When I was a schoolboy, one of the common schoolyard taunts was to refer to someone as “mental” or “loony”. Through most of last century, mental illness was a highly stigmatised issue, and people with mental health problems were hidden away from the rest of society, often untreated and/or mistreated, in what were once known as “lunatic asylums”, later to become “mental hospitals”.
In more recent times, New Zealand society has begun to develop a more enlightened attitude towards mental illness. The prevailing attitude now is that people with mental health issues should be part of their communities unless they are a threat to themselves or to someone else. Unfortunately, the resources have not followed them to the extent necessary, and mental health is still a poor relation of the health system, but at least there has been some progress.
There has also been, thanks to organisations like the Mental Health Foundation and campaigns such as Like Minds, Like Mine (which I was involved in establishing) significant progress in de-stigmatising mental illness and reducing discrimination against people who suffer from it. There is an increased recognition in society that people with mental health issues need to be supported and treated; not hidden away, discriminated against, and made the butt of crass humour.
Sadly, that increased recognition does not seem to have permeated our Parliament, which often still seems like my childhood schoolyard. I have had to sit in the House and listen to put-downs such as “Did you forget to take your medication this morning?” or an MP referring to another’s speech as a “psychotic outburst”. One MP, who had to take some stress leave from Parliament many years ago, is even today frequently taunted in the House about his mental health.
Yesterday, we hit a new low, with the unedifying spectacle of the Prime Minister laughing at assertions that an MP may have mental health issues, and asserting that the MP concerned didn’t because “[h]e didn’t look very sick to me last week”.
John Key can’t have spent much time watching the Like Minds, Like Mine campaign advertising, or he would have known that you can’t judge the state of a person’s mental health just by looking at them. Not every person with a mental health issue is the rambling incoherent stereotype John Key seems to think they are.