My first ever job when I was about 15 was at a Happy Eater, and near to the restaurant, nestled at the top of long driveways hidden out of sight, was not one, but two mental institutions, one of which was closing down gradually, the other still functioning.
In the eighties, mental health still carried with it a stigma. People whispered about ‘nervous breakdowns’ and losing one’s mind, of ‘hearing voices’. I can remember the fascination we had for the closing one, Cane Hill; an imposing Victorian asylum steeped in legend about screaming electric shock treatments and cells; remember how we ventured up the hill one night, drunk and giggling, to see if we could see any crazies through the windows, tethered to their beds with thick leather restraints.
Because that’s what we imagined it was like. We had images of tortured souls in straightjackets or long nightgowns, undergoing hideous sadistic treatments as they were forced to clamp down on rubber wedges, lest they bite off their own tongues. We’d seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, right?
The building of Cane Hill was commissioned by a governing body called The Lunacy Commission, established by the Madhouses Act 1882. It all sounds a bit Monty Python, doesn’t it, and seems extraordinary to us modern folk that we should apply such terms to the mentally ill these days. How far we’ve come since then.
But have we really? Do we accept our mentally ill more willingly now, or do we indeed still sweep them, and it, out of sight; pretend it’s not there? Do we talk openly about our mentally ill friends, relatives? Do we even care? Or do we just hope each time that the new combination of medication the quack throws at them will somehow fix it? Perhaps although we are indeed more open about mental health issues, we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to knowing how to cope.
Julie Burchill recently lost her son to suicide. I say ‘lost him to suicide’ but he was lost long before that. Years of mental struggle finally culminated in what can – for him – only be seen as the relief of death. He’d been ill for years, stuck in a tortured circle of medication and treatment, recovery and remission, until one day he finally got his wish, and died. It wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“I was in Crete, having a lovely time with my husband. We went back to the room after lunch and I opened my emails – there was one from a wonderful broad called Tessa Mayes who’d been helping Jack for the past year (to my shame, I hadn’t seen him since last summer) saying JACK URGENT CALL ME. I said immediately to my husband ‘Jack’s dead.’ I had been expecting it for years.”
Anyone who has spent time caring for someone with mental illness will recognise how complex it is. There are no easy answers – for some, the path becomes easier, maybe they get fixed. For others, it doesn’t happen. Whatever the deal, it ultimately places huge pressure on those who are close.
In the old days, you got labelled – a schizophrenic, an addict, a manic depressive – these days the lines are often more blurred. But what makes one person recover and another remain ill in perpetuity isn’t easily definable.
One can be in a good place, a happy place, and still be steeped in torture. Julie’s son Jack is a prime example; “Some people can be fixed, some cannot. Jack first attempted suicide when he was living with a lovely girl – a nurse! – who he adored, and earning a living teaching guitar. It was the best his adult life had ever been, but he still wanted to die.”
I wondered whether he’d always been ill, or what first flagged it up. “He was cutting himself, had bulimia, was isolated… endless dope-smoking – you name it. He flunked out of university twice and BIMM once – two weeks before graduation. From the age of 19 till he died at 29, he was completely self-destructive.”
That’s a long time to be dying. But as with many cases, it isn’t so much that he wanted to die – he just didn’t enjoy living. There is poetry in death, for sure, as Plath will attest. But it’s the living bit that we need to deal with, and deal with better.
Helping people who are ill, whether they’re depressed or riddled with cancer, wreaks its own damage on the carer; something Julie is keen to hammer home. “Help all you can, but put on your own oxygen mask first, as they say on the plane. Do not let the illness of your loved one destroy you.”
In the meeting preamble of Al Anon – the fellowship for the friends and family of alcoholics – one of the phrases used addresses this, suggesting that the key is finding “…solutions that lead to serenity. So much depends on our own attitudes, and as we learn to place our problem in its true perspective, we find it loses its power to dominate our thoughts and our lives.”
If placing the desire to die in its true perspective is allowing them to fulfil that wish, then letting them get on with it is something Julie advocates. “If they have asked, and proved, time and time again, that they want to go, LET THEM GO. If you love them, let them go – no matter what pain you will have to suffer when they do.”
It’s an extraordinary level of acceptance, to embrace such an ambition, but a bit more acceptance all round might not be such a bad thing. Not everyone wants to die, like Jack, but hey, maybe we could all just be a bit less judgemental? A bit more understanding? What’s really key here is the overwhelming evidence that carers need support just as much as those who are ill. It’s not an easy ride.
Julie is working through her own pain by volunteering at a MIND shop. MIND is a national charity that states: “We provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. We campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.”
I asked her what she was planning to do there. “I like to do hands-on, menial things as I think and write so much. I got to love steaming clothes when I was at the Martlets (another local charity), so that’s what I’ll be doing at MIND.”
So what can we do to help? MIND is a charity running a network of local services across the whole of the UK, and Sussex is served by MIND Brighton & Hove. I believe that every person reading this article will have been touched by mental health issues in some way, and cuts in public service mean that our mentally ill are becoming increasingly less supported. So as Julie says, if you want to help, “TALK, TALK, TALK about it! GIVE MONEY! VOLUNTEER!”
It still appears that whilst there is some kind of imagined nobility in struggling with physical illness or death, mental health isn’t quite so romantic. There is serenity in acceptance – whether it’s the acceptance that the mentally ill need as much love and care as the physically ill, or that sometimes letting go is the right thing to do.
But helping other people is good for the soul. Faith has also helped Julie to deal with the loss of her boy, “faith in the Lord, and a wonderful husband,” she says. She believes that he’s at peace now. “He was a good boy, a very good boy, till the sickness devoured him. I believe he is himself again, in Heaven.”
MIND Brighton & Hove is the regional branch of MIND that covers the whole of Sussex – you can find them at: www.mindcharity.co.uk
If you’d like to do something more practical, the MIND shop in Hove on Church Road has a whole swathe of pioneering events coming up to both raise awareness and support local business, including a burlesque night at Nightingales, featuring Coco de Ville and other artists around Christmas and also a tattoo event with Inka Tattoos to raise awareness and funds. In addition to the quirky vintage feel of the shop they are investing in volunteers by initiating a volunteer of the month scheme where volunteers are recognised and rewarded for their contribution to the charity.
MIND Hove shop
44 Church Road, Hove
Contact manager Mei (May) Jones, or assistant manager Lara Bryant.
Suicide in men… In 2013, male suicide accounted for 78% of all suicides and is the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20 – 45 in the UK. For help and advice, please contact: www.thecalmzone.net