9 December 2013

A mark of disgrace

The first time I went to Winchester Writers' Conference was the first time I'd shared my novel with anyone. In the course of the event, I engaged in several 1 to 1s, including one with an agent, who had reviewed the synopsis and first chapter of my manuscript.

Her opening words were less than promising.

'I don't get this,' she said, scowling at me.

'I'm sorry, what do you mean?'

'Why hasn't she told her boyfriend she has obsessive-compulsive disorder?'

'Oh, I see. Well, because there's stigma around mental health conditions.'

'I don't think so, not these days,' she said. 'And why hasn't he asked her about it?'

'He's not aware of it. She hides what she does.'

This time her only response was a snort of disbelief. 

Image courtesy of Time to Change
My protestations that the story was based on my own experience - and knowledge - of OCD were to no avail. 

She did go on, however, to pass a number of compliments on the sample chapter and suggested I rewrite the novel to explore OCD in a different way.

'If you take that approach, I'd like to see it,' she encouraged me.

The trouble was, her initial comments had put me off. I'd like to think that she simply hadn't had any experience of this kind of stigma. She might not even have had any direct experience of mental health disorders. Or she might have just been an open-minded woman, who didn't entertain discriminatory thoughts, and couldn't imagine anyone else doing so. 

It was hard to see, though, how she could be oblivious to the existence of such stigma. 

The online Oxford Dictionary even uses mental health as an example in its definition of the word:

'A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. "the stigma of mental disorder".'

I decided not to rework my manuscript to her requirements, as I felt her view of any revised novel would always be coloured by a rather naïve perspective.

That was five years ago, and there is still, undoubtedly, stigma around mental health conditions, in spite of an increasing openness by sufferers, including many high-profile celebrities.

Across the media, I see reports from people experiencing discrimination. Ill-informed or tasteless comments, found everywhere from Twitter and Facebook to online news articles, serve only to prove the point.
Image courtesy of Time to Change

The Time to Change movement certainly wouldn't exist, if mental health stigma had been eradicated. You may have seen their television campaign earlier this year, encouraging people to talk about their conditions. Led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, they have the backing of tens of thousands of people, including numerous big names: from Gok Wan and Gary Lineker, to Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry.

Hopefully, with the help of such campaigns, generations to come will be able to look back on mental health stigma as a thing of the past.


Anonymous said...

Good post. I also find a wide range of opinions on the subject of mental health stigma. There are those who feel we have made little to no progress, and others, like the agent you met, who think there is no stigma at all anymore.
Talk to anyone who has mental health issues, or their loved ones, and you will realize we still have a long way to go in fighting the stigma of mental illness. Thanks for doing your part!

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, thanks for your comment and support. I've not had any really bad experiences of this kind. At worst, some joky remarks, but no malice or discrimination. Anecdotal evidence would indicate that is not, unfortunately, the case for many others.

Jodi @ Heal Now said...

I am glad you stuck to your guns. I assume that she didn't get it rather than be open minded. But the world needs to hear your perspective!

Keep talking, Helen!

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks for the feedback and encouragement, Jodi!

Unknown said...

Stories unfold; if I'd have been the agent I'd have been intrigued, even with the misguided notion that stigma has resolved itself. Your fluent writing style and 'wondering' what Clare's secret is makes you want to read on. If I didn't have OCD, my curiosity would be aroused even more, but either way I want to know the outcome. I think The Reluctant Perfectionist is a clever and interesting way to bring awareness to mental health and the problems associated with OCD, and I wish you well in finding a more open-minded publisher Helen.

Helen Barbour said...

Carol, thank you for the great feedback and encouragement - much appreciated.