Friday 15 April 2011

Catherine the Great

The revelation by her publicist of Catherine Zeta Jones’ experience of bipolar disorder has resulted in more media approaches to Hafal than any previous news. This reflects both the age-old interest in celebrity and that particular curiosity about the private lives and vulnerabilities of famous people. The contact results in a number of appearance by Hafal users and staff during the day where we try to strike the right balance between respecting Ms Jones’ privacy and explaining the implications of the diagnosis which she has decided to make public (one suspects on advice about “least worse” news management rather than a desire to share her problem – such are the dilemmas of famous people). You can see Hafal’s own story on this here.

Media coverage has mainly been sympathetic if embarrassing for the actress herself. Meanwhile it is not her responsibility to do so but she has sent out a positive message by explaining that she is much better and looking forward to new work challenges. That will help to correct those who doubt it that getting back to work is a realistic expectation for most people who experience a serious mental illness.

Our Catherine has been a good ambassador for Wales and perhaps she will now be an even better one by showing continued success notwithstanding the challenge of her illness. I think Welsh people, indeed all people, will take her to their hearts all the more.

The media are learning that it is not in fact the mood of the public to mock, ridicule, or demonise people who “come out” about their mental health problems. Those of us who wish to combat discrimination should have a care not to wag fingers patronisingly at the public or assume their hostility towards people with problems (an approach which also has the effect of reinforcing the fears of people with a mental illness – who tell me that they overwhelmingly experience kindness and care when they tell people about their difficulties). The emphasis should be on building on the public’s general good will and willingness to learn and providing advice and training to key people in the community about avoiding discrimination in practical matters such as employment.

The small number of people who do choose to mock and oppress people with a mental illness won’t listen to clever publicity but must be frozen out by active public intolerance of their behaviour and, where appropriate, by application of the law.