On Friday and Saturday there was a lot of derision and scorn in my Twitter feed regarding the Prime Minister’s statement that, “just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics.” A huge range of people, from practising Christians through agnostics to committed atheists, pointed out the very obvious discrepancy between the Christian values of social justice and equality and David Cameron’s evident fealty to the City. A number of people (including members of the clergy) wrote to the broadsheets the following day to echo the points raised on Twitter: that reductions in state benefits, rising unemployment and homelessness, an increasing in child poverty, and a continuing culture of unfettered bankers’ bonuses, all bear a stunning lack of resemblance to the message of the New Testament.
Cameron’s statement was, of course, just one in a long line of Government soundbites which have provoked incredulity. Really? we cry. Did they really say that? They can’t possibly mean it – do they? For so much of what is announced sounds so horrifyingly audacious. Does this Government really intend for debt advice centres to close, just as jobs go and wages freeze? Is it genuinely going to send a Bible to every school while cutting funding to Children’s Services? Does it truly think it’s OK to slash Legal Aid funding to domestic violence victims? From the position of the ordinary person, many of these policies do seem downright bizarre; craziness, with an edge of cruelty. I imagine it was this which prompted someone I follow to tweet on Saturday:
“I’m beginning to have the sneaking suspicion that David Cameron may be mentally ill…..”
As someone profoundly affected by mental ill-health, I found that an offensive statement, and here’s why. Culturally, there is a great temptation when somebody does or says something one abhors to instantly assume that they must be mentally unwell. We see this when someone commits a horrific act of violence and there is immediate media speculation as to whether the perpetrator is “insane”. The fact of the matter is that review after review of homicides show only 1:10 murderers have an identifiable mental disorder at the time of the offence, against an incidence of mental health problems in the general population of about 1:6. Yet the rhetoric of “he must have been mental” prevails, presumably as a distancing mechanism. The logic goes: “this act is horrific and bears no relationship to anything I would do; I am convinced that other sane and normal people would act as I do; therefore the only explanation is that the perpetrator is insane and abnormal.” The tweeter was acting in the same way. She clearly felt that the Prime Minister’s statements were so far removed from her own understanding of the world, that it seemed to her as if had lost touch with reality. That’s certainly a sentiment that many people share, but we would be extremely unwise to take our eye off the actual causes of Government’s bizarre policy statements. Because these are manifestly not people who have an altered view of the world due to a mental health condition. These are people who are indeed out of touch with reality, but this is because they exist in an abnormal bubble of privilege and opportunity. The route of prep school, to public school, to studying PPE at Oxbridge, to Special Advisor, to MP, to a ministerial post is an incredibly rarefied one, which leaves little or no opportunity for contact with life as it is experienced by the vast majority of Britons. This is a cabinet largely comprised of millionaires who subscribe to the centre right belief that people must “take personal responsibility” for their lives, and tend to attribute others’ difficulties to “poor life choices” rather than social factors. If we begin to think that the Government is deluded, we obscure the fact that their outré statements are in fact driven by upbringing and ideology.
Yes, it was an off the cuff remark. Yes, I probably got too huffy about it (being the Word Police again!). The author of the comment does herself suffer from depression. But equating the outlandish with the delusional is part of what makes it harder for people to beat the huge amount of greater amount stigma surrounding psychiatric symptoms such as psychosis. I’d like to see society accept that there are things out there that we just don’t like. That we will come up against incomprehensible behaviour from time to time. That there are nasty people (and parties!) out there, and that sometimes things happen that we would better to just admit are bad, or maybe sad, without having deciding that they must be “mad.”