Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Michel Foucault’

It’s OK to Talk about Mental Health

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th February, 2018

mental health 1When I was a child I went through prolonged periods of what I now understand was mental depression. From the age of seven, I over-slept (when I was allowed to), over-ate when I was awake and withdrew into myself so fully that I was not just anti-social but barely conscious of the world around me at school, much less at “home”. I don’t need to rehearse the reasons why here, as I have written about them in my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes*. But what is important to draw attention to is that (a) in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody acknowledged that children could have mental health problems, and (b) mental health was a matter of utter shame, to be kept out of view. If adults suffered some mental condition they tended to hide it and in extreme cases committed suicide as a result. Their families (with some noble exceptions, I am sure) shunned them, and covered over the facts of their illness — especially if they were sent to a “loony bin”, out of the way. Even Britain’s royal family did that. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote brilliantly about Western society’s self-declared need to incarcerate — and even punish — those who were mentally “abnormal” or who demonstrated odd behaviour.

mental health 2Though I wouldn’t wish on anyone what I went through as a child — with its distressing repercussions later in life — I draw comfort from the fact that these days it is recognised that children’s odd behaviour may have roots in some mental problem and that people of all ages can talk more openly about periods of mental illness. Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, played an important role in mainstreaming mental health during the 2010-2015 Coalition government and some of those improvements have endured in the UK. There is still a way to go with regard to public perceptions and undoubtedly the education system at all levels needs to foster greater understanding as well as care. At SOAS these days lecturers are encouraged to spot what could be mental problems with students and to refer people accordingly. I hope that is the practice now in higher education everywhere. How much more sensible than just sending a child or young person to go and lie down in the sick-bay, which is what happened to me at school whenever I had one of my “turns”!




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