You may recall a couple of months ago that our beloved leader had a moment in the Commons when he unveiled a new ‘people policy’; he likes to do so every once in a while just to make it look as though he cares. This one concerned mental health and its effect on a larger section of the population than is generally acknowledged; the subject became fashionable for about a week, garnering sympathetic headlines far removed from the infamous ‘Bonkers Bruno Goes to Loony Bin’ one that graced the front cover of the Sun when an ex-boxer underwent a breakdown a few years back. As far as I know, coloured wristbands designating various different forms of mental illness weren’t produced for the schoolchildren of Britain to wear; and I never saw any prominent politicians in T-shirts bearing the legend ‘This is what a nutter looks like’. Cameron’s conversion hasn’t prevented the Government and their medical Gestapo, Atos, from clinging to the conviction that mental illness is an illusion perpetuated by workshy fops. But not every sufferer is even old enough to be an unpaid intern at a tax-dodging corporation.
David Cameron announced his initiative four months into the effective imprisonment of a 15-year-old boy called Matthew Garnett, who was detained under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act last September. He was held at a special mental health version of an A&E ward, a Psychiatric Care Unit intended for short-term emergency care. However, Matthew, still legally classified as a child, remains under lock and key at the PICU six months later, despite his parents being promised his stay would be for no more than six weeks. Matthew suffers from a string of mental disorders hard enough for a grown adult to cope with; add autism, learning difficulties and ADHD to the usual adolescent mix and the extent of Matthew’s problems would seemingly require professional care and attention befitting his condition. The fact that he’s also a child – something that would have been trumpeted from the rooftops had anyone over-18 been accused of sexually abusing him – should also ensure the kind of support society expects for a vulnerable minor, no?
Unsurprisingly, Matthew’s condition has gone from bad to worse during his six-month detainment at a location that even the members of staff working there confess is not equipped to deal with Matthew. Layers of bureaucracy are not only prolonging the point at which Matthew can be removed to a specialist autism unit, but they’re also accelerating his deterioration as he continues to be denied the kind of specific treatment he needs. His mother has attempted to give the authorities responsible for Matthew’s imprisonment a kick up the backside by alerting the wider world to his predicament via an online petition demanding something be done; but it hasn’t been done yet. This would be a sorry enough story were it unique, but it sadly isn’t.
Specialist units for children with mental disabilities have waiting lists just like those for council housing; in some cases, the fate of a mentally-ill child rests with committees that sit as regularly as once a month (!) to examine applications. For those parents whose children live at home and attend day schools that, in theory, are there to give the pupils the care that would be impossible at an ordinary school, the strain of looking after a mentally ill child is not eased by having to navigate their way in and out of a care system so complex it makes the EU resemble a jigsaw aimed at 3-4-year-olds. Social workers and other middle-men are assigned to act as go-betweens, but the system itself is a muddle of well-meaning liberal ineptitude and traditional British bureaucratic buck-passing.
There are thousands of overworked and underpaid workers within the system whose selfless dedication to the job shames the ivory tower cluelessness of management; and it is ironic that a society that increasingly places children on a pedestal seems to rate the mental health of its offspring as such a low priority. Perhaps the pervasive image of ‘the perfect child’, perpetuated by everyone from celebrities forever parading their mini-me’s across the media to the yummy mummies at the school gates extolling the prodigious talents of their little darlings, doesn’t help where children who don’t fit the mould are concerned. The modern mother is supposed to be able to do her duty whatever the circumstances, and mothers who fail the Supermum audition are viewed as letting down the Breastapo sisterhood.
At one time, institutions with rather unsavoury reputations (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) served as repositories for parents who couldn’t cope with a mentally-handicapped member of the family; not necessarily out of sight and out of mind, but safely secluded from the social stigma mental illness carried like an incurable virus. Rather than improve the system towards the end of the twentieth century, the decision was taken to dismantle it and introduce a more ‘humane’ method of dealing with the difficulty. No one is suggesting the worst aspects of the old Victorian asylums weren’t worthy of abolition; but what superseded them has shifted the burden from the state back to the family by wrapping the state’s revised role in so much red-tape that it is often next-to-useless.
On paper, a support network is in place for the tremendous strains that are placed on parents struggling to cope with the myriad of antisocial side-effects that can come from mental illness; yet, in many cases, the current system is failing them, and with endless cuts to services on a loop, there’s little hope the situation will improve; and that’s just not good enough.
© The Editor