Time To Worry – An Update

January 27, 2019 30 comments

Three years ago today I wrote a piece called Time To Worry, in which I shared some horrific results from recent studies into our mental health. I reblogged the piece last year with a commentary, and as we are again approaching Time To Talk Day (7 February this year) I thought it right to share the post again, both for newer readers to see for the first time and also with an update for those who may have seen this before. Even if you have already read the original post I encourage you to read this update: our mental health is vitally important to us and we all need to be aware of this, and of how we can help ourselves and others. As is my usual practice I will give you the original words and then return to round things up after. This is the initial post:

A few days ago there was a report in the paper of a study conducted by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, as part of the Health Survey for England. More than 25% of the 5,000 respondents said that they had been given a diagnosis of mental illness at some point. 33% of the females and 19% of the males reported this, and the highest rate was found amongst the 55-64 age group, where the figures rose to 41% and 25% respectively. The most common diagnosis was for depression, at 19% overall – 24% for women and 13% for men. At the extreme, one in 14 women has attempted suicide, and one in 25 men, yet the male suicide rate is more than three times higher than for females. These are scary statistics! There has been a great deal of research showing that men are much less likely to recognise that they may need help for a mental health problem and to seek assistance for it. But it appears that we are much more successful at killing ourselves! This is apparently because men choose more lethal suicide methods, and because we are more impulsive and likely to act on a suicidal impulse, particularly when alcohol is involved.

A separate report has also found that the number of unexplained or sudden deaths (i.e. not from suicides) of mental health patients in England has risen by more than 20% in the past three years, a total of 1,713 in 2014-5 up from 1,412 in 2012-3. Unsurprisingly, there are many now jumping on the bandwagon of blaming the Government and the NHS for underfunding mental health services to the point where there are insufficient resources to cope. They may well have a point: I know from my own time spent working for an NHS Trust providing mental health services just how much of a Cinderella service it was and still is, and how the large general hospitals took up a huge part of the funding.

But whilst that is clearly a major issue it is not my point today. I’ve quoted numbers which may or may not mean much to you. Does 1,713 deaths in a population of around 50 million seem all that many? Is this something we should expect and somehow accept as the norm? Should we heck as like! Every single one of those who make up those statistics is an individual tragedy. Every single one of them had family and friends who cared about them and who are affected by their loss. And I wouldn’t mind betting that most of them had at some stage been stigmatised by their diagnosis of mental illness – assuming that they had sought help, as not all of them will have done. I mentioned earlier that men are slower to seek help, if they ever do. I know this to be true, as I did it myself and subsequently found that I was far from alone in doing so. Looking back on the time when I was diagnosed with depression (described in the Story of my Illness see the menu above) it is very easy to trace a long, slow decline in my health until I reached the point at which I recognised my need for help. I eventually saw my doctor in October 2011 but can recall events from April that year which were clearly related to this, and no doubt there were others before then: I had been off work for three months some five years earlier with what was termed ‘stress’, so it was lurking in my make up. Although I worked for an organisation which provided treatment for these kinds of illness I didn’t want to accept that maybe this is what was happening to me. Part of that may be the stereotypical male lack of insight, but there is more to it than that. A major factor is that mental illness is stigmatised. From the simple, everyday “pull yourself together” type of comments, which betray a lack of understanding and empathy, to the much more malicious type which can often be found in real life bullying and in social media, people with a mental illness are somehow made to feel ashamed of their problem, that they should in some way get over it as they aren’t really ill, are they: others can’t see anything wrong with them in the same way that they could if they were on crutches, for example. If I can’t see it, you don’t have it!

This is compounded in all sorts of ways. Often these are quite innocently done, such as the everyday use of phrases like “it all went mental” or “he’s a nutter.” But if I look back to when I was a child, a common playground insult was to call someone a “spastic” if they did something clumsy. We have learned how offensive this really is and it is no longer used, to my knowledge. Political correctness may be guilty of many stupidities but one of the successes of the past forty years or so since it became a force is a better understanding of some of the derogatory language we use and how we can improve on it. But has it had any real impact in the world of mental illness?

Sadly, I think not. Although we still have much to do, e.g. in the likes of public buildings and public transport, we have come quite a way in recognising both the needs of physically disabled people and the way we talk about their illnesses. I may be biased in my outlook but I don’t see the same progress having been made in respect of mental illness. Whilst part of the answer is to provide more funding for treatment, there is a much wider issue: we need to educate ourselves better about mental illnesses and how we respond to them and deal with them in others. Unless we do, those statistics I quoted are likely to get worse before they can start getting better. To me, this is very much the time when we should worry about this and ask ourselves if we are doing enough about it, not just as a society but as individuals within it, in our own approach to people with mental illness and how we deal with them. We should have been doing this already, and we shouldn’t hold back from doing it now.

And now back to today. Unfortunately, I don’t see any real change in the situation since I wrote this piece. The UK government has recently proclaimed a new healthcare initiative which includes some much needed improvements to mental health support and treatment. My problem with it, though, is that the government has sidetracked itself in a major way with the issues surrounding the EU and our relations with other countries, particularly the US. Worryingly, with all that has been going on over there to destroy healthcare, there are signs that our government wants to move towards ever greater involvement of the private sector in the National Health Service (NHS). Funding for mental health care needs to be increased significantly, to meet the need for much better training for, and provision of, services. Everything I said in that original piece is still germane and will, I fear, continue to be. The government has been making noises about improving mental health care for several years but has yet to deliver in a major way. Yes, there have been improvements but, to an observer, these don’t yet appear to have been fully co-ordinated, thereby diminishing their potential effectiveness. Add to that the almost daily reports of the impact of Brexit uncertainty on the NHS – massive losses of staff from overseas, difficulties in persuading workers to move to this country (and who can blame them?) – and the need for large increases in staff with suitable training to support the government’s stated objective. It doesn’t look promising, does it? We can but hope that the intended service enhancements deliver on the government’s objective, and that the dire forecasts for the financial impact on the country of leaving the EU don’t manifest themselves in a retrenchment and budget cuts. We’ve had ten years of austerity, we don’t need to be further damaged by political decisions.

As I’ve often said, I started this blog to share my experience of mental ill health, and although I veer away from that as a subject it is still something which is hugely significant for me. This is the first – a trailer, if you like – of what I plan to be a series of posts on mental health, which will include more detail on the most recent government initiative and the mental health of children and young people. These are topics that should concern us all, and I hope my small voice can help in widening awareness of mental health issues.

 

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Icons And Lesser Icons

January 14, 2019 11 comments

Three years ago, almost to the day, I published a post titled Starman on the death of one of my musical icons. As many of you have started following me since then you may not have seen this before, so I thought I’d share it again. At the time I had intended to write a piece honouring the memory of one of the true greats of rock music and in a way I did. But it developed into one of my occasional rants. Take a look to see why, and I’ll return after to explain why this has become relevant for me again:

“Over the past two days I’ve been doing what I expect many have been doing: I’ve been playing David Bowie songs and reminding myself just what made him such a special musician. I also spent a lot of Monday watching the TV news and the various tribute pieces that were being broadcast. Yesterday, once the print media had the chance to catch up, it was the newspapers’ turn. My newspaper of choice is The Times – coincidentally, also Bowie’s choice, according to their obituary, although I’m not sure how they knew that. Yesterday’s issue came in a lovely wraparound, which featured a portrait of him with a cigarette – an image that would have been commonplace until he gave up his 60 a day habit when his daughter Lexi was born. Inside, they reproduced the lyrics to three of his most famous songs – Space Oddity, Starman and Life On Mars  – together with some more pictures of him and the album sleeves. Tastefully done, I thought, and a fitting tribute. Turning to the paper itself, there were a further twelve pages of tribute and obituary and a news story on the front page which carried onto page 2. There was also a full cover picture on the Times2 section. As I read through this I began to feel something I wasn’t expecting after the loss of one of my musical heroes: I was getting annoyed.

This feeling had begun on Monday evening, as I watched a special 30 minute programme that had been slotted into the BBC1 schedule. On the whole, this was a far better effort than Sky News had managed earlier, but there was one part that really irked me: the BBC6 Music DJ Sean Keaveny having the audacity to talk over the famous video of the 1972 performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops. For those who weren’t around at the time, this performance is largely credited with making Bowie’s career: his only previous hit, Space Oddity, had been three years earlier and Starman itself hadn’t exactly taken the charts by storm until this appearance, after which it climbed into the Top Ten. The rest, as they say, is history. So what did Keaveny tell us while he was preventing us from watching the video? Did he mention its significance to Bowie’s career? No, he told us that because Bowie had declared himself to be bisexual the fact that he put his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder while they sang the chorus made this a trailblazing video for gay power. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is there on record any suggestion that Ronson – who was married once and fathered children with three different women – was gay or bisexual, so where did Keaveny get this idea from? I guess he must have been ‘in the know’ at the time, right? Er, no, not quite: he was born two months after the record was released, so he must have been quite a prodigy! Maybe the gay community can tell me that this is indeed true, but I didn’t need Keaveny talking about it all over the video. So here it his, without his act of destruction:

The second dose of annoyance was served up for me by Caitlin Moran. I am a big fan of her writing, which always amuses and entertains me whilst being thought-provoking. Her piece in yesterday’s paper was heavy with suggestion about how important this music and its era were in her teenage years, but she was born three years after Starman was a chart hit! Of course, I won’t deny that she could have been listening to the music as she was growing up, probably because her parents played it, but to try to appropriate the timeframe for this as being part of her own youth is, to my mind, at best disingenuous and at worst, dishonest.

Why is it that whenever a rock icon dies everyone has to take their piece of him or her? The Times even gave us a comment from Tony Blair, that well known musical expert and purveyor of truth. And the music critic Charles Shaar Murray telling us that other journalists used to refer to him as ‘Bowie’s representative on Earth.’ Funny, I thought that role was played by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long time friend and record producer. Whether that is true or not, it illustrates my point. The death of an icon is important for all of us who were fans, not just for those who are being paid to go into print or on screen about it and feel the need to boost their credentials. He was our icon. We all have a part of him in our memory, and we don’t need the self-appointed steamrollering over that, claiming territorial rights over the deceased and telling us what we should be feeling or thinking. I won’t be reading any more, if I can resist the temptation. Well, not until the next icon departs……”

Little did I know it that early in the year, but 2016 turned out to be an annus horribilis with the passing of several of my favourites. Look back through my catalogue and you will find tributes to Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who wrote the song which gives my blog its title, and Dave Swarbrick, of Fairport Convention who, along with Steeleye Span, were at the forefront of the English electric folk-rock genre. Then, to round the year off, came the sad news of the death of Leonard Cohen. All of these had been extremely significant to the development of my musical tastes, but only one provoked a rant. Why? The short answer is that the outpouring of grief for David Bowie wasn’t matched by the coverage given to the other three. They were all accorded a fairly full obituary in The Times which, back then, was my daily paper, but nothing like the coverage elsewhere that he received. I put that down to the fact that two of them weren’t British, so the innate parochialism of our media didn’t regard them as all that important, and Swarb was a folk musician so wasn’t considered to be of sufficient stature to merit much coverage. Sorry, my bunker mentality showed through a bit there! But the points I made in the piece about Bowie are still valid: I know that journalists and media commentators make their livings by hanging on to the coat tails of those who are far more talented and famous than they could ever hope to be, but I don’t need them to tell me what I should like, or feel, and I can certainly do without the blatant stupidity displayed by the likes of Sean Keaveny and Caitlin Moran!

It is probably the fact that I grew up listening to their music, but there have been other losses in the musical sphere which have been poignant for me, notably Tom Petty, whose passing I covered here. We have lost other greats in recent years: Aretha Franklin notable among them. Her death resulted in possibly the most ridiculous piece of coat tail hanging that we have ever seen:

In case you missed it at the time, those were the words of Donald Trump on the day Aretha died. Not quite the same as Tony Blair raising his head above the parapet to claim a deep and abiding love for Bowie but, in his own inimitable fashion, Trump was claiming the importance of an icon for himself – as a former ’employer’ after she sang at one of his casinos (before they went bankrupt), giving him the perceived right to claim that he knew her well. Somehow I doubt the veracity of that – but he doesn’t tell lots of lies, does he?

But what about the lesser lights of music, whose passing is barely noted by the media? Does that make the loss of them any less tragic? Where are the likes of Sean Keaveny and Caitlin Moran for them? Presumably they are making the decision not to bother, as no one will pay them for their opinions if many in the audience will be asking ‘who was that?’ about their subject. Yesterday, I learned of the passing of ‘Beard Guy.’ How many of you know who I mean? Mike Taylor, to give him his proper name, was a member of the Canadian band Walk Off The Earth (usually abbreviated to WOTE), who have had a fair amount of commercial success in their homeland but relatively little elsewhere – though they have a loyal following which enables them to tour worldwide.

Mike died in his sleep during the night of 29 December. He was 51, and had two children. Where was the mainstream coverage of this, outside Canada? Why did I need to be following the band on Facebook to hear this sad news? To his family, friends and fans this was no less upsetting, but I guess it all comes down to scale: far more people will have been affected by Bowie’s passing, and those of Tom Petty and Aretha Franklin, than by Dave Swarbrick or Beard Guy. I find that sad. Yes, I know that the bigger stars are more newsworthy, but don’t we all deserve to be remembered kindly for what we have done, especially when that has brought pleasure to many – but just not enough for the media to make money out of the passing of a lesser light? WOTE may not be the biggest band on the planet, but they have certainly made their mark. They first came to prominence in 2012 when they released a video of their version of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know. This went viral, and has so far been viewed more than 185 million times, plus a further 12 million when shared by someone else. So, to redress the balance a little, here in Beard Guy’s honour is that video:

I wish he had been somebody that I used to know but, in a way, he was, as I’ve watched many of their videos multiple times and think of them as ‘friends’ whose sense of humour always brightens my day. Every passing is mourned by someone, and every individual is important. We shouldn’t need paid hacks to remind us of that. Take care of your loved ones.

RIP Mike.

2018: They Think It’s All Over…..

January 3, 2019 19 comments

Englishmen of a certain age will recognise the source of my title!

A number of bloggers have recently posted reviews of their blogging year, and how 2018 was for them. I wasn’t sure if I should do the same, as I’m far from being the most prolific blogger, and I certainly don’t have a massive following or readership. And anyway, I did a kind of ‘part way through the year review’ when I wrote On Further Reflection so there isn’t much point in repeating myself. What those posts have encouraged me to do is to look back behind the headlines of my post statistics and try to analyse what this tells me about my readers and what they prefer – and this does give me the opportunity to give another plug to some of my own favourites from my 2018 ramblings. I’ve already covered some of the ground in New Beginnings? which I posted on Sunday with a reblog of my review of 2015, so I’ll try not to repeat myself more than I already have!

I posted 51 times in 2018, but there was no regular pattern to those: they weren’t synchronised weekly offerings with a week off for good behaviour. Both April and August saw just one post each, whilst there were twelve in November and nine in December. So much for giving your readers a regular expectation of when they can see something from you! But, as I’ve often said (probably to justify this to myself) I don’t think of myself as being a significant blogger: I’m not seeking huge numbers, nor am I looking to monetise my blog. Some do, and I don’t have a problem with that. But it wouldn’t be for me – I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay me for what I produce from the deepest recesses of my mind!

I rarely reblog someone else’s post: I did that just once in 2018, and that was this one, to assist a fellow blogger in raising money for charity. Call me narrow-minded if you like, but I regard this as my space and want people to come here because they enjoy reading my words. There are plenty of blogs that exist solely to reblog others: there is nothing wrong with that, but are they clear on their motivation? Are they doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to help others? Or are they doing it so they can bask in the reflected glory of having a blog with loads of page views when they rarely, if ever, write anything themselves? And, if the latter, are they using this to make money for their site? That, to me, is dishonest and not what I regard as true blogging. For me, a blog is where we share something of ourselves, not where we push products at people – and especially not by using others’ work as the vehicle.

Having said all of that, I am much more likely to reblog my own posts, or rework older ones into newer versions. My logic in doing that is simple: many of these were written at a time when my follower numbers were smaller, and I doubt that many current followers will have seen these before. I do it because they said something I felt worth sharing again and, in all honesty, because I liked them. I make no excuses for doing this, but I do recognise that there are only so many times that you can mine through your back catalogue without putting people off!

I did produce some new stuff in 2018, though, and it is gratifying to see that five of my top ten most ‘liked’ posts of all time are from last year, with another one actually equal on ‘likes’ for 10th place but not showing in the list. I guess I must be doing something right! I realise that hitting the ‘like’ button is a facility only available to those who, as I do, use WordPress as their blogging platform, so I know that there is not necessarily a link between ‘likes’ and the actual number of times a post has been read. But it suffices as a reasonably good proxy most of the time, though not always: the post of mine which has actually been read most times – by a distance – dates back to 2017. This was written in support of a friend whose ex-wife’s ex-boyfriend (still with me?) had just received a criminal conviction for the most horrible of crimes. My friend is the focus of a group on Twitter and my post was widely shared and read as a result. If you haven’t seen He Fought The Law before by all means take a look: it is a little different from anything I’ve written before, or since.

But let’s get back to 2018! I think my favourite post of the year was that one in equal 10th place on the all time list. My 15 Nanoseconds was one I greatly enjoyed writing – it is one of my lighter pieces and I got a laugh out of it. Having said that, it only needs one person to follow that link and hit the ‘like’ button to move it into 10th place all by itself – which would be something of a pity as the post it currently shares that placing with is one that I regard as among my most important. Maybe I should make that list the top 11 – do you think anyone would notice?

What pleases me most about the popular posts from 2018 is that two of the top five are themed around Mental Health, whilst two others are very personal to me. There are links to all from the list on the right, but to save you having to work it out these posts are I Hope You Dance and For Mother’s Day (the two personal ones),  World Mental Health Day 2018  and Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, plus the outlier A Man Blogs, Aged 64 And A Half, which was written in a fit of pique when I felt that the blogging world was becoming sexist and ageist. I probably proved the blogosphere right in believing it should be for females and younger people when I wrote that!

So, what does this tell me about what people expect from my posts, and does it give me any clues for what I should be writing about this coming year? Whilst they may not have garnered the most ‘likes,’ my musically themed posts are important to me, so you can expect to see more of them. If I can get my act together there may even be some more #SaturdaySongs posts at some point! But let’s take this back to the very beginning: as I’ve often said (though newer readers may not be aware of this) I originally began blogging to share my experience of depression, in the hope that this would help others. It seems to have done that, and I still get the occasional email from people who have read those early posts: they are under ‘My Story’ in the menu at the top of the page, if you want to see them. Six years on, there is still so much that needs to be done to raise awareness of mental health issues and to help fight the stigmatisation which still, sadly, attaches itself to those of us who suffer. I am acutely aware that my own mental health is precarious and I could find myself in relapse at any time, and I think it is very important that as many people as possible are writing about these issues. Whilst that was my starting point I’ve never made this a blog solely on mental health: there are many others who do that far better than I. But it is a subject to which I have returned at intervals, and I will continue to do so. Only yesterday there was a piece in the paper about young people’s mental health and the problems involved in supporting them, so I believe there is an agenda already there for new posts. I’d like to think my small voice will help in some way, so expect more from me on this.

To end this review, I’d like to thank everyone who has read, liked or commented on any of my posts, either in 2018 or previously. Those interactions are why I and my fellow smaller bloggers do this: if we know that there is someone out there it encourages us to keep going. I don’t know how or where you found me, but I’m glad you did. If you’re a regular you have my heartfelt thanks for supporting me. If you’re new here, I hope you like what you see and will be encouraged to read, like and comment on more of my posts. And a final plug for my Facebook page: all new posts are shared there, along with a #SongOfTheDay and occasional random thoughts and funnies. It’s small, but beautifully formed, and I’d love to see you there. Who knows – you may even be encouraged to follow both this blog and the page, if you don’t already!

Thank you, as always, for reading, and here’s to a great 2019!

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