Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Archive for the ‘In the news’ Category

Ched Evans – it’s not about SUFC and it’s not about football

Trigger warning: rape

In case you haven’t heard of Mr Chedwyn Evans, let me give you a bit of background. A Welsh footballer who played for his national side as well as various league clubs, he was charged in 2011 with rape after a friend took an intoxicated 19 year old woman back to his hotel room and later invited Evans to join him. Evans gained entry to the hotel room by lying to the night porter, later leaving by an emergency exit in an attempt to keep his presence a secret. The jury acquitted Evans’ friend MacDonald, who had taken the victim back to the hotel. However they found Evans guilty of rape after the prosecution successfully argued that the victim, who suffered memory loss due to her level of intoxication, would have been unable to consent to sex with him.

Evans applied for leave to appeal twice in 2012 and was refused both times, with one judge quoted as saying “We can see no possible basis which would justify us interfering with the verdict of the jury”. In 2014 Evans appealed to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent body whose responsibility is to examine whether miscarriages of justice have taken place. Fewer than 1% of cases investigated by the CCRC result in the Court of Appeal upholding an appeal.

In October 2014 Ched Evans was released from prison after serving half of his 5 year sentence. Soon afterwards the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) asked Sheffield United football club (SUFC) to allow Evans to train at their ground as they were the last club that employed him. SUFC agreed to this, sparking public outrage. Several club patrons resigned in protest and 2 sponsors made their displeasure known, with one threatening to remove their sponsorship if Evans was re-signed to the club. In addition the Olympic gold medallist, Jessica Ennis-Hill, demanded that the club remove her name from their stands if they decided to employ Evans once again.

On the 20th November 2014 SUFC announced that they had withdrawn permission for Evans to train at their ground. In part of their statement they said “As noted in previous statements from the Club, the legal system of this country provides for both the punishment and the rehabilitation of every person who has been found guilty of a crime. Sheffield United will not be used to promote the view that professional footballers should be treated differently, as has been the want of certain sections of the media and various commentators….The Club is aware that Ched Evans is pursuing legal recourse via the Criminal Cases Review Commission in the determination he has to clear his name. We trust that he will be afforded a fair hearing”.

The PFA have since released their own statement, part of which stated “We maintain our general position that the courts determine punishments and a return to society and a contribution to the community through employment is a key element of rehabilitation. We do not agree that society should impose different rules for footballers which go beyond the position of the law. In that regard, it is hoped that Ched will be given an opportunity at another club to return to the job he is trained to do”.

Both SUFC and the PFA seem to have completely missed the point of the recent protests. It has nothing to do with treating footballers differently, nothing to do with Sheffield United and in fact has nothing to do with football at all. It has to do with a convicted and unrepentant rapist being allowed to return to the career where thousands of people, including children, look up to him. If Evans had admitted his crime and shown genuine remorse then this probably wouldn’t be an issue. But you cannot rehabilitate a criminal who refuses to acknowledge that they have done wrong. It just doesn’t work like that.

SUFC’s hope that Evans “will be afforded a fair hearing” seems particularly disingenuous when you consider that he has attempted to deny wrongdoing 3 times already through the British legal system and has failed each time. Most people would consider that he has already had a fair hearing. In addition, Evans has so far failed to even attempt to rein in his supporters, many of whom abuse and threaten women who speak against Evans. This hardly helps his case. Neither does the fact that so few rapists are ever convicted of their crimes – approximately 1%. What are the chances that the police, CPS, jury and multiple appeal judges all managed to convict an innocent man of rape? Infinitesimally small.

I have no problem with Evans seeking employment. What I, and many others, do have a problem with is an unrepentant rapist continuing in a role where he is idolised. If he had been in many other careers he would have been barred from continuing his employment, and rightly so; however he would be free to seek other employment just as he is now. He hasn’t taken that option though, instead attempting to continue his life as it was before. Of course this isn’t a choice offered to his victim, who after being abused, hounded, named and hunted by Evans’ fans has had to change her name and move away from her family for her own safety.

By even considering allowing Evans to resume his career, the PFA and FA are making a rapist’s job more important than the experience of not only his victim but all victims of sexual violence. They seem to be saying that Evans’ ability to kick a ball is more important than a woman’s right to go about her life unmolested. And that’s what all the furore has been about. Not SUFC, not football, but a woman’s right not to be raped and the inappropriateness of a rapist as a role model.

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Am I on your radar?

Trigger warning: suicide

Today the Samaritans announced the release of a new, bespoke app called Samaritans Radar. This will email people when someone they follow on Twitter is discussing depression, suicidal thoughts or similar key words. Their website states “Our App searches for specific words and phrases that may indicate someone is struggling to cope and alerts you via email if you are following that person on Twitter. Radar will then offer you guidance on what to do next.”.

I have no doubt that Radar is well-intentioned but it has caused a fair bit of upset in the mental health community. There are numerous reasons for this disquiet, not least that amongst several different press releases there isn’t one aimed at mental health service users (ie those of us who are actually mentally ill).

For me, there is a difference between someone encountering a distressed tweet and responding, and someone who is actively monitoring you for such tweets. The latter feels invasive and intrusive. It’s not dissimilar to the contrast between bumping into a friend in the high street, and following that friend down the high street so you can engineer an encounter. There is also a risk that this app could be used to target vulnerable individuals; I have at least one friend who is outspoken about her mental illness and receives all kinds of abuse as a result, even (sometimes especially) when she is in crisis. What a boon this app is for people like her abusers!

Another objection I have is that I, as the potential subject of this app, have no way of knowing who is monitoring me through it. In fact the Samaritans proudly trumpet that “The people you follow won’t know you’ve signed up to it” and having carefully read the press releases there seems to be no way I can stop people using the app to watch me. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Another disconcerting point from the press release is this:

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Why do the Samaritans feel the need to store a count of flags against my (as someone being spied on through their app) Twitter ID, what purpose does this serve and what will they do with such data? In addition, why do they want to store the identities of a Radar user’s friends? And why shouldn’t I know who’s using this app to monitor me so I can block them?

I know some would say that as all my tweets are in the public domain I have no grounds for concern; that people who follow me are watching me anyway. To a degree this is true. But when I tweet about feeling depressed, hypomanic, anxious or suicidal the last thing I want is to know that emails are immediately being sent to anyone who wishes it. The support and kindness I’ve received from Twitter users is lovely but it’s by chance when someone has seen something I’ve said, not because someone is targeting me to see when I’m in distress.

I’ve already seen several people say that they now feel unable to be open on Twitter as a result of this app’s launch and I have sympathy for that stance. It’s going to be like having someone watching over your shoulder all the time. It makes vulnerable people feel more vulnerable and more likely to suffer in silence instead of opening up. If there was a way to prevent your followers from watching your account with this app then I think my objections would largely disappear. But as it stands all the Samaritans have done is make me feel less safe, not more. Please, if you follow me or anyone else with mental illnesses on Twitter, do not utilise Samaritans Radar without asking permission.

No More Skinny? No More Scrutiny!

This week the Sun, that proudly misogynistic excuse for a newspaper, launched a campaign called No More Skinny. Fronted by 3 supposedly famous men (I haven’t heard of any of them but then I’m not really the Sun’s target demographic) it claims to be demanding that model agencies and fashion shows stop using models who are “stick-thin”. Now, the idea of campaigning to stop the promotion of generally unattainable thinness & the normalisation of disordered eating is one I could definitely get behind. But I’d that’s the case, why not call it “No more skeletal models” or similar? Well, because No More Skinny is all about men’s perceptions of women’s bodies . I shouldn’t be surprised, really, seeing as this comes from the “newspaper” that considers soft pornography suitable for a supposedly family-friendly title. The intentions of the campaign’s apparent founder, Dan Wootton, may have been good (he writes in this article that as a gay man who struggles with his weight, his concerns are genuine) but the result is not.

Mr Wootton’s co-campaigners are Olly Murs and Professor Green, and their attention seems focused on the attractiveness of the women concerned. “Sometimes skinny women can look attractive – but it is too dangerous. It is ridiculous when you see size-six, even size-four, girls on stage” worries Mr Murs. Professor Green (real name Stephen Manderson) chirps helpfully that “The most important things are health and happiness” and frets about women (he calls them girls but I assume he means women) who crash diet and have unnecessary cosmetic surgery. At some point Marilyn Monroe is cited as a desirable body shape.

And this is why the No More Skinny campaign is so useless. It’s not about discouraging the use of skeletal models, it’s not about encouraging girls and women to be body confident whatever their shape, it’s not even about the dangers of restricted eating and excessive dieting. It’s about what men find desirable. Let’s ignore the fact that female bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes – some naturally thin, some naturally podgy, most somewhere in between. Let’s ignore the objectification and othering of women that the Sun encourages on a daily basis. Let’s instead focus on what men find desirable in a female body and campaign for that.

For years women have been given conflicting messages about what men find attractive. There are two main points I wish to make about this. Firstly, men find a variety of body shapes attractive, they’re not a legion of robots programmed to admire only one type of figure. Secondly, and far more importantly, women and girls are far more than merely a lump of flesh for men to judge as aesthetically pleasing. Women run, walk, rest, have sex, dance, bear children, climb, work and many other things – and at no point is the superficial appearance of our bodies relevant, only their function.

Body confidence is just that, having confidence in your body. It doesn’t necessarily mean loving every inch of it nor ceaselessly working to maintain it. But it does mean finding the strength to ignore what society says is desirable and focusing on what works best for you. Ignore No More Skinny, ignore “real women have curves” (which always makes me wonder if non-curvy women are imaginary or maybe holograms) and use the body you have. Tall, short, fat, thin, hourglass, apple, pear, taut, wobbly, buxom, athletic, whatever your body looks like the only person whose opinion about it matters is you.

Recover or else?

This morning I read this news story with a mixture of exasperation, anger and fear. The British government, having already made life close to unbearable for disabled people, are now turning their attention to another extremely vulnerable group: those with mental illnesses. It seems that spending 15% of the welfare budget on the sick and disabled is unsustainable (but apparently spending 21% on low income workers and 42% on the elderly isn’t a problem). So government ministers have come up with the idiotic brilliant idea of forcing people with depression or anxiety to attend therapy, and stopping their benefits if they’re unable to.

In response to this article I dashed off several quick objections to this proposal:

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It’s proven very popular on Twitter, having been retweeted over 200 times now, but now I’d like to explain these points properly.

1) You can’t force people into therapy and then expect them to get anything out of it. Whether it’s cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapy or anything else, the individual has to be willing and able to undergo what can often be a traumatic and upsetting experience. Forcing someone who isn’t ready to go through this would be highly counter-productive, exacerbating the problem and further alienating the ill person.

2) No-one will trust a therapist who they know is focused on declaring them fit to work, come what may. Just as you wouldn’t automatically trust someone you met on the street, you don’t automatically trust a therapist. A relationship has to be built, slowly and cautiously, and trust must be earned. If you know that the person you’re supposed to be baring your soul to isn’t focused on what’s best for you but only on telling the government that you can work, that trust will be non-existent. In addition, the basic principle underlying psychotherapy is that clients give voluntary (ie not forced), informed consent; would therapists even be allowed to treat patients who attended under duress?

3) In most areas there’s a long wait for talking therapies and CBT, often a year or more. Are the government going to conjure therapists out of a hat as though they’re well-qualified rabbits? When funding for mental health services have already been drastically cut, how can thousands more people be forced into a system that’s already bursting at the seams?

4) “We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions”. Wrong – they *can* be treatable conditions. There are all kinds of depression and anxiety and some of them are permanent. Whilst most of the time depression and anxiety can be transient illnesses, passing with the right treatment, for some they are merely manageable with treatment and don’t go away. Being forced to attend further therapy is only going to make these illnesses worse.

5) “Cognitive behavioural therapies work and they get people stable again”. Wrong again – they *can* work. For some people CBT is an utter waste of time, as I can attest. There is no panacea for depression and anxiety, no one-size-fits-all cure. If there was then we wouldn’t be having this discussion!

6) Most of the welfare budget actually goes to the working poor through tax credits. Instead of targeting the ill and vulnerable yet again, why not legislate for companies to pay a living wage instead of having to top up incomes via welfare? As I wrote at the start of this post, only 15% of the welfare budget is paid to those who are sick and/or disabled. Why aren’t the government ensuring workers are paid a proper living wage, instead of having to pay 21% to people who work but are paid so little that they’re still impoverished? It couldn’t possibly be because vulnerable groups are easier to target, could it? Or perhaps ministers have fooled themselves into believing their own “scroungers” rhetoric.

7) Oh and let’s not forget the billions of pounds lost through legal tax avoidance, why not close that loophole while they’re at it? The Telegraph article states that “Estimates based on government figures suggest the state spends up to £1.4 billion a year – more than £3.5 million per day – on ESA for these claimants with mental health issues”. But other government figures have shown that over £5.1 billion a year is lost through tax evasion. The government is targeting the vulnerable instead of those who think they’re too good to pay taxes.

Many ill and disabled people have died within 6 weeks of being declared fit to work by ATOS, the company contracted by the UK government to reduce disability payments. How many more will die if this ill-considered idea is actually put into practice? Sadly we may soon find out, as pilot schemes are being rolled out in the near future.

One last thing. You are only one illness, one accident, away from becoming disabled yourself. 1 in 4 people in the UK will have a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Although this government’s barbaric policy of targeting the ill and vulnerable may not affect you today, there’s no guarantee that it won’t tomorrow.

Best looks

Yesterday a young woman died. Aged just 25, her death was sudden and apparently unexpected; she leaves behind a grieving family, husband and two little boys who aren’t old enough to understand why Mummy isn’t there any more. Her name was Peaches Geldof and she was known as a celebrity, both because of her famous parents and in her own right. Naturally most of the media pounced on the news of her death, interviewing anyone they could find with a vague connection to her and fuelling speculation about how and why she died. The usual ghoulish reaction to a celebrity death was certainly in evidence, with endless stories rehashing her life and career.

At the offices of Cosmopolitan magazine, however, the staff seemed to forget that Ms Geldof had a life and career. In fact they seemed to forget altogether that she was a real, flesh and blood woman with friends and family who are shocked and grieving, and decided that their “tribute” to her would be this:

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Yes, you read that right. A woman has died tragically young, two small boys are motherless and the only thing that Cosmopolitan magazine can think of to say is “We liked her clothes”. What the hell?! In fact they don’t even acknowledge that she was a person at all, merely referring to her as a “fashion world fixture”. Now, a door handle is a fixture. A plug socket is a fixture. A woman is a human being, not a bloody fixture!

Peaches Geldof was a daughter and sister. She was married; she carried and gave birth to two babies who are still too young to understand where their mummy has gone. She had hopes, dreams, a career and aspirations. She loved and was loved in return. She laughed, she cried, she had happy days and sad days. She was like every other woman and she was worth far more than merely the fabric with which she covered her body! For Cosmopolitan to reduce her to a mere mannequin, a doll whose sole purpose is to be looked at and admired, is insulting not just to Ms Geldof but to the magazine’s readership and indeed, all women.

We live in a society where a woman’s perceived value is mostly based on her appearance. Her height, weight, hair colour, the size of her breasts and length of her legs, as well as many other physical features. You know this, I know this, Cosmopolitan magazine know this. It’s what makes them money, after all. But this shallow, pathetic, dehumanising piece about a woman who’s barely been dead for a day is a new low, and whoever is responsible for it should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

Still helping the hungry

In October last year I wrote about the increasing use of foodbanks in the UK. Sadly this is a problem that isn’t going to go away any time soon; the increase in fuel and food prices and little or no increase in income means that many people are reaching the point where they simply cannot afford to buy enough food. This is exacerbated by changes to the welfare system, where many who rely on benefits to survive are experiencing delays in payments or even having them stopped altogether as a punishment for not being able to jump through all the government’s hoops (this includes the large number of people with disabilities who have been wrongly declared fit for work). Of course it’s not just so-called “scroungers” who are having to attend foodbanks; approximately 50% of UK children living in poverty are from working families.

In the year 2012-2013, approximately 400 foodbanks overseen by the Trussell Trust gave emergency food parcels to 347,000 people, of which 127,000 were children. As if that isn’t shocking enough, in the year 2013-2014 that number rose to over 913,000. They run only 37% of foodbanks in the UK; assuming that attendance at the other foodbanks have risen at a similar rate, that’s almost 2.5 million people in the UK who at some point last year were unable to afford food.

Despite claims by Conservative MPs and peers that the existence of foodbanks creates the demand for their services because people merely want free food (Lord Freud and Lord Tebbit), that people only use them because they cannot manage their finances (Michael Gove), have spent all their money on junk food (Lord Tebbit again) or whether foodbanks are seeing more people because of the drive to reduce food waste (can you explain that one again please Esther McVey?) it is clear that foodbanks are increasingly needed in the UK.

Contrary to the anti-foodbank propaganda, you can’t just turn up to a foodbank and walk off with a box of free food whenever you feel like it. Firstly you have to be identified by a professional (such as a doctor, health visitor or social worker) as being in crisis, after which they issue you with a food voucher. At the foodbank you exchange the voucher for 3 days worth of nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food. You can do this a maximum of 3 times in 6 months. All food is donated by the public, and sorted and distributed by volunteers.

A short while ago a friend of mine tweeted about an elderly lady she encountered in a supermarket, begging the staff to “lend” her a ready meal as she had no money for food (I don’t know whether or not they did, but my friend and another kindhearted customer paid for giftcards for the staff to pass on to her). This should not be happening. Our elderly, our children, our poor and vulnerable citizens shouldn’t have to rely on charity to survive. This is the UK, we’re one of the richest nations in the world – why are there people starving? Why are teachers and schools having to feed hungry children? Why did that elderly lady feel that she had no option but to swallow her pride and beg in a supermarket?

Our government has spent months denying that there is any link between changes to the welfare system and foodbank usage, even trying to suppress the results of their own investigation when it showed that there was indeed a clear link. Our government has declined millions of pounds of aid from the European Parliament that was specifically intended to help relieve food poverty in the UK. Our government does not care about the poor and the hungry, about those who have to beg for food, who have to go to a foodbank to feed their family (and in some cases return most of the food because they can’t afford the electricity or gas needed to cook it).

But I care. And I’m sure you care too. So let’s do something about this and make our voices heard. Get angry. Write to your MP, your MEP, your council and your local press; sign and share as many relevant petitions as you can find, shout from the rooftops and via social media that this is not right, that this cannot be allowed to continue! Read and share blogs written by people like Jack Monroe, who have experienced this misery firsthand. And of course, find your local foodbank and donate to them. You can search for them online or ask at your local church, GP surgery or community centre. The Trussell Trust aren’t the only people to run foodbanks in the UK; FareShare do as well and so do many churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Whether you donate food, your time as a volunteer, or money so that they can keep working, please give what you can. Your help, your voice, your anger and your donations, are all desperately needed.

Is International Women’s Day really necessary?

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. This is an annual event and every year there are people who ask, is it really necessary? Isn’t it sexist to have a day dedicated solely to women? Women have equality, what more do they want? So this year I want to explain why I believe that International Women’s Day is not just necessary but essential.

We live in a world where women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of its food, but earn only 10% of its income and own 1% of its property. This is easy to dismiss as being a problem that’s only relevant to developing countries where manual labour is far more common, but the fact is that even in the UK women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Women are also a rare sight in boardrooms and on the benches of Parliament. We live in a world where the vast majority of lawmakers are male and frequently pass laws restricting the rights a woman has over her own body.

In recent years global awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM – also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting) has increased. This is not a procedure akin to male circumcision, which involves the removal of the foreskin only. FGM involves the removal of part or all of female external genitalia, often without anaesthesia and without any medical need. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of a medical condition that would require a young girl to have her clitoris or labia cut away, or her vagina stitched closed, without anaesthesia or pain relief but this is often the reality. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 140 million women and girls worldwide have suffered FGM. Again, this is easy to dismiss as an issue that only exists elsewhere but it’s estimated that even in the UK 20,000 girls are at risk of FGM every year.

Everywhere we turn, women are objectified and treated as men’s property and sexual playthings. WHO figures show that over a third (35.6%) of women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. In some places girls are more likely to be raped than they are to attend school. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that in England and Wales an average of 85,000 women are raped every year while over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. This is merely the tip of the iceberg as it is believed that there are many cases which are never reported. The Everyday Sexism project has exposed the frighteningly commonplace harassment that women and girls in the UK (there are now Everyday Sexism projects in other countries too) suffer on a daily basis. It makes sobering reading, as does the survey carried out in 2013 by Girl Guiding UK. Shocking statistics from this survey include the fact that 60% of females aged 11-21 have had comments about their appearance shouted at them in school and 62% have been shouted at or whistled at in the street. Even worse, “70 per cent of girls aged 13 and over report more intrusive forms of sexual harassment at school or college, including: sexual jokes or taunts (51 per cent), seeing images of girls or women that made them uncomfortable (39 per cent), unwanted sexual attention (28 per cent) and unwanted touching (28 per cent)”.

It’s not just sexual harassment, assault and rape that women face. Research carried out by the charity Women’s Aid concluded that in the UK an average of 2 women per week are killed by their current or former male partner. According to data gathered by @CountDeadWomen (a valuable and eye-opening project on Twitter) 22 UK women were killed through suspected male violence in the first two months of 2014 (that’s roughly one woman killed every 2.5 days).

I’m not denying that men suffer sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and harassment. Of course they do and these incidents are just as unacceptable as those where women are the victims, but these cases are a very small proportion of the overall figures. Personally I have suffered rape, sexual assault, abuse at the hands of a boyfriend and harassment as I go about my daily life. I don’t want this to be my daughter’s experience; I don’t want her or my son to grow up in a society where the oppression, abuse, harassment and violence that women suffer is so pervasive that to some people it is not only the norm but it is becoming invisible.

(In anticipation of the inevitable comments, yes there is an International Men’s Day; it’s on November 19th. Now read this post again and ask yourself why that was the first thing you thought worthy of a comment).

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