Viewpoint: Do famous role models help or hinder?

 
Churchill and Fry in top hats

It's Mental Health Awareness Week - cue the annual round of lists of "inspirational" public figures. But do famous role models actually make a difference?

If you're a person who experiences mental health difficulties, as I do, you'll be familiar with an oft-quoted list of inspirational fellow travellers, such as Winston Churchill and his famous "black dog" or national treasure Stephen Fry and his bipolar disorder.

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Mark Brown

Often it's those who feel disabled people need encouraging who choose role models for us”

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The media retains a fondness for presenting exceptional disabled people as inspirational.

"Look," they say. "Here is a person who has achieved so much. Do not lose heart, you too can overcome your disability if you follow their example."

This may at first seem a benign point to make but, I wonder, does it do more harm than good?

The dominant positive media stories offer up high-achieving disabled people as examples of the human spirit triumphing over adversity. Other positive tales are of people rising to stratospheric heights "despite" a physical or mental health difficulty.

While Churchill's achievements are hard to dispute, the best I can conclude from his story is that being born into an aristocratic family in the late 19th Century, getting stuck into a military career then standing for election is a good way of advancing your career - factors that are mostly beyond the reach of an average person with mental health difficulties in 2013.

There are few prominent people with mental health difficulties and few disabled people who are household names or opinion formers.

Winston Churchill in 1904 Churchill - the new MP for Oldham - in 1904

Often it's those who feel disabled people need encouraging who choose the list of role models for us. So rather than being presented with figures who we think are genuinely inspiring, they can simply be someone else's idea of what is needed to spur us on.

Sociologist Richard Sennett tells of how so-called inspirational figures can challenge people's self-respect rather than encourage them. He outlines it in his 2003 book Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality.

Sennett grew up in the projects of Chicago where his mother was a social worker. He excelled at cello and gained a scholarship which led him to New York, shifting to sociology after a condition reduced his ability to play.

Years later, when invited back to his old neighbourhood to give a speech of hope to excluded young people, Sennett spoke alongside an electrician, a secretary and a young doctor who had worked his way up from nothing.

The secretary told of learning shorthand and getting a job with a union official, the electrician of how he broke into his trade. The young doctor told of his journey, saying: "If I can do it, so can you if you believe in yourself."

Despite his story appearing the most inspirational to outside eyes, the audience heckled the doctor - they didn't appreciate his message.

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When the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment”

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Sennett wondered why this was and realised that the young doctor's story had challenged the self-respect of those listening. "Whereas the secretary showed the young people what to do, the young doctor told them who they should become," reasoned Sennett.

Exceptional figures are important but so too are those with whom we feel real affinity and who can show us practical steps we can take in our own lives.

At a time when experiences of disability are becoming politicised by changes to social security benefits, some feel that inspirational figures drawn from the ranks of celebrity obscure the real challenges faced by disabled people. These challenges include a lack of relationships and money to make sure that life is not just bearable but enriching and enjoyable.

Where the inspirational figure is selected for us, and the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment - especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence.

Knowing a famous person has the same impairment as you can be reassuring, but only in the vague way that hearing of a successful distant relative is reassuring.

Most of us will never scale Everest, compete for our country at sports or have a showbiz career. This doesn't mean we've failed.

Churchill might tell me something about the art of statecraft, or Fry about the pressures of fame and the joy of words, but someone closer to home, with a life more like mine and challenges more like mine, will tell me far more about a life with mental health difficulty and how best to live it.

Mark Brown is the development director of social enterprise Social Spider and editor of One in Four magazine. Written by people with mental health difficulties, for people with mental health difficulties, the magazine celebrates its fifth birthday next month.

 

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 226.

    Many of what are described by vested interests as "illness" are no more illness, than is coming out in bruises after being hit with a baseball bat an illness. Increasing numbers of the learned are now accepting this.

    Treatment might well still be very helpful on that basis, but it's no sign of weakness in the sufferer to be taking it.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 225.

    The term "mental illness" implies that there is a "mental wellness". Who prescribes this wellness may possibley be the same people who write manuals such as DSM and have a vested interest in the US pharmaceutical industry that magicly creates drugs for conditions such as "depression". More depression = more profit. Less illness lees profit.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 224.

    @222 FowPah

    You've hit the nail on the head. . . . .Each sufferer has to find their own coping mechanism. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. . . .. . For you to have run businesses, and refuse medication, but still keep pushing forward shows your inner strength, and that in itself is an inspiration to other sufferers

  • rate this
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    Comment number 223.

    For many social "issues", like cancer, AIDS, drug addiction, homosexuality or single parenthood, improvements in public understanding have been associated with celebrity figures "coming out". Mark Brown succinctly explains why that is never likely to be the case for people with severe mental illness, and nor should it be. We have to ditch the idea that mental illness is someone elses problem.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 222.

    I have bipolar II.Had at least 10 + episodes of severe depression lasting 3 to 6 months at a time.Gave up two businesses and worked through a lot of time with barely any sleep for weeks and hardly functioning.Some how you survive to the next time.I don't take medication because I choose not to.I've had years at a time when I have been well also so I now have my own regime that I follow.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 221.

    Bipolar is a mental illness that very much has a bright side, and many bipolar people can be very creative in a manic phase. Other mental illnesses are just disruptive - anxiety, depression, eating disorders and so on. So to say someone with biploar should be a role model for everyone with mental health issues is just wrong, never mind the other implications.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 220.

    Also, I must add, recent cases of "celebrity" bi-polar diagnosis seem as if it's "fashionable" to be labelled with this condition, not all cases, but some. I have worked in mental health for years, and genuine bi-polar that requires in-patient admission can be severely debilitating for the sufferer, and traumatic for the relative. A mood swing here and there isn't bi-polar,its something we all do.

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    Comment number 219.

    From my experience of being a nursing assistant in a psychiatric unit for 13 years, it all depends on the severity of the illness. We have long term admissions, and short term admissions. The long term admissions for people suffering bipolar disorder, long term in some cases meaning years of incarceration, these unfortunate sufferers would never function in society at any level.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 218.

    Having had a think about it, I would be over the moon if somebody more famous was brave enough to admit they had borderline personality disorder. This one is the really nasty bugger that nobody understands. You only have to have a search on the internet to find some vicious comments about sufferers with BPD; comments which would be seriously frowned upon if they were about any other illness.

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    Comment number 217.

    As a sufferer, I think whether it is helpful or not largely depends on how an individual views 'celebrity'; Personally, the appeal it isn't their achievements but the idea that I am not alone. I also think these famous faces help to show non-sufferers that people with mental health conditions aren't something to 'fear' arbitrarily! Individual cases vary of course but don't write us all off!

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    Comment number 216.

    Moscow to the White House. You must be out of your MIND? Is it raining?

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    Comment number 215.

    196.
    IndaUK
    [i]I've had medical people look at me strangly when I suggested, more than once, that if I didn't wake up tomorrow, all would good. It not like I want to kill myself, I don't. Everything about me, my principles, say that ending a life is wrong. But the thinking remains true. That line of thinking has been with me for twenty years.[/i]

    I feel your pain.((hug))

  • rate this
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    Comment number 214.

    I agree that the above can both help and hinder, some may find it inspiring to see their idols experiencing similar things to them, while others may see them as detached from reality so impossible to relate to. However one thing that shouldnt be detracted from is how the above helps to fight stigma. The more that famous role models talk about their experiences the more that society will take note.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 213.

    People in the public eye made it possible for me to see there was life after a depression diagnosis, that you could still do the career you love, with a little bit of modification, and that actually talking about your experience is beneficial to others. I'm not a Stephen Fry or Winston Churchill but neither am I my illness and I'm now back enjoying my life which I appreciate every day.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 212.

    209. FowPah

    Thanks for understanding. Many here have commented about wanting to see the perception and stigma associated with mental health issues change, yet when a suggestion is made that may help with that change it is immediately voted down? Are people saying what THEY want, or what they think others want to hear?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 211.

    I think highlighting inspirational people with mental health difficulties has two aims:
    1) To encourage those who suffer from Mental health issues
    But also, and perhaps more importantly (?)
    2) To educated those who haven't suffered from mental health issues. It normalises the illness and hopefully breaks down barriers

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 210.

    I honestly don't understand how someone speaking up about their mental condition, famous or otherwise, can ever be a hindrance. Stephen Fry's documentary had a huge impact my own decision to deal with my own problems, perhaps more than a documentary on a less famous person would have. SF and others like him should be commended for their bravery, not have their contributions maligned.

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    Comment number 209.

    Leo I understand your point.I use illness because it makes me feel ill.There is some evidence that bipolar does cause brain impairment which can be observed by imaging.

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    Comment number 208.

    192. stereotonic

    I said nothing about "functionality" in my comment likening depression to a broken leg. My only purpose in that comparison was to point out that neither are an "illness". Neither are pathogen-related conditions, neither are communicable. Neurological conditions do not, technically, have a pathology so are not "illnesses" such as cancer.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 207.

    Common sense today is turned on its head by experts and role models. Some is good (evidence based) some is not and often intuitive or complacent.

    An example from broader society, there is record demand for property so prices go up. This is supply and demand, the root of economics turned on its inefficient head. Life carries on and an inanity is the norm. Why is that?

 

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