So asks Lucy Nichol, author of 'A series of unfortunate stereotypes - naming and shaming mental health stigmas'
As a Courtney Love obsessed teen in the ’90s, being mentally tortured was more of an ambition than a problem to avoid. I actually told my art lecturer that there was no point carrying on with my A-Level – nothing bad had ever happened to me. What had I to communicate to the world through art?
In my eyes, Kurt Cobain was endearing, Nancy Spungen a long-lost force of nature and Drew Barrymore the best friend I never had. Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote ‘Bitch’ and Courtney was a Teenage Whore. Everything ‘bad’ seemed glamorous – drug overdose headlines and bizarre onstage antics (think Daisy Chainsaw and L7 if you’re as old as me, otherwise hit Google). At least, it felt glamorous to an impressionable group of ill-fitting teens…
But the rest of the world didn’t see it that way. In the year I was born, days after Nancy Spungen was allegedly murdered by Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, the British tabloids tarred her memory with the headline ‘Nancy was a witch’. She was given the nickname ‘nauseating Nancy’. Why? Because all we knew of her was what the media told us. The heroin-addled groupie. Why should we care?
Yet, if you search hard enough for it, you can find an early ’80s memoir penned by her mother that states that Nancy was in fact mentally ill since her early years. So ill in fact that she was admitted to hospital. This all started when she was using spoons to eat baby food, not to cook heroin. So was she just a rock’n’roll junkie or in fact a desperate soul self-medicating to ease the pain?
This was 1978. Sadly, over two decades on, Amy Winehouse was given similar treatment. Take another British tabloid just days after Amy passed. The headline opened with ‘sordid final hours of a troubled star’. Sordid? The dictionary definition is involving immoral or dishonourable actions and motives; arousing moral distaste and contempt.
Mental illness was never mentioned in the headlines. And even if there wasn’t a pre-existing condition driving drug and alcohol misuse (more often than not there was), addiction is in itself a devastating and lonely place to be. Not the wild rock star image we place on it.
Today, however, Ant McPartlin, wholesome TV presenter checks into rehab and we all praise him. Which is the right thing to do. It’s a seriously brave move to A. check in and B. share it with the world. Would he have experienced the same media support had he been a rock star? Who knows, but things are definitely in a different place today than they were.
Coldplay’s clean-cut appeal is just as popular with millennials as Janis Joplin was for the Generation X-ers. But the millennials would have had more empathy for Janis Joplin’s plight. With so much conflicting information at our fingertips through social media, we are less likely to take what’s said as gospel. I’m nearly 40, and I feel terrible about how I placed heroin chic on a pedestal and laughed at Amy Winehouse drunk on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I don’t think the next generation would do such a thing. Mostly, anyway.
So perhaps we have finally looked beyond the false ‘glamour’ and considered what is really going on. Upfront and personal, mental illness, including addiction, isn’t fun. But at least we are no longer vilifying those who live with it – not as much, anyway.
Yes, there’s still the likes of the Pierses and Katies of the world. And Logan Paul’s recent suicide ‘joke’ was f**king disgraceful.
But they are not the majority. Just like them, stigma has become a disgrace.