Are People With Mental Health Problems “Really Disabled”?

If you live in the UK and follow the news when it comes to anything mental health related, you will probably be aware of a certain Tory MP named George Freeman (not the guy who made grills. That was George Forman. He was so proud of his grills that he put his name on them don’t you know). Anyway, this Freeman bloke has been in the news a lot this past week, due to his recent comments regarding the rights of people with mental health problems claiming benefits.

Initially I wasn’t going to make a post about this, as thankfully a lot of people were angered by what he said on the issue, and therefore there have been many posts on the internet addressing why his opinions are so misguided. Having read a few of these posts I couldn’t help but think “well I don’t need to say anything about it because at least one other person has said it for me”, but then I realised that when a crowd of voices chant the same thing, it is a hell of a lot louder than any noise made by a single individual (unless that individual is armed with a giant and extremely powerful microphone…Alas, such things are often reserved for people with power who have no idea what they are talking about…ahem…)
I also wasn’t going to post about it because since his damaging comment, our old buddy George (again, not the one with the grills), has retracted all of the nonsense he has been spouting. Maybe then I should forgive the poor chap, as clearly he regrets his statements (or just realised that everybody hated him for being such an idiot and thus backed down on opinions he was so passionate about, to avoid being glared at in the streets…I guess we will never know…).
However the damaging comments made by Mr Freeman are unfortunately not anything new, nor any revelatory belief shared by nobody else before him. They are comments that a lot of the public have probably felt and said in private themselves, it’s just those people  didn’t have the microphones allowing everyone to hear. So I am writing this as much for them as it is for my buddy George (starting to wish I was referring to the other George as my buddy now…I could use a free grill.)

So what are these comments that have outraged so many and that are damaging to society’s view of those who suffer from mental health problems? Well, they are about people who are unable to work due to mental health problems claiming benefits, and how their payments should be stopped in order to save the money for the “really disabled”.
It is funny actually that this has come up at this time as it was just last week before this controversy started, that I filled out a form applying for benefits myself. For years therapists have encouraged me to fill out these forms and claim what they thought I was entitled to, yet I have always refused because even though I knew they were right, the thought of officially asking for support for being disabled made me feel incredibly guilty. I think over the years you cannot help but internalise some of the stigma lying around these days, just as if you tell someone enough times that they have a big nose they will eventually start to believe you even if their nose is the tiniest nose of all time.

Though I have always been aware of my inability to work, I have still felt an internal judgement and feel that maybe I am just being silly and that I am not “really disabled”.
A wheelchair user may not be able to open a door that is at the top of a flight of stairs because they are physically unable to walk. I however am physically able to walk up those stairs, yet still I am also unable to open that door. Physically I could, yet still, mentally, the fear is so strong that I can’t. Really the brain shouldn’t be viewed as any less “real” than your average limb as technically the organ of the brain is a physical part of the body as much as a leg is. Still I suppose it is a lot harder to remember that when it is hidden behind a thick skull and an “I am OK” mask, unlike a broken leg which is far more visible. If you can see a giant green face claiming to be the Wizard of Oz, it is infinitely easier to believe in that reality over the invisible little man controlling the illusion behind it (if your name is Dorothy at least. I saw through that Wizard all along. Dorothy was silly…and her little dog was too!).

This being the case then, my brain often being the cause of my inability to perform basic actions like feeding myself or opening doors, how is that not disabled? I don’t claim to be an expert in the English Language (although I did study english literature and I read Moby Dick which is a HUGE book with a lot of long words), but when you look at the definition of the term “disabled”, I think that it makes clear that George and those agreeing with his views do not really understand what the word means, hence their belief that someone with mental health problems is not “really disabled”. When you look it up, the dictionary states that to be disabled means to be a person who has a “physical or mental condition that limits their movements, senses or activities. So lets examine this:

1. Do I have a mental condition – Yes

2. Do these conditions limit my movements – Yes. I cannot open doors or move around in public without an aid supporting me through the anxiety, much like a wheelchair user may struggle to be mobile without their aid, aka the chair.

3. Do these conditions limit my activities – Considering I am often able to leave the house/partake in normal life, yes.

Yet according to certain MPs, I am not “really disabled”? I am sorry George, are you arguing with the dictionary? I totally support your right to free speech but are you sure you want to do that? It is a really big book (even bigger than Moby Dick), and if you start arguing with a dictionary then all the words in your argument technically lose all meaning and thus you will be making no sense…are you sure you want to do that George? Gibbering nonsense to a book would look awfully weird…people may start to think you were mentally ill!
If people without mental health problems are not “really disabled” then what are we? Just playing some sick game of dress up like I pretended to be a vet with my very own stethoscope when I was younger and made it my business to treat all of my teddy bears (rest assured, I may have been pretending then but I was very skilled and all my patients made full recoveries).

Tell me then, if I am unable to leave the house or touch things in public and spend most of my time fighting demons, a pastime that leaves me utterly exhausted and often a bit soggy with tears, what job would you recommend I try? What job would I be able to do effectively on the days that I am so depressed and suicidal that I cannot leave my house let alone contribute to society? Any ideas? The only job I could think of would be that of performer in a freak show, where people could come to my house and pay to see the hysterical sobbing mess in the corner who is so deluded they fear eating with a knife or fork. Is that what you want? (Even if that is the plan I would still need benefits anyway…If I have to be in a freak show I at least need a sequinned leotard. THOSE THINGS DON’T COME CHEAP FREEMAN.)

In a way, I suppose George being so vocal with his misguided opinions could turn out to be a good thing. Like I said, I am sure that he is by no means the only person who feels this way about people with mental health problems receiving benefits, and by speaking out about it, it has given us crazy folk an opportunity to respond publicly and tackle the stigma that before now has existed only in people’s homes behind closed doors. People make these statements all the time and are never challenged, yet now the words are out in the open, we have a public platform on which we can talk back and educate those who may not understand how debilitating mental health problems can be. Maybe we can use this as an opportunity to do good.

So here I am, standing on my public internet platform speaking into my megaphone as someone with mental health problems and for others with mental health problems. To Mr Freeman and all of his supporters, I have one thing to say.

*STEPS UP TO MEGAPHONE*

“As sufferers of mental health problems, I will admit that our disabilities may be invisible, but our struggles are real. The pain in our heads is real. Nobody is pretending, nobody is playing games and we honestly are, “really disabled”.

*DROPS MEGAPHONE AND STORMS OFF PUBLIC PLATFORM LIKE A BOSS*

Take care everyone x

georgefreeman

Food Demonising And Eating Disorders

During the month of April 2016, the food company that manufactures “Dolmio” pasta sauce issued a health warning telling people that they should not consume certain varieties of their products more than once a week due to high levels of salt, sugar and fat. The next day, the newspapers were covered in ridiculously dramatic headlines like “The Bolognese sauce in your cupboard is plotting to kill you” and “Research suggests it is safer to drink bleach than creamy tomato pasta bake”. Supermarkets gathered up all remaining stocks of Dolmio sauce and threw them into the ocean where over one million fish were knocked unconscious by the sudden downpour of jarred carbonara, and people fled their homes to set up new lives abroad as the sudden media frenzy had inspired such fear in their hearts that they’d rather safely escape from their kitchens without a backwards glance, than risk having a heart attack trying to dispose of a jar of pesto they had foolishly lurking in the cupboard. Now I will admit that this is perhaps a slight exaggeration on what happened after Dolmio’s announcement, but the message I am basically trying to convey here is that some pasta sauce company said there was some sugar and salt in their sauces and absolute chaos ensued.

This chaos probably doesn’t seem worthy of a blog post, especially on a website that focuses on mental health, but the problem is that this whole Dolmio extravaganza is not an isolated incident when it comes to the fact that the world has suddenly become obsessed with “clean eating” and being healthy. Just the other day I saw a headline on a magazine that asked “Which is more dangerous: Carbs or Fat”, a ridiculous question considering the fact that people need carbohydrates and fat to stay alive. It is far more dangerous to not eat enough of those food groups than to eat over whatever amount of grams the government has said is acceptable or required for every single one of us individually, despite vast differences in age, height, weight and exercise regime across the population. Ok too much of certain food groups can be bad for you, but no individual food group is especially dangerous, they all play a part, are all vital, and this food demonising obsession of recent years is incredibly disordered and unhealthy both in terms of mental and physical wellbeing.

Eating healthily is great, but being obsessed with what you eat and counting every calorie, every fat gram and every grain of sugar is not normal and is something that, prior to recent years, I had only seen in fellow people with eating disorders. Food demonising and counting “macros” is such an issue in the eating disorder community that groups are offered to try and challenge these behaviours, which would be a hell of a lot easier if the rest of the world wasn’t suddenly condoning the thoughts and fears around a potato that you have been told are unwarranted.
During one of my hospital admissions there was a brand of cereal bar that we had as part of the meal plan every day. It came in a variety of flavours but I always went for the blueberry one, because it was the lowest calorie option…However, one fateful day at the hospital, disaster struck. WE HAD RUN OUT OF BLUEBERRY. I suggested we should call the police immediately to deal with this heinous crime of cereal bar deprivation, but for some reason the staff thought this was not the way to respond and told me I would have to have another flavour bar. And they call me crazy? Still, as they were the staff, I had little choice in the matter and ended up having a different flavour that was a mere one calorie more. The next day I gained weight at weigh in and I put all the blame on that different flavoured cereal bar. I did not think of all the meals I was eating in the hospital, the fact I was on a weight gain diet and an eating disorder program designed specifically for weight restoration, no, all I thought about was that cereal bar, and I immediately decided that that flavour was dangerous and never to be eaten again. In my eyes that bar had caused my weight gain and I demonised that bar so extremely that I pictured Satan as that cluster of oats and honey I had consumed, presiding over the underworld with an iron fist and chunks of real fruit (Gosh I shudder at the memory). Hopefully anyone reading this will see that demonising that particular flavour of cereal bar was ridiculous, clearly irrational and that obviously there were many other things influencing the number on the scales at that time. Yet still the message is being spread that we should demonise and run from certain foods (like Dolmio pasta sauce) in the name of “health”, without remembering that health is another thing influenced by hundreds of complex variants and not determined by the macaroni cheese you had for dinner.

In the mental health world, being obsessed with “clean eating” is called Orthorexia, a term coined in 1996 to address the unhealthy fixation on healthy eating suffered by some people with eating disorders and it is a big problem. I myself have been obsessed with government guidelines when it comes to food intake, and due to all the scare stories I have developed a fear of salt. At times I have been so afraid of salt that I have avoided eating a single milligram, because low salt diets are “healthy”, but it has never done me any good. In fact I have ended up in A&E multiple times due to this lack of salt causing low sodium, a key electrolyte that people NEED in order to keep the heart working.

We really need to stop avoiding food groups or labelling them as “dangerous” when it is so much MORE dangerous to become obsessed and potentially develop a fatal eating disorder. Ok if we ever discover crowds of potatoes rallying in secret, plotting to take over the world, then maybe we can see a danger in the carbohydrate department, but until then can we all just sit down and eat some damn pasta like we used to rather than this spiralised courgette nonsense that suddenly seems to be so popular.

I suppose that the message I really want to get across here is that in no circumstance is a food or a food group to be considered a danger in itself, as the real danger here is actually food demonising that condones and can potentially lead people into serious eating disorders. Obviously you should still eat your greens at dinner and whack a banana on your cereal, but you should also be able to eat a bowl of actual spaghetti rather than a courgette that has been cut to ribbons. Take government warnings with a pinch of salt (literally, remember, sodium is important), and stop seeing any food as the ruler of the underworld. It isn’t just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away, sometimes you also need a piece of good old chocolate cake.

Dangerous potatoes