Ciarnan Hilferty, the chair of Amnesty International in the UK has made some openly mocking remarks on the subject of mental health problems. These have been revealed on Twitter by the website Political Scrapbook.
I appreciate that humour is an issue of personal taste and a matter therefore for the individual. On a subject like mental health however you have to be extremely careful. What is palatable for one person may not be palatable for another.
In the arena of mental health there is already a huge stigma around admitting you have a mental health problem. Many people feel afraid that they will be laughed at and it would appear from Mr Hilferty’s Twitter feed that those fears are not without justification.
There is often the rationale in journalism that such comments should not be reported upon because it gives them publicity. Instead therefore, it is better to ignore them and not react at all.
Well, I’m sorry but today I am throwing that rationale out of the window. Such comments make me angry and make my blood boil. These were not just comments made by my mate in the pub, these comments were made by somebody who is a representative of a national and international charity. The charity Amnesty International exists to provide better human rights for those who are in difficulties or peril around the world.
The charity’s own website makes clear that mental health is a human rights issue. So how does joking that somebody could enter the BBC competition The Voices advance the human rights of a schizophrenic? How does it improve their dignity or self-esteem? The questions were rhetorical but I’m sure you know the answer. Of course jokes like this are unquestionably unhelpful. Mental health problems are misunderstood by society enough without jokes trivialising them as a party piece for a BBC talent contest.
The other point about mental health problems is they are largely unseen. You can’t feel depression by reaching out and touching it. The average person would not know you have OCD when you walk down the street to the supermarket. The point is the person with the mental health problem knows only too well. For Ciarnan Helferty mental health problems may be material for jokes on Twitter but for many people they are their real lives. For them they are not just a source of casual humour on Twitter but something they have to live with day in day out.
When you make a joke the object of the joke is to laugh with somebody not at them or at their expense. Not to dehumanise them or to put them down but just to share a moment of fun.
I found Helferty’s jokes disgusting and they left a bad taste in my mouth. It shocked me that the chair of an internationally respected and renowned organisation could be so callous and stupid in making fun of other people’s problems in a public social media space like Twitter.
Ironically perhaps in 2010 Amnesty International published a report on ending discrimination against people with mental health problems in all walks of life. The report states that:
“AI further believes that all individuals have a role to play in bringing
an end to discrimination against people with mental health problems
by equipping themselves with accurate knowledge and information
about mental health and the issues that affect the lives of people
with mental health problems; challenging examples of prejudice or
discrimination against people with mental health problems where
they encounter them in their daily lives, within family settings, social
environments or in the workplace; being conscious of the impact that
their behaviour can have on people with mental health problems.”
When juxtaposed with this quote Hilferty’s jokes look even more risque and ill judged. Mental health problems are not a joke, any more than living with a disability or having a broken leg is a joke.
Instead mental health problems are a daily isolated emotional grind and the ability to seek help takes courage. The media as a whole are trying to make a concerted effort to shine a light on what it is like to live with mental health problems.
For me, when my depression and anxiety was at its worst I did not want to get up in the morning. In terms of the anxiety I had an irrational fear that when my mother went upstairs to bed she would not come downstairs again. This resulted in me phoning her multiple times a night to ensure she was okay. This was no doubt due to my disability but you feel like you’re suffering alone and you can’t turn to anyone. The isolation is real and so is the fear of being laughed at. But it doesn’t make it right. That is why we, those who have experience of mental health problems must challenge the approach of those like Mr Hilferty. I’m not saying I’m humourless. I’m not saying you can’t laugh at yourself sometimes. But to do it in a public forum like Twitter when you have no idea of the mindset or the feelings of those reading is wrong.
I say that instead of making jokes about people with mental health problems, Ciarnan Helferty should spend time with people with mental health problems, listening to them and asking them questions.
It will be interesting to see after an experience like that whether he still thinks his jokes are a barrel of laughs. There is enough stigma. We do not need wannabe comedians adding to it. We need understanding, empathy and compassion. These comments were made by the Chair of a human rights organisation. Ciarnan Hilferty is in a position of authority, responsibility and influence in the field of human rights.
That is what makes his comments so eye-wateringly appalling and ignorant.