An item from the new ‘dysmorphophobia’ range at John Lewis.
It’s November 25th, a slow news day, so an announcement is made that young people with Depression will be treated with apps. That’s no more true today than last month or last year, but apps are now the way forward, rather than electrofolk workshops.
Every time these announcements are made, which is monthly, for some reason Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, mentions three things; that mental health remains ‘in the shadows’ – again failing to add the obvious quip ‘like Hank Marvin’, that antidepressant tablets laid end to end would now reach as far as Neptune and that ‘1 in 4 of us’ will suffer mental health problems. The question is, why 1 in 4, rather than all of us?
After all, mental health problems are not sharply defined entities at all. Most of them shade into normality along a spectrum, so that we can draw the line between cases and non-cases anywhere we want, from 0% to 100% of the population. Would anyone – even a politician – ever say that 1 in 4 of us suffer from physical illness, now or during our whole lifetime?
Statisticians like to set the cut-off points for illnesses a certain number of standard deviations away from the mean, giving rates like 32%, 5% or 0.3%, depending on how far north of London you want to start calling it The North. This is why most artificially constructed illnesses have those rates. There’s no need to go from door to door sampling people, if you set an arbitrary cut-off point in the first place. Someone described epidemiology as ‘counting swans on the lawn’, but in reality it is much less complicated than that.
The answer seems to lie in a complex calculation about ‘otherness’.
If we make something look too alien, then it will be categorised with all the other rare diseases with pseudo-Greek or exotic names. That gives it kudos, but it’ll have to compete for interest against names like Von Recklinghausen’s disease and Blackberry Thumb.
If we make it look too common, then people will say it’s just part of life and why don’t they deal with it like anybody else. But – as presumably dreamed up in PR, since there is no evidence to support a 1 in 4 lifetime incidence figure – if we make it 1 in 4 then we probably don’t have it ourselves, but the bloke two doors down almost certainly has it. Presumably the intention is to create a ‘there, but for the grace of God’, feeling, that would send me two doors down the street with a basket of fruit and a compilation CD of eighties power ballads.
I have serious doubts whether the 1 in 4 strategy will work, either in terms of reducing the stigma attached to the fourth person, detecting cases, or promoting treatment. The precedents for 1 in 4 type disorders are not good, if we think about Obesity, Smoking, Diabetes, Backache, or Alcohol misuse. All of these are both common and stigmatised. In fact I would argue that 1 in 4 disorders are the ones that are the most stigmatised of all, the sufferers inevitably regarded as the authors of their own misfortune.
Like the extras included in a Star Trek landing party, someone with a 1 in 4 disorder knows they are going to die soon, but only because they will make stupid space mistakes, the kind that Scotty or Bones would never make, like handling dilithium crystals without oven gloves or forgetting to charge the cloaking device.
This phenomenon gave rise to the term ‘red shirt’, meaning a fictional character who dies soon after being introduced. 73% of the crew killed in the original star trek series wore red shirts, something lost on the UK audience who mainly watched in monochrome.
Rather than assuming a ‘grace of God’ scenario, we conclude that this would never happen to us. We are main characters in our own minds, not extras.
There is nothing about 1 in 4 that protects against ‘otherness’. Its roughly the proportion of people who vote for one of the main two political parties. It’s roughly the proportion who watched the return of Dirty Den to Eastenders. It’s a number that can get killed in the worst civil conflicts. I in 4 can be a highly divisive ratio.
And it’s just a ratio that no-one wants to be part of, as opposed to say, the three in a thousand who might get Blackberry Thumb.
If mental health problems really affected (as few as) one in four of us, and we were all detected and referred for treatment, even if we only were ill for a short time, that would still overwhelm the mental health system, but it would not overwhelm the massed ranks of smartphones and tablets. Some accounts suggest that as few as 1 in 4 people don’t have devices that could run apps. What a coincidence!
As Bryan Ferry put it, you want to be in with the in crowd and go where the in crowd go. As far as the song went, this meant knowing how to have fun. Fun, like therapy, is very hard to find. But it could mean playing a party app on your Nokia, so you don’t have to actually go to it, which is what social media have done for us. Inevitably, social media will become the new group psychotherapy.
Imagine an in crowd that included 25% of the population. Statisticians wouldn’t trust it and Bryan Ferry wouldn’t join it. On the other hand, it’s a number Nick Clegg’s party, the Liberal Democrats, can only dream about now.