I blogged a piece earlier today about the report in the Brighton Argus that the Brighton and Hove Green Group of councillors has called in mediators to resolve differences between Group members – and I argued that this was an essentially political failure, brought about by trying to operate without rigid structures; and that the fallout has produced an environment in which some individual councillors have not felt safe.
What has happened since then in the world of social media has been illustrative of a desperate failure in the city’s political class to understand what this means, and to move beyond crude stereotypes about mental health. This is after all about “mediation” – about the resolution of disputes by the intervention of a neutral party. But immediately – in the terms of the Argus itself and a rather disgraceful billboard talking about “counselling”, but also in a flood of social media comment – this has been conflated into a succession of crude jokes about lunacy and incapability.
To make my own position absolutely clear – I have suffered with depression for nearly my whole adult life. For some of that time it has been severe, and although better now it still recurs from time to time. I have undergone counselling and found it extremely beneficial – certainly more so than medication, which just made me iller. I mostly deal with it now by understanding and managing the triggers, many of which originate from severe childhood bullying at school and which, at the age of 52, still affects me (and, trust me, this afternoon has not been easy). For most of that period I have functioned as a relatively senior civil servant, able to keep it together, more or less. But it has been a long hard struggle, largely waged in private because it is only in the last few years I have acquired the courage and confidence to be open about it.
And now, in a supposedly liberal and tolerant and right-on city, much fun appears to be had by the political and media establishment in misunderstanding and stigmatising mental health. Lord Bassam, Labour Lords Chief Whip and eminence grise of Brighton Labour politics, casually retweets a comment to the effect that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. I suppose he thought it was clever; and he is apparently not alone. Perhaps it is when unintelligent people seek to be clever that they most deftly reveal their stupidity.
Anyway, here, for the benefit of the Brighton political class, is a brief summary. People with depression and other mental illnesses can benefit from counselling; and their condition does not necessarily prevent them from functioning at a high level. Groups that are failing to function sometimes need mediation, which tells us nothing about the mental condition of the people involved. Simple really. Perhaps the political editor of the Argus and Lord Bassam could cut this out and stick it to their fridges, just in case the occasion should arise again: a cut-out-and-keep guide for the smug and ignorant.
Now I am as critical as anyone of the way in which the Green Party has conducted itself in office in Brighton. I believe that it has squandered a fantastic opportunity, largely through the internal inconsistency of its own political approach (as I wrote this morning). I want an intelligent and nuanced debate about structures and parties and democracy. And, just perhaps, the Greens’ attempts to find a non-structured politics, failure though it has been, is distinctly better that than the mass ignorance and gleeful stigmatising that the Brighton political and media class has indulged in today. There are some individuals across the political spectrum – and in the media – who ought to be asking themselves some quite serious questions tonight.
But they’re the sane, normal people, so they won’t.
It is only right and fair to record that, since I wrote the above, Steve Bassam has apologised to me, publicly, on Twitter, for the ill-considered language of his retweet. I am very pleased to accept that apology on my own behalf but there are plenty of other people – not least at the Argus – who might want to consider whether they should be big enough to apologise to the one in four of us with mental health issues whom their carelessness hurt and stigmatised.