For days, now, I’ve been trying to put down in words what I feel about the Christine Laird case, the civil case currently about to create a legal precedent for suing one’s employees if they dare not to reveal that they have a history of mental ill health. I work in mental health, and what I’ve been hearing everywhere is – well, this is a complicated case. Well, if it becomes legally plausible to demand that people declare their mental health history on job applications, hopefully that’ll encourage more people to come out of the closet rather than persuading more of us to lie. Well, maybe she wasn’t doing a very good job anyway.
And I am here to say: I have absolutely no interest in what sort of job Christine Laird was doing. She’s not being sued for doing her job badly, she’s being sued for being a closeted mentalist, something that, in this culture, she had every reason to be. The simple fact is that, faced with a very real prejudice against people with past or present mental health difficulty in the workplace – faced with a situation in which only 40% of employers will even consider employing someone with a mental health difficulty, and only 24% of people with chronic mental health conditions are in work – most of us lie.
I’ve lied. I’ve lied on most of the couple of hundred job and internship applications I’ve filled out in the past year, and I’ve not been invited to interview with any of those where I’ve been honest, not even when I was working in another capacity for the company at the time. If Christine Laird had been hiding the fact that she had a heart condition in order to get a job she was qualified for, would she be being sued now? Doubtful. Current disability laws do not protect workers like Christine Laird who choose to hide mental health conditions for fear of facing prejudice. This means, in my not-so-humble-this-evening, that current disability laws are a steaming crock.
Do I think that being a mentalist is something to be proud of? Of itself, no; I’m no more proud to have mental health problems than I am proud to be short, or that I have straight hair, or a high IQ, or that I’m white. These are inalienable things about me, borne of nature and of nurture. In the same way, in any sane society, being gay shouldn’t have to be something to be ‘proud of’ – but the fact is that living life honestly and successfully as a person of non-heterosexual orientation in this 21st-century world is still a challenge, and one that every queer person who is honest about their sexuality should justly respect themselves for. In just the same way, people struggling with the daily challenges of mental health difficulty should be able to feel proud of themselves for doing so, rather than think of themselves as the state and their families too often characterise them – as dangerous criminals.
The threat of further legal sanctions against the mentally ill frightens and angers me. Ten times I’ve started this post, my fingers hovering above the keys over the phrase ‘I’m not proud to have mental health difficulties’. And I can’t do it.
Because I am proud.
I’m sorry, mum. I’m sorry, dad. I know that in begging me to hide my condition you only want what’s best for me. I know that the way I was born has caused you a great deal of grief, and for that I’m sad and I’m sorry, but I’m not ashamed. In fact, I’m proud as anything to be sitting here today, alive and thriving and dealing both with my mental health problems and the stigma that they have won me, as I ever was when I got my degree, or when I was awarded the top mark in GCSE English in the UK. It’s been a long, hard road, and I’m sad and I’m sorry, but I’m not ashamed.
And if I could ever be honest in a job interview, here’s what I’d tell them. I’m the best candidate you’ll see today, not just because of my creativity or my academic record, but because the challenges I face daily have made me a stronger, better person. I learned more about the world and how to live in it over the 9 months I spent as a psychiatric inpatient than I did in the three years of university that followed. I know about waiting, and frustration, and I know what it’s like to have your dreams ripped away from you and to have to build them again and build them better. In order to make full use of my talents, you may well have to adjust your prejudices as well as your working practices. You may have to allow me time to deal with my condition; you may have to trust me to work to the best of my ability without the marker of 9-5 attendance or constant insufferable smiliness, but you’ll know that every bit of work you’ll get out of it will be my best, because I have something to prove.
I look at the amazing young people I’ve befriended over the last few years, and I see how powerful and beautiful they are, how they constantly support and buoy one another up, despite the fact that in many cases their families and employers don’t or won’t understand what their lives are really like. I look at these young men and women, and I remember the ones we lost too young, and I want more for us than this – more for us than a life begging for treatment that isn’t provided and understanding that isn’t forthcoming and quarter that isn’t given. I look at these beautiful young people, and I worry for their futures. I know that people just like us, people with mental health problems, are today’s disenfranchised, making up 72% of the prison population and a large percentage of the homeless and unemployed. I know that we are barred from holding parliamentary office, shunned by employers and stereotyped by the media. If I have a child, the chances are that with my genetics that child will grow up facing some of the same difficulties that I face. I want my children to have the same opportunities and life chances as anyone else.
No, I will not just buck up. I won’t ‘just buck up’, because I can’t. I’m not a crook, or a scrounger, or lazy; in fact, the nature of my disorder means that I’m far more likely to push myself too hard and work myself into a crash. But I’m sick of being told to just get on with things and be a normal person, because I know that that’s not an option for me and mine, not within definitions of ‘normal’ as they currently stand. I won't buck up, and I won't shut up, because it’s those definitions that need to change, not me – I’m proud to say that I make changes every day to secure my own mental health and continue as a functioning person, and pretending that it’s otherwise is unhelpful, it’s massively unhelpful to me and it’s unhelpful to society. I want to live a long, successful life, and when I’m in my fifties and sixties I want to be saying to the young men and women entering my industry: I did this with a mental health problem, and because of that, for you, it’ll be a little bit easier.
Our laws, our employment structure and our attitudes to mental ill health need to change, and they need to change now. We can no longer afford to keep the millions of citizens with mental health difficulties largely disenfranchised, disaffected, poorly treated and out of useful work adapted to their needs. We can’t afford it morally, and these days we certainly can’t afford it financially. I’m not satisfied with the welfare reform bill being quietly swept under the table; I’m not satisfied with Employment and Support Allowance, with Personal Care Budgets. I will not be satisfied until people with mental health difficulties have the same rights to live and love and work and receive care as people whose needs are different.