Why the mentally ill are such a soft target

From the Observer 12 April, 2015

If there were ever a good time to have a nervous breakdown, now would appear to be it. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, the treatment of mental illness is an election issue for the first time in British or, as far as I can see, world history. Say what you will about the Liberals, and I have said much, but this is an achievement.

Meanwhile, the health service, the bureaucracy and the “serious” media show their respect for mental illness by enforcing speech codes that would make a Victorian clergyman blink. You should never use words that have become insults even if they were not originally insults or are not always used as insults now – “cretin”, “simple”, “cripple”, for instance. You should never say that someone is “suffering” from autism or schizophrenia – even if they are. On no account should you describe someone as “mentally ill”. You must refer to “people with mental health problems” instead. By extension, mental health patients are no longer “patients”, but the “users” or “consumers” of health services.

I bristle when anyone tries to tell me what to write and find “inoffensive” language to be so deceitful and clunking that it is an offence in itself. The historian Tony Judt drew the link between political correctness and conservative economics best as he lay dying from motor neurone disease. Pretending we are all separate but equal, he said, “conceals the effects of real power and capacity, real wealth and influence. You describe everyone as having the same chances when actually some people have more chances than others. And with this cheating language of equality, deep inequality is allowed to happen much more easily.”

Many good people do not agree that a fraud is being committed. For them, driving “stigmatising” language out of respectable conversation has been one of the great mental health achievements of the past decade.

If they were right, if it were anything other than an easy lie that you can change the world by changing language, then the condition of the mentally ill would have improved. The Lib Dems, led by their impressive health minister Norman Lamb, have not forced the treatment of the mentally ill on to the political agenda because they want to celebrate Britain’s successes, however.

On the contrary, they are campaigning because a priggish obsession with speaking “appropriately” has coexisted quite happily with cruelty and neglect. In Britain, the powerful can get away with any inhumane act as long as they cover themselves with the cloak of “appropriate” language. Mind has emphasised how Iain Duncan Smith’s supposed attack on “scroungers” has turned into an attack on the mentally ill. His staff were sanctioning and removing their benefits at a rate of 100 a day.

The prejudice of Conservative officialdom is that they are lazy rather than sick. They punish them and then they fail them. Almost 150,000 people with mental health problems have been placed on the work programme – only 5% have been helped into work.

While the NHS is happy to go along with speech codes that prevent us from saying the mentally ill and handicapped suffer, it has cut the budget for the mental health services by 8%. No one has the right to be surprised. The covering of real suffering with euphemism suits an age of austerity well. For if people are not suffering, if patients are empowered “consumers”, why do they need public money spent on their treatment?

The health services’s neglect came as recession helped drive depression. There were 53m prescriptions for antidepressants in England in 2013. Suicide is now the leading cause of death of men aged between 20 and 49. I believe government and the NHS bureaucracy targets the mentally ill because people suffering – if I may use the word – from autism or schizophrenia, and the depressed and the mentally broken, rarely vote. Lamb prefers to say successive governments forgot about them. The targets that drive the treatment of physical illness in the NHS did not apply to mental illness. Health managers faced with orders to see everyone who arrived in accident and emergency in four hours had no orders about the treatment of the mentally ill. They put their money where their targets were.

Lamb, with – in fairness – the full support of Jeremy Hunt, the Tory health secretary, found the money to target mental illness and anorexia and issued commands for the NHS to follow. He would be able to sit back and reflect on his achievements with some pride were not the Tories getting away with murder in this election campaign.

I have never seen a party of government escape scrutiny with such ease. David Cameron is promising to abolish the deficit, to cut the taxes of the working and middle classes, to mortgage the future by making the taxpayer liable for off-balance-sheet guarantees for home-buyers, commuters, small business, the green investment bank, the northern powerhouse and every other cause or interest group that might sway a few hundred votes in a marginal seat.

Normally, it is the left that talks as if it can harvest a limitless supply of coin from the magic money tree. In Britain today, it is the right.

All Cameron will say when he’s asked where the money is coming from is that he will find an extra £12bn in welfare cuts. He won’t say what he will cut and who will suffer, even though elections are meant to be the time when politicians level with the public about their plans. Leaks and common sense tell you he will go for the mentally and physically handicapped. Pensioners are protected because they vote. The depressed and disabled don’t. Of course he will hammer them; what else can he do?

If I could make my generation of leftists stop their obsession with reforming manners and concentrate on reforming society, I would force them to recite these lines from the American civil rights campaigner WEB Du Bois. In 1928, he received a letter from a young activist who was appalled that Du Bois and his comrades were happy to use the word “negro”. Negro was a slave name, he said, which should be abolished.

Du Bois replied: “Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things. If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called ‘coloured’ or ‘Afro-Americans’… It is not the name – it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!’

As the plight of the tormented shows, the best way to go get the Thing, kids, is to send the Conservative party into opposition on 7 May.