Monday 23 October 2017

Some pop music still continues to stigmatise mental illness

Adele recently spoke about her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks
Adele recently spoke about her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks

Patricia Casey

Popular jargon is laced with demeaning terms to describe mental illness. People with psychiatric disorders are referred to variously as 'basket cases' 'psychos', 'schizos', 'loons' and so on. Thankfully, this is changing and such demeaning terms are much less frequently heard nowadays. The same is true of pop songs.

Sure, Jimi Hendrix misleadingly called one of his songs Manic Depression and said at the concert where it was first performed that "it's a story 'bout a cat wishin' he could make love to music, instead of the same old everyday woman". But that was several decades ago when misunderstandings about mental illness were common and negative attitudes based on fear and lack of knowledge were universal.

Then there was the song by Napoleon XIV, arguably the most disturbing and negative, for decades.

"And they're coming to take me

away ha-haaa.

They're coming to take me away

ho-ho hee-hee ha-haaa.

To the funny farm, where life is

beautiful all the time.

And I'll be happy to see those nice

young men in their clean white


And they're coming to take me

away ha-haaa".

He recorded other songs also with mental illness themes including Bats In My Belfry, I Live In A Split-Level Head, and The Place Where The Nuts Hunt The Squirrels, - to name but a few. These, too, were recorded in the 1960s so perhaps he can be excused.

But like our everyday language, pop songs have become sensitive to the offence that songs can cause to those with mental health problems. Indeed many artists in popular culture have spoken about their difficulties. Adele, recently spoke about her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, something that may interfere with her touring. Demi Lovato has experienced an eating disorder, self-harming and has a mood disorder. She told the Democratic National Conference last year of living with these problems day-by-day. Zayn Malik, Kayne West, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera and Bruce Springsteen are among the many household names who have also been open about their mental health difficulties.

If the headlines in the media are anything to judge by, then a transformation has taken place in how mental illness is used in music. The Guardian ran the gob-smacking headline '2015: when music destroyed mental health stigma'. Again in 2015, the Guardian had another, more measured headline: 'The music of mental illness: how a new project aims to challenge stigma'. It described the Creative Madness in Song project, run by charity Song in the City with The Maudsley (Hospital) Charity. Young composers created new songs to texts written by people with mental health problems culminating in a series of events. These performances consisted of these new songs with music and poetry selected by the project participants, all aimed at de-stigmatising mental illness. It was declared a great success.

But now the good work may have been undermined following the release of a new song and video from the band Kasabian. You're In Love With A Psycho evokes themes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the video showing band members Tom Meighan and Serge Pizzorno wearing flesh-coloured hospital gowns and taking medication, before dancing with other 'patients' in a gym. This is all the more surprising as Meighan, last year, spoke of his mental health problems following the death of a friend and a broken relationship. Comedian Noel Fielding and actor Stephen Graham also appeared in the video which is set in a gym/psychiatric ward with stern looking nurses peering from a glass-fronted balcony into the exercise area.

'Patients' stand about robot-like, nodding their heads and then swallow medication. Bizarre images pop up such as the skull x-ray with a fish visible in the frontal area above the forehead. The man in the wheelchair with his face and head bandaged is presumably designed to conjure up images of frontal lobotomy.

This video has been rightly criticised by mental health charities such as Time for Change. It does indeed conjure up images of institutionalisation that might have been accurate in the 1950s - it plays to a stereotype that is more than half a century old.

The word 'psycho' is insulting to those who have mental health problems and it degrades their suffering. The impact of this video is unclear but the possibility of doing irreparable damage to the hard-fought battle for openness about mental illness is once again a reality.

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