Hello Darkness My Old Friend

20 Jan

“They fought for women’s rights in the 70’s and gay rights in the 80’s… Campaigns for mental health are flagging far behind”.

These were the words of Mary O’Hara who visited Westminster last week. O’Hara is a social affairs specialist for The Guardian and campaigns for Shift, a charity which aims to change media reports on mental illness.

The Sun regularly describe people with mental illness as ‘crazy’ and ‘beastly’, shaping the publics perception and inflicting fear. A classic opening line in The Sun on Christmas Eve of last year, “beasts caged at top security Broadmoor hospital are being given 10 pounds to treat themselves at Christmas”.

The paper is suggesting that the people in the hospital are no longer human, acting as if it’s the equivelent of giving 10 pound to a cat in a rescue home.


What’s scary is that The Sun is the biggest circulating newspaper in the country, and therefore very influential. Some people reading this account in the paper could be led to thinking that the people in the hospital were to be feared in the same way as we would fear a wild bear.

O’Hara said “It’s time for change. Society understands people with physical illnesses, and describes sufferers as brave… they aren’t shunned in the same way as people with mental illness”.


A lady called Marianne came with Mary to tell us her story. She told us of her father who was an ex miner, and who she thought perhaps suffered from a ‘bit of depression’. During which time, she remembers a ‘darkness in her life’. She recalled the darkness lifting one day at half 11 whilst she was at work.

It was half 11 when her father killed himself in a very public way in Darlington. The media found out before her family, and when she went to her mother’s house that day a policeman was stood with her ‘little mother’.
A young female journalist was sent to find out the details, obviously because none of the more experienced journalists wanted to. It was the next door neighbours who told the story.

Marianne felt anger as her family were “being revealed to the whole world”. One day she had enough, and started to hear things. Now, she realises she had schizophrenia.

“One thing you’ve got is your mind. People can see your body but your mind is your own private thing”, said Marianne.

When Marianne was in the depths of her illness, she weighed 5 and a half stone, and recalls people she knew crossing the street so they didn’t have to talk to her.
It wasn’t until her 3 year old granddaughter told her she hoped she wouldn’t die that she finally felt she had something to live for.

She now hosts her own wellbeing website and gives talks for Shift.


Yet the media didn’t end there. They continue to this day to report on Marianne’s struggle, every year doing a piece for World Mental Health Day on local radio stations.

“Once you’ve got that diagnosis they never let you go”, said Marianne.

So, when is it OK for media to report on such things, or is it OK at all? We certainly do not need to know the details of suicide, and reporters often fail to remember it is human beings they are dealing with. Some are too eager to get a story in on time to question their morale.


One Response to “Hello Darkness My Old Friend”

  1. mrtotes January 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    We all need to understand mental illness better and the media (starting with soaps perhaps?!) will need to be onboard to take this message forward. Just like using ‘gay’ as an insult shouldn’t be tolerated (heard that three times this week) using ‘crazy’ etc needs to be avoided if we are going to improve our understanding.

    I have no concept how widely spread mental illnesses are in all honestly. If it includes stress and depression then it’s basically most people at one time or another. Another example is with the UK sending servicemen to war when the country is not at war the incidence of PTSD will surely increase. Do we have a plan to deal with this?

    I also wonder whether the fact that most of us sit high up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs means we all have plenty of trivia to worry ourselves about, leading to stress and depression whilst our brains are designed to worry about safety and survival.

    Moving back to the point, I’d love to see the media being responsible in how they report all issues – but I fear bottom lines will prevail.

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