Curved Graphic

Challenging Stigma
The Launch of the People Too Campaign at the Scottish Parliament - 2001

 

Hello -

As has been said I am Graham Morgan. I am a user and an Advocacy Worker - I work with the Highland Users Group, which represents people with a mental illness. Within the next few minutes I can't outline my life or the lives of my friends but I hope to give you an inkling of what stigma means to me.

I expect that you will all know more about discrimination and equal opportunities than I do, but I would like to start off with the labels with which we define others and ourselves. Labels can be useful things but equally they group, they generalise and they make sweeping statements about diverse groups of people.

I define myself in lots of different ways. When I look back at my life there are events that I would like people to know about me.

I would love people to be able to feel with me the time when, in mid Atlantic, we sat on watch and looked at the myriad bright stars above us and our friend Meirav gave us the Hebrew and Arabic stories of the constellations - a time of peace and softness.

I would love you to meet my son when he is so excited about life and learning that his whole body wriggles and you feel refreshed about living itself. I would like to share the wonder that I feel when I realise that I live with a person who wants to spend the rest of her life with me. Join me at breakfast when we look into the garden at the squirrels and rabbits and birds.

Come to my office and meet me as I whirl around being very busy but sometimes doing nothing very effectively.

My life is and has been great. I love it, I have family, I do a job I love- I have a good income - I live where I want to and I have friends.

Those definitions and glimpses about myself are the ones I feel happiest with but there are other definitions that I also use, and which other people use, that I feel less happy with and these are the experiences and feelings that I have about mental illness.

Because mental illness is an illness, which in its horror puts people like me outside of society, which in the feelings it provokes makes people like me feel shame and in its wider context alienates and excludes people like me from the ordinary opportunities of society.

Let me go back 17 years to the time when I was diagnosed as having a personality disorder. A time when I believed in nothing, and found no comfort around me, a time when everything seemed pointless and meaningless, a time when the only way I could express my pain was by cutting my skin with razor blades, to sit and watch the blood gather on newspapers spread below me, only to feel disgust at myself, to turn to my bed to curl up and wish, beyond wishing, that I could have the courage to die.

I could tell you about those times when the days and the months stretch greyly, uneventfully and miserably forward or the times when there is such a whirl of anxiety and confusion in your head that you cannot speak properly, when everything is agitation and when simple tasks become impossible.

But for me some of the worst times came about in my early thirties when I became psychotic. When all my comfortable realities shattered. Where there was no certainty, where life became bizarre and unmanageable, when I thought I was evil, when I saw spirits and demons in the glare of the sun or the sheen of a lightbulb reflected in glass. When I thought people knew what I was thinking, that my very thoughts and feelings were being controlled and when in a bizarre effort to protect myself and those around me, I burnt patterns into my hands with cigarettes, hid under the floorboards of our house, and refused to go near to or to touch people for fear of the damage I thought my very presence would do to them.

In those days life was unbearable everything had turned to splinters. I could not reach out and people could not reach in. I became a stranger to everyone. The dreams that we had as a family only served to mock us in the reality that we now found ourselves in.

Nowadays I am diagnosed as having Schizophrenia. I still have symptoms but not many. I take the drugs but unwillingly, and generally life is good, fulfilling, bright and is what I want.

Writing what I have just written is meant to give the message that I want you to take away. That the attitude to mental illness is and is not the same as the attitude people have to other minority groups. It is a horrible experience. It is easy to understand why people may fear it and avoid it. It is almost possible to see why people may fear us and why we may feel shame for what those around us go through and yet, all the hundreds of thousands of us who experience illness are ordinary people going through extraordinary experiences which we did not seek out, ordinary people who are diminished by the reaction of our culture and society to mental illness.

Stigma is all around us; it is in our playgrounds, where my son routinely and innocently calls me a weirdo or a nutter. It is on the television with every other thriller, with loony tunes cartoons with the comedy acts and the soaps and the sensational headlines.

Stigma is inside all of us. Pause for a moment and imagine that you are diagnosed as Schizophrenic,

How would you tell your friends?
How would you tell the press?
How would you reveal it to a stranger?

I have to do this all the time and although I rarely get a bad reaction, I live with a hollow stomach at the rejection that one day is sure to happen.

At its extreme, stigma is shown in abuse and discrimination, in loosing jobs, loosing friends, loosing belief in yourself, even being assaulted or being spat at, being talked about, being the subject of campaigns to stop you living in certain neighbourhoods and being feared.

It is wrong. It is deeply wrong to think that an illness can cause this. To think that we can be marked out with shame or disgrace for something over which we have no control degrades all of us.

It is changing though, discrimination seems to be less common and we who have experienced illness are refusing to feel shame for something over which we have no control. We are speaking out and in our refusal to accept rejection we can help change to occur.

You can help too but first let me give an example-

One of my friends experienced depression for years but she wouldn't let anyone in her local community know that she had a mental illness. She would travel for miles to other services so that she could be sure no one who knew her would see her. She was a beautiful, warm, humorous, gentle, reflective woman.
I remember the numerous days drinking coffee with her looking over the fields laughing together.
When you think of mental illness think of her. Think of the suicide of a dignified moral lovely woman who never lived to see the supposed shame of a horrible illness that she carried within her disappear.

You can help in the words that you use and the legislation that you pass and the initiatives that you promote. Remember everyone is affected by mental illness. Remember that each fearful headline, each silly film, each measure taken to protect society from people like me, damages not only me but you and your friends also.

Remember that there are projects run by people with a mental illness yearning to get off the ground to help people learn about our lives and in this learning, to take away the fear.

Remember that in one short week of events last year we worked alongside a drama company with 350 school children, 69% of whom said that their attitudes to mental illness had changed as a result. We could do more of this if only we had the resources.

Finally, remember the words of one of those schoolchildren who said that she had never realised that a person with Schizophrenia could be married and have a family, and in those innocent words see the power of stigma and the ease given minimal resources with which we can all challenge it.

 

 


Highland Users Group
Tel: (01463 723560) — Email: hug@hccf.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

HUG Talks - Challenging Stigma