Mental health

My drug trials

Antidepressants saved my life, I am sure of that. But I am also certain they made my mental illness much worse too. It has taken just under two years from my first very dark thoughts to me feeling sane and — largely — back in control of my mind. That’s not merely because it takes time to heal, but because it took at least six months for the doctors to work out what pills to give me. My symptoms of anxiety and depression started in the spring of 2016, and the first few drugs I was prescribed didn’t work. In fact, they really did just make things worse. The GP

The wisdom of weirdos

It was World Mental Health Day this week — and it drove me mad. I don’t have ‘mental illness’. I have bipolar disorder, and I feel as possessive about my diagnosis as Gollum did his precious ring. One term. One label. To lump the manifold terrors of the mind together under the monolithic ‘mental illness’ is an offence against the person. Failing to differentiate shifts the stigma like a bubble under a carpet. So I was horrified to discover, in my latest stint in a psychiatric hospital, that others experience exactly the same as me. Others use the same ‘maladapted coping mechanisms’. They are also their own worst critic; they

Don’t let these figures depress you, girls

Are British teenagers suffering from an epidemic of mental illness? Yes, according to a ‘government-funded study’ which found that 24 per cent of 14-year-old girls are suffering from depression. This has been seized upon by critics of Conservative education policies; they see it as ‘proof’ that the increased focus on teaching children knowledge, as well as more frequent testing and the GCSE reforms, have literally driven children mad. ‘One in four girls is clinically depressed by the time they turn 14,’ reported the Guardian. I’m sceptical about this and I took a look at the research carried out by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which is based at UCL Institute

Seeing the light | 21 September 2017

‘You can’t lie… on radio,’ says Liza Tarbuck. The Radio 2 DJ was being interviewed for the network’s birthday portrait, celebrating 50 years since it morphed from the Light Programme into its present status as the UK’s best-loved radio station — with almost 15 million listeners each week. ‘The intimacy of radio dictates you can’t lie because people can hear it.’ She’s absolutely right. As she went on to explain, when you’re driving and it’s just the radio and you, no distraction, ‘You can hear things in my voice that I don’t even know I’m giving away.’ It’s what makes radio so testing for politicians, you can see right through

Diary – 16 March 2017

In the NHS clinic where I work, adults who suspect they may have Asperger syndrome wait almost a year for a diagnosis. The clinic takes referrals from all over Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (a population of 860,000), but we have to see all of them in the hours of a single full-time doctor. And the clinic is not given funds to run a follow-up support service once someone has been diagnosed. These individuals struggle to socialise, are neurologically different, and are overlooked because their disability is invisible. Many have experienced bullying in childhood, underemployment in adulthood and exploitation because of their social naivety. Many are made to feel inferior despite their

Gaslighting the nation

Arguably the cruellest thing you can do to human beings is to rob them of faith in their own sanity. People can endure physical torment, even torture, so long as their minds are clear. If they feel sane, they can still make sense of what is happening to them and work out how to survive. But if you undermine somebody’s mental stability, they soon unravel. In the words of John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, ‘Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;/And in the lowest deep a lower deep,/Still threatening to devour me, opens wide.’ Chipping away at a person’s mental health is known as ‘gaslighting’, after Gas

The Atomoxetine year

Driving my son’s snake, Todd, a 3ft python wrapped in a pillowcase, to a Brighton vet in August was child’s play compared to the rest of what had gone on that summer. My son, who is 32 and has Asperger’s syndrome, had been served with an eviction notice from his rented flat, having been on what was effectively speed for the previous eight months. Since early July, when his three young carers resigned, he had been visited by the NHS mental health crisis team twice a day. This team, with great skill, calling on him in twos, had managed to get him off what — for him, and for anyone

Death by television

Forty years ago this month a film appeared, so prescient I wonder if its author, Paddy Chayefsky, saw the 2016 American presidential election campaign in a crystal ball. It was called Network and it foretold the rise of Donald Trump. The plot is King Lear appears on Newsnight: a newsman run mad. The protagonist is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an anchorman at a failing network. The year is 1976, and America is embattled with inflation, depression and the end of the Vietnam war. It is not a time for American heroes, to paraphrase Chayefsky’s acolyte Aaron Sorkin writing in The West Wing. Beale’s ratings are low. He is fired. He

Words on the street

A white van pulls up outside St Giles in the Fields, an imposing 18th century church in central London, around the corner from Tottenham Court Road station, for a couple of hours every Saturday afternoon. St Giles is known as ‘The Poets’ Church’ because it has memorials to Andrew Marvell and George Chapman, but this humble van makes the nickname more fitting. It’s a library. To be homeless is to have no fixed address, which means you can’t borrow books from a public library — but it doesn’t mean you’ve no desire to read. Quaker Homeless Action set up this mobile library in 1999, making runs into London twice a

My fascist moment on the ship of failures

There are no roads from the Peruvian river port of Iquitos, but the rich take aeroplanes. Those who cannot pay to fly may pay the premium for the 40ft motorised express canoes that take only a day to roar to and from the upriver port of Yurimaguas with its bus station. But losers in the global race cannot afford speed. For them there are only the big, slow, hot, lumbering cargo boats: nearly four days’ journey from Iquitos to Yurimaguas. So the moment a passenger walks up the gangplank and strings their hammock between the iron rafters of the open–sided deck, we can guess he or she is not one

What’s to blame for a generation’s desperation?

Youth is wasted on the young, for the most part, and thank God for that. There’s nothing grislier than a teenage girl aware of her hypnotic effect on men, or a youngster who begins his important thoughts: ‘As a young person, I…’ These days, though, it’s not youth that’s wasted on the young so much as life, which is an altogether more troubling problem. Over the last year or so, I’d say a good third of the British kids I’ve met, from 15 to 25, have been suffering in some way from anxiety or depression. Often it’s obvious: severe anorexia; forearms calibrated with razor marks. The child says a wan

The snowflake factory

Another week, another spate of barmy campus bans and ‘safe space’ shenanigans by a new breed of hyper–sensitive censorious youth. At Oxford University, law students are now officially notified when the content of a lecture might upset them. In Cambridge, there were calls for an Africa-themed end-of-term dinner to be cancelled just in case it caused offence to someone somewhere. It all seems beyond parody. ‘What is wrong with these thin-skinned little emperors?’ we cry. But while we can harrumph and sneer at Generation Snowflake’s antics, we miss a crucial point: we created them. First, it is important to note that young people who cry offence are not feigning hurt

Mind games

Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall enjoys the dubious status of a modern classic. A black mental-health patient, Christopher, is about to be freed from a clinic but his cautious young shrink, Bruce, wants to keep him under observation. His senior colleague, Robert, thinks a dose of the big bad world will help to cure the nervy, delusional Christopher, who claims Idi Amin as his father and insists that all oranges are blue. He’s clearly unstable and though he’s highly irascible he hasn’t yet threatened himself, or anyone else, so he deserves his freedom. It’s the kind of knife-edge conundrum faced by clinicians every day. Then, a twist. Robert professes support for

Fear of the baby-snatchers

Baby George was born into a happy family. His mother and father love him dearly. He lives in a cottage in a pretty village, with a six-year-old sister who adores him, and his grandmother lives nearby. His parents both have good jobs and his nursery is filled with toys. By most measures, George has had a good start in life. It was only when his mother was diagnosed with post-natal depression that George’s prospects looked bleaker. Not because his caring mother was feeling blue, but because in this, paranoid, post-Baby P era, the authorities take no chances. The slightest whiff of a mother unable to cope, and they swoop down,

Sound and fury | 28 January 2016

No one is consulted. No one is held to account. No one has the authority to turn it off. How is it that muzak has slipped through every legal control? The blame, I’d say, lies with those who are frightened of silence — with those who spend more money in shops that buzz to a friendly background hum, and laugh too loudly when all around are mute. To moderate their visceral fear of the quiet they cling to cheaply produced, intellectually demeaning and superficially comforting sub-music. Muzak comes in various forms — piped, performed live, and through other people’s headphones, when you can’t actually hear pitched sounds, only a desiccated,

Dear Mary | 10 September 2015

Q. I regularly travel on the Ashford-St Pancras train and usually put my case on the seat next to me so that passengers can pass along the aisle, after which I put it down by my feet. Last week a woman pointed at it and said loudly, ‘Does that deserve a seat of its own?’ Irritated that my travel etiquette had been called into question, I sought out the woman and tried to explain. She was rude and dismissive, said ‘Have you made your point?’ and told me to go away. I did so, because her two young children and someone I took to be her mother were seated with

Summer’s end

Growing up in the West Country in the 1960s and 1970s, summer left me cold. There was only one place where I could bear to be when the sun shone — the lido at Weston-super-Mare, the nearest coastal town to my Bristol home. Unlike most of the banal backdrops to my childhood, it seemed a suitably grand place in which to plan my escape to get to That London and be famous. I would swerve my companions — at first my parents, then later my friend Karen — and hide on the upper level of the lido, slipping in and out of sleep in sunshine, dreaming of freedom. There was

The spies we left in the cold

When a terrorist group is active in the UK — as Islamist extremists and dissident republicans are at the moment — there is no more essential figure in the prevention of carnage than an agent working for the security services. Reliable intelligence is what defuses bombs, intercepts arms caches, and apprehends suspects. Its acquisition can involve unimaginable personal risks, in circumstances of nerve-shredding tension. We should all be grateful, but most of us never get to know what to say thank you for, or to whom. An agent’s success manifests itself in nothing happening. Its continued value depends on secrecy. Is MI5 grateful on our behalf? Well, it seems that


 New York City Nothing says New York like a psychoanalyst’s couch. Think Woody Allen or those New Yorker cartoons. It fits our perception of east-coast Americans as all neurotic and self-obsessed. But that mental picture needs updating, because traditional psychoanalysis is in dramatic decline in its traditional heartland. Across the urban US, in fact, the profession is dying out or having to change drastically. New figures from the American Psychoanalytic Association reveal that the average age of its 3,109 members is 66, up four years in a decade. More seriously, the average numbers of patients each therapist sees has fallen to 2.75. Some shrinks now never meet patients, dealing with

Back to Bedlam: Patrick Skene Catling on the book that makes madness visible

Madness is an ancient, evidently inscrutable mystery, often regarded with superstitious fear, yet can provide a refuge from reality. Sometimes, however, the refuge turns out to be a trap. The human brain, beyond even the most rigorous thinker’s continuous control, is equally able to afford exquisite privacy and atrocious chaos. Andrew Scull, born in Scotland and educated at Oxford and Princeton, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of psychiatric books highly esteemed by medical historians on both sides of the Atlantic, has now written a learned, liberally humanitarian and wryly witty account of how people in civilised societies