Magazine article The Spectator

The Joy of Stigma

Magazine article The Spectator

The Joy of Stigma

Article excerpt

Ithink my favourite ever name for a campaigning, single-issue pressure group can be found in the New York telephone directory: The National Stigma Clearing House. Its purpose is to stamp upon stigma wheresoever it may arise -- and recently it turned its attention to a television programme called Loonatics Unleashed which, according to the NSCH, 'gives new life to the most damaging stereotype faced by the mental health community: the misconception that people with psychiatric disorders threaten public safety'.

I assumed this new production must be a collection of CCTV clips of nutters and madmen behaving in an entertainingly doolally manner: in questionable taste, perhaps, but it might just wile away those dead hours after midnight. But it's not -- it's just an updating of the old Loony Toon characters. In other words, it's a cartoon starring a made-over Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and containing no reference whatsoever to real-life loonies. But this fact does not for one moment mitigate the wrath of the fabulously titled pressure group: it wants the programme banned anyway.

Our own equivalent pressure group, the more prosaically named Stigma. org would probably agree with them. It has set itself a similar task, '. . . fighting stigma and discrimination in every aspect of life'. In the sphere of mental illness, for example, Stigma. org shrewdly points out that 'members of the public are less likely to hire people labelled as mentally ill . . . and less likely to freely interact with them.' Well, would you believe it?

The general attitude towards the mentally ill of those of us who have not yet been so diagnosed is one of suspicion; I suppose you can, if you like, call it a form of stigma. If we meet someone who we are told is mad, or a nutter, or bonkers, then we are wary of them -- until we become familiar with the parameters of whatever it is that afflicts them and we adjust our behaviour accordingly.

If the extent of their madness is that at night they sit in the garden in striped pyjamas and bark at the moon, then we might keep our children away from them but, otherwise, not deny them a polite 'Hello, how are you this fine morning?' every so often.

If, however, they are prone to murdering people with machetes and subsequently eating them, we will shun them entirely and most likely call the emergency services.

Only a very small percentage of lunatics kill people and eat them: we are all aware of this. But we are aware that some of them do. And we are aware, too, that other mentally ill people can harm or simply disquiet us in one way or another, which is why we are 'less likely' to give them jobs or to 'interact with them freely', depending, again, upon the nature of their affliction.

This seems so utterly bloody obvious, so plainly the correct approach, so entirely rational, that it should hardly need to be said at all. Of course, there is a stigma attached to being mentally ill and we are apt, upon observing maniacal behaviour, to casually confer upon the perpetrators the descriptions 'psycho' or 'loony' or 'headcase' -- again, depending on the nature of their affliction. 'Loony' seems to me a wholly appropriate term for someone who barks at the moon, or hides inside a wardrobe all day, or hurls indiscriminate abuse at the traffic. It is a means of differentiating their behaviour from ours. 'Psycho' seems pretty apt for someone who kills and then eats someone, too. …

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