We're doing it all wrong...
It is possible that I’m looking too much into this but, while I binged the whole of ‘Happy Valley’ on Netflix this weekend it made me think about how we look at mental health and just how many mistakes we’ve made and are making along the way. I have to commend the writers of the show; the portrayal of mental illness (for me) was wonderfully approached, hard-hitting but poignant and beautiful. I won’t go into too much detail because, for a start, this isn’t a TV show review site and also, if you plan on watching it (you should it’s fantastic) then I definitely don’t want to give away any spoilers.
I highly doubt the point of the show was to get someone enthusiastic about mental health issues but for me, it did. I had images of the scriptwriters sitting around a table brainstorming and me behind them, cheering them on, high fiving them for being so on-point and ballsy with their storytelling. Here’s a brief run down of the show - Sarah Lancaster plays Sgt. Catherine Cawood a police officer who was once a very successful detective. She gets back into uniform after she loses her daughter to suicide presumably because the street is easier for her to deal with. On the beat, she’s out to catch the local drug dealers and petty criminals, but she never lets go of her mission to find the man who raped her daughter.
The state of her mental health is not overtly obvious from the start but it creeps in as each episode goes by. At first, you can tell that Sarah is angry - she has no time for idle threats and doesn’t hesitate to break police rules, assaulting a street kid and breaking into a house without a warrant. I could understand it; I could understand that after having lost a kid that way, she really didn’t have anything else to lose. Why would you?
I had never thought of it that way before. That a child really is physically, a part of a woman’s body. Just that one little quote made me realise just how much losing a child must hurt. And, to suicide, how it must be compounded.
Catherine has anxiety, brought on by PTSD – her hallucinations of finding her daughter’s body are harrowing but completely understandable. You can see her body collapse under the pressure of the anxiety attacks - The laboured breathing, the sweating, checking her own pulse, followed by tears of terror. Brilliantly teamed with audio effects to show that she was experiencing tinnitus (ringing in her ears), it was so perfect I could feel it all with her. It wasn’t only Sgt Cawood struggling. After witnessing a horrific accident, she notices another police officer showing obvious signs of a panic attack, labored breathing, sweating and detachment – she pushes his head between his legs, something I wanted to do for her as she panicked in a meeting with her superiors.
What struck me the most isn’t anything new. I realised that the poor sod she had with his head stuffed between his knees was being reactively treated for anxiety. Why? Most likely because he has never experienced death before - possibly in his 30s, his friend and partner dies and he goes into shock. I’m not proposing we desensitise people here but why are we denying it? Death is part of life and we’re so good at covering it up, we end up with very ill people the first time they witness illness or tragedy. This is all a normal part of life; we can’t avoid it so why are we trying? Like everything else, it’s the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, in fact, I’d go as far to say that sometimes there’s a cliff, but no ambulance at all. Deny, deny, deny. Nothing to see here, just chuck your head between your legs and you’ll be fine.
One of the more interesting moments in the show was Catherine’s sister explaining to the young grandson that his Nan had depression. I almost cheered out loud at this point because she wasn’t kid-gloving this boy. She was telling him straight up, telling him that sometimes people get sick in their body and some people get sick in their mind. And, it didn’t go unnoticed to me that the sister was playing a reformed heroin addict.
This brings me on to one more thing I’d like to raise. Recently I heard someone talk about drug addicts (in real life) and I was so upset by it that it's stuck with me for days. I'm terrible in a debate so I held my breath and knew I'd have to put it somewhere, so it's going here, in my writing. They said over and over ‘just let them die’, ‘just lock them up and let them die’. I was so uncomfortable with it I changed the subject and made people laugh – evidently I’m good at that. But, deep down in my heart I was so broken and upset by this. I know addicts, I am one. Should I die too? Should they? Should everyone addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, shopping, gambling, porn, drugs or even their phone – just be left to die? It’s all one in the same, addiction is addiction, just because it's not all drugs doesn't mean it's not doing damage to someone, somewhere. Plus, people with the aforementioned afflictions can be reformed and become outstanding members of the community. Like the Happy Valley case, they’ve been there, done that, so there’s no holding back in when there’s something hard to be faced. That’s where these people are valuable. So, I’ll say what I wanted to say when I heard this person shout about killing off all drug addicts in world. Why kill them when they might be our only hope in saving other addicts? Why kill them when there’s other people with such poor mental health that to meet someone ‘who’s been there, done that’ might just save their life too? Would you kill your brother, father, sister, cousin, mother, if you knew they were a drug addict, or would you try to save them? Flippantly writing off all addicts like that is an uneducated response and a useless and irresponsible‘solution’ to addiction. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days now. I think the only thing I can do to stop beating myself up over not speaking up, is volunteer more of my time, keep writing and keep trying to educate people that yeah, while they seem like they’re a waste of space- they’ve been in hell, they’ve seen it and felt it. It makes them more than qualified to be here and to stop other people going the same way. So no, the attitude that ‘all addicts must die’ is wrong and just like mental health – we’re doing it all wrong.
At ease x