I tried to warn the Liberal Democrats about the negative halo effect that occurs when anyone talks about mental illness in the media. As soon as the talk gets round to mental health, people become upset and change channel, without even knowing why. Not only that but they get grumpy and choke on their pop tarts. The reaction is deeply intuitive, like a brain stem reflex.
The Libs banged on about mental illness affecting one in four of us and needing to be put on the same footing as physical illness services, eliminating suicide etc, just as though they hadn’t read this blog. They didn’t listen and now they are a burned out ruin on the hard shoulder of politics.
Though the halo effect has been known for more than 50 years, this has not stopped a succession of doomed public awareness campaigns such as ‘defeat depression’.
We know that mental health information is perceived as toxic, but no-one has adequately explained why.
Since Shirley Star’s studies of public opinion in fifties USA, the consistent findings have been that people with mental illnesses are regarded as dangerous and unpredictable. Presumably, so too are violent criminals, but they get massive media coverage and scrutiny. Most likely, the ingredient that puts people off dealing with mental health is having to try and understand it. Once you start to think about it, even if you’re in the business, there’s a large parcel of mental work to be done before you can process the information.
For instance, drawing the line between unhappiness and depression, separating personality disorders from illnesses from disabilities, let alone facing the mind brain problem. We’re pretty quickly into Melvyn Bragg territory, but without his panel of expert communicators.
It’s exactly the same for other specialists. A motor mechanic recently tried to explain to me – in some detail – about what had gone wrong with the car’s air conditioning. I remember the phrase ‘wobble plate’, but to be honest that’s the only thing I can tell you about it now. I’ve had to abandon any smug pretensions to knowing my way round a Compressor. Though I will, soon, find an opportunity to say the words ‘wobble plate’, somehow or another.
I’d compare the negative halo to the effect of encountering a protest demonstration in a shopping centre. First instincts are to avoid it, not particularly in case of violence, but more in case you are called upon to examine a complex issue, like whether a remote area of a foreign country has been shabbily treated. Thinking is the last thing you want to do in the Arndale Centre. But it’s the kind of thing you might do by listening to Radio 4 at about 8pm, alone in your car on a smooth stretch of highway. But then that’s your choice, if you’re in the mood for mental activity.
Outside the police station, a large sign reads PRIDE. I’m going slowly enough to recognise that PRIDE is an acronym – after each capital letter is a smaller word. Subliminally, I perceive the words to be: Pride, Respect, Integrity, Dedication and Empathy. Are these virtues (or sin, in the case of pride) really top of our list of desirable qualities in a police service? Surely, these are not the words you want to hear when the machetes are waving and the AKs start popping.
Having said that, I’ve had no success in weaving an acronym from the words, Taser, Cuffs, Tear-Gas, Smith, Wesson, Court and Prison.
Doubtless the police have their reasons for presenting themselves as social workers, such as the diminished number of real social workers. And obviously they have to try and maintain the moral high ground. Nevertheless, my brain stem reaction to the PRIDE sign was: misguided PR campaign. People are proud of the police because they stand up to horrible people, not because they are empathic. Bad Boys 3 will not be subtitled Good Boys.
The negative halo effect cannot be countered by dressing things up. On the contrary, we are set on guard most acutely by any hint of deception. Very large and fast neural systems are devoted to spotting trickery. It takes a lot of considered reflection to counteract such defences, which means weighing things up carefully. The very thing that stresses out the wobble plate.