‘Batty, bananas or bonkers’

This is an outtake from Alwyn Turner’s new book All in Together: England in the Early 21st Century (published 17 June 2021).

In the 1990s Princess Diana had talked openly of her depression, bulimia and self-harming, but there remained a cultural perception that mental illness wasn’t as serious as physical disease, and that there was something a little self-indulgent about it all. This was particularly the case with men: problems with mental health had never sat well with existing class stereotypes, whether stiff upper-lipped toffs, emotionally frustrated middle-classes, or cheerful workers. Surely the correct response was simply to get a grip.

This was even more true with the rich and famous. When footballer Stan Collymore was admitted to the Priory with depression in 1999, his manager at Aston Villa had been flummoxed. ‘I’m gobsmacked by the whole issue,’ said John Gregory. ‘I find it difficult to understand how anyone in Stan’s position, with the talent and money he has, is stressed.’

When it came to pop music there was a slightly different attitude. There was a longstanding use of madness as a metaphor for losing control – the first ever rock ‘n’ roll hit was Bill Haley’s ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ (1953) – and pop stars were supposed to be a bit wacky, just as they were supposed to take drugs. The legacies of artists such as Syd Barrett, Peter Green and Brian Wilson were bought and sold with what music writer Rob Chapman once called ‘the currency of casualty’.

So when, in 2000, singer Adam Ant checked into a hospital with depression, the story was reported in the People under the chortling headline: ‘It’s Adam and the Anti-Depress-Ants’. Two years later Adam was arrested in North London after an incident in which he smashed a pub window and waved around a wartime starting pistol. He was subsequently sectioned under the Mental Health Act, a fact that weighed heavily when he came to court, charged with affray: he was ordered to pay £500 compensation to a man who was cut by the breaking glass, and got a one-year supervision order.

Again, the episode was treated as a bit of a joke. If he’d had a physical rather than mental disorder, wrote Gareth McLean in the Guardian, he wouldn’t have been depicted as ‘batty, bananas or bonkers, a loony who once produced some decent tunes’.

A more balanced account of Adam’s travails came in The Madness of Prince Charming,a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in July 2003, but the real turning-point in media representation came a couple of months later when the former world heavyweight champion Frank Bruno was also sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Bruno had retired from boxing in 1996, following a second defeat to ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, but he was still a public figure, and still much loved, in a way that no fighter had been since Henry Cooper. Britain has an almost limitless affection for sports stars who aren’t touched by genius, but who have the humility to acknowledge this gracefully, with a touch of humour, and who work hard with the talent they possess.

Tim Henman, who reached six grand-slam tennis semi-finals but no finals, was one such. So too snooker-player Dennis Taylor, who won only two ranking titles in a 28-year career (albeit one of them in the most celebrated final ever). But Bruno was perhaps the ultimate example, by virtue of his self-parodying persona. He was also, for the sometimes nervous media, the most unthreatening black man in British public life, no mean feat for a man whose 40 ring victories included 38 knockouts. And though the public fondness had originally had a hint of patronising condescension about it, his relentless baritone chuckle suggested that he was in on the joke; eventually he won over pretty much everyone.

Above all, he exuded good humour, and the Sun treated his illness in 2003 as though it were a continuation of the fun by other means. ‘Bonkers Bruno locked up,’ joshed one of its most notorious front-page headlines, attracting such immediate controversy that by the later editions, it had been changed to the much more sympathetic: ‘Sad Bruno in mental home’.

The misjudged tone of the first version was attacked by mental health charities, by politicians – from Charles Kennedy to the Tory health spokesperson Liam Fox – and, more importantly, by readers. It appeared that the Sun had slipped out of step with its own public, and the backlash took staff by surprise; reports of a besieged newsroom said that ‘the anger directed against the newspaper mirrored the outrage after its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy’.

Earlier in 2003, singer Melanie C, formerly of the Spice Girls, had returned with a new album and interviews in which she talked about the depression that had interrupted her career. ‘I ended up turning to anti-depressants and six months of counselling,’ she said. ‘It was a huge step for me to admit I needed that kind of help, but I had a mental illness that was preventing me living a normal life and the drugs levelled out my moods.’

Adam Ant tried to explain how it felt: ‘Mental illness is like a fist smashed right in your skull and someone implanting your worst memories, your worst feelings, your worst terrors, in your brain, and then pulling the skull out.’

Bruno was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as Adam had been some years earlier and as was singer Robbie Williams. And then there was footballer Paul Gascoigne: ‘It’s scary,’ he said in 2006; ‘I’ve got the full set of problems. It’s not just the booze, it’s the panic attacks, bipolar disorder, the purging – it’s everything I have to deal with every day.’

If there had been a change in public attitude, it was not one that was easily quantified. A survey published earlier in 2003 by the Department of Health showed four in five of the population saying that the mentally ill had been the subject of ridicule for too long, and that society should be more tolerant. But this was little different to similar surveys in recent years. Perhaps it wasn’t opinion that was shifting, so much as a willingness to speak more openly on the subject.

Also shifting was the terminology used. One measure of changes in language – a little crude, but nonetheless indicative – is the incidence of words and phrases used in the press. In the 1980s, newspapers published in England used the phrase ‘mental health’ around 1.5 times as often as ‘mental illness’. By the 2000s that ratio had risen to 5.2, and in the following decade to 7.4. The same trend is shown in a Google Ngram search of British texts:

Mental illness, as a phrase and perhaps as a way of thinking about the subject, was increasingly being eclipsed by mental health. And some feared that those who were very seriously ill were also in danger of being overlooked. Again.

coming soon…


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