% of them used terms that were reported as denigrating and inaccurate depictions of characters with mental illness.

“Political correctness gone mad” I hear you say. Well – no. Discouraging words that are offensive is not a deliberate attempt to hamper communication because of a political ideology but an attempt to alter the disdain and disrespect that such words embody and the grave offence and hurt that they cause to those so named. It is about instilling basic respect for those who have personal difficulties and health related problems. But its reach is much greater. It is directed to challenging and ultimately altering inaccurate beliefs about some members of society, whose lives are blighted as a result of these perceptions. We should do all we can to alter the casual use of language that offends or brands some group.

Even within the specialty of psychiatry itself, professionals sometimes use terms that do not necessarily give offence but are irritating to those to whom they refer. “Service users” or “clients” were introduced as a supposed non-paternalistic way of describing “patients” while others speak of “survivors” or “users”. Yet there is now an abundant body of research identifying the terms preferred by those with mental health problems.

One recent study published in The Psychiatrist (a journal) used a sample of over 300 people attending psychiatrists. Interestingly their term of choice was “patient” when they are consulting doctors or nurses while “patient” or “client” was equally acceptable when dealing with social workers or occupational therapists. “Service user” was disliked overall while a minority wished to be referred to as “survivors” or “users”. The comments provided by the participants in this study were instructive –“I am NOT a user of any kind”, “I would like [to be] referred to as a patient but I feel I am trying hard to be a survivor”, “I do not like client – it is reminiscent of prostitutes”.

The commission of these verbal lapses is not in the same league as the use of stigmatising or pillorying language but if the profession preaches respect then it should respect the wishes of our patients rather than foisting our beliefs about terminology on them.

Language is ingrained in our culture and it is a powerful tool in conveying and reinforcing our beliefs and attitudes. On present evidence the terms used relating to people with mental illness are discomfiting and unsettling.

Greetings everyone,

We are now just under two weeks away from the closing date.  Submissions are coming in, but we always have room for more, so if you’re on the fence, do submit. Entry is free, there is no catch, and your work is looked at by published writers both on entry and shortlist.

Announcement

I’m also very pleased to announce that tomorrow I will be putting up an article by a very experienced psychiatrist, Professor Patricia Casey, who heard of the Walking on Thin Ice campaign and of her own volition very kindly offered to help in any way she could.  I asked her could she write an article for the site and her piece on Stigma and the use of Language” will appear tomorrow. It’s a great article because it highlights a problem and proposes a solution – one we can all utilise to stigmatise less. Because stigma is something everyone can choose to do, or not to do. It is in our power.

Reflection

I would also like to reflect a little on the person whose life and actions inspired this campaign and this contest.

Kate Fitzgerald (1986-2011) was an extraordinary young woman who left us too soon. In spite of her youth, she chaired Democrats Ireland and during her studies involved herself in advocacy and debating. This did not change when she entered the working world. Problems reconciling her own depressive spells to the perceived expectations of her workplace led her to write a powerful article that will stand the test of time – “Employers failing people with mental health issues”. It was her last testimony; shortly afterwards she was found dead at her home. An inquest has determined the cause of death to be suicide.

As many here know, there was fallout. I am reluctant to discuss the events at this current date – incredibly, in Ireland, I face incurring legal penalties for doing so – and therefore I shall pass over the unedifying, unbecoming and chilling behaviour of a certain company, and a certain paper in response, as well as the nexus of power that has facilitated it all. A quick google search will provide the information needed.

Today I want to concentrate on the final section of Kate Fitzgerald’s article, which very tellingly points out that inflicting stigma on those who struggle with depression is precisely what has us in the mess we’re in at the moment. We have already placed too much power in the hands of the stigmatisers and mediocrities:

Every day a company loses a valuable employee and every day a family loses one they love. At a time when small, medium and large companies rely on dedicated staff for the vision and drive to pull them through these challenging times, these are not losses we can afford to take on the chin.

I have founded this short story competition as a direct response to the events surrounding the loss of Kate Fitzgerald, and the assaults to her legacy. I’m only one person and I can’t do much, not even thank her for her work, but since she valued writing and I’m a writer, I can do this one thing. For her, and in her honour, and in honour of everyone who lives with depression and shines through.

 

 

I’ve been honoured to read the entries that have flowed in so far, some very bleak and moving. They’ve come from all over the world and reflected so many backgrounds, and yet it’s the same struggle. And made me realise that stigma and power can also be linked to immigration and alienation. There is no Shangri-La country out there where everybody is happy. With the possible expection of Bhutan, where apparently it’s mandated in law, but I don’t know a lot about that.

Some of the entries sound distressed. This may be effective fictionalising, but if anyone writing this is fighting life-threatening depression, I would say please call your local Samaritans, or, if you are in Ireland, the Console or 3 T’s helplines, or Pieta House. I will put some links at the bottom. In the meantime, I hope writing has helped take back some of your power. Because committing words to the page is an assertive act, and I thank you for it.

One thing I will keep saying is that the more subs the better.  We’re getting more in, but still I’d like the flow to become a veritable torrent so we have a good sample to judge from. If you are thinking about submitting, then please just throw caution to the winds and do it! If you aren’t interested in writing, but know other people who might, then please promote this page in their direction. Entry is free and there is no catch.

Schedule

Currently the plan is to deliberate the shortlist over end of November, inform shortlistees in December, and have the award ceremony in early January, in Dublin. I have spoken to a friend of mine who is an illustrator who will be working on the e-book cover. I also have the kind offer of a mental health professional blogging her own thoughts in support of this campaign shortly and this will feature on the website.

So that’s it for the moment. Thanks everyone!

REMINDER TO ALL CONTESTANTS

Posted: October 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

Please do NOT leave ANY identifying info on your submission. This contest is via blind submissions only. It’s better not to know name, gender etc so that judging can be done with neither fear nor favour. Otherwise, regrettably the entry will be disqualified.

walkingonthiniceshortstory  at yahoo dot com for any queries on this.

Hello all,

A slow, steady trickle of submissions is now coming in, largely thanks to Sinead O’Hart’s wonderful promotion on her blog and the helpful links and retweets by many writers. Let’s make that trickle into a roar! I am looking forward to reading all these stories.

I’m hoping to feature a few articles and links here over the next few weeks on the theme of mental health, stigma and power to whet your enthusiasm. Today’s link is Bullied By the Boss blog. Having heroically taken on a vicious and sexist boss and gone all the way to an employment tribunal, she now invites brief articles from others about their experience.

One thing that really stands out is how these people’s universe became distorted under the bullying regimes they suffered. How those in a minor position of power over them could devastate and undermine them. And of course, if you break down, you are weak. You are ashamed to be open because of your pride, and because you could lose your job.  Your world shrinks. And finally – at least one of the people who blogged made an attempt on their life.

As she says, here are the requirements:
  • 300 to 400 words (approx) maximum
  • Please make all parties in your blog post anonymous.
  • Think of your audience. Be clear about what point or message you’re getting  across.

Susan Lanigan

Sinead O’Hart has written a beautiful, powerful post promoting the short story competition I’m running, Walking on Thin Ice. I’ve fully funded it, with some help from donations, but we’re in need of lots of subs, so I’ve extended the deadline to November 15. Here is a quote:

I wish we existed in a society where those who battle with a heavy mind could feel that help was at hand whenever they needed it. Instead, people are slotted into ‘boxes’, made to believe they are faulty when the box into which they’re put is unequal to the task of containing them, and forced to conform, under threat of shame. 

Walking on  Thin Ice aims to start the process of correcting that. I’ll be doing my bit to help, and I hope you will, too.

I also came across a wonderful piece of art by Susie Cambell here (link contains…

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