The other day a woman who is on the autistic spectrum, and who has a long history of struggling with addiction, had a panic attack at Heathrow Airport. The reaction one would expect would be sympathy - "How awful to be so ill! To lose control, to be reduced to shaking, shouting, crying with fear."
Instead, the British Press greeted the news with glee, mercilessly ripping into Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. According to the Mail, her "tantrum" occured because she was "denied access to a first class lounge", while The Sun ran the headline "Tara Nicked By 8 Gun Cops."
I guess it’s easy for the papers to jump to conclusions that the former "it girl" was just being posh and melodramatic, rather than looking into the terrifying world of mental health problems, and the crippling fear and anxiety felt by many on the Autistic Spectrum.
Even after Palmer-Tomkinson revealed that her loss of control was due to a panic attack, the Mail (a newspaper to whom she had confided about her Autism in a previous interview – and trust me, coming out as autistic is a big deal) continued: "It is hard to overlook the comedown which that Heathrow scene represents".
The woman had a panic attack, yet they described the incident as a "comedown". What? This was a sign of illness which can be overcome with treatment. Most appalling though was the suggestion she has let down and disappointed her friends and family, with the piece ending by declaring her mother will have to "pick up the pieces."
Mental Health Awareness: Facts and figures
Mental Health Awareness: Facts and figures
1/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
30 per cent of people deal with anxiety by talking to a friend or relative, or by going for a walk.
2/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
Almost one in five people feel anxious all or a lot of the time.
3/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
22 per cent of women feel anxious a lot or all of the time, compared to 15 per cent of men.
Roman Levin/Flickr Creative Commons
4/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
45 per cent of people who feel anxious in everyday life cite financial issues as their biggest cause of worry.
5/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
And 26 per cent of people who feel anxious say fearing for the welfare of their children and loved ones leaves them burdened with worry.
And 26 per cent of people say fearing for the welfare of their children and loved ones leaves them burdened with anxiety.
6/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
27 per cent of people who suffer from anxiety say work issues, such as long hours, are the source of the problem.
7/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
But 16 per cent use alcohol to cope, while 10 per cent turn to cigarettes in the face of anxiety. Unemployed people are more likely to resort to these harmful strategies: 27 per cent use alcohol and 23 per cent use cigarettes.
8/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
Only seven per cent of people who say they suffer from anxiety seek help from their GP.
9/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
People are thought to be more anxious than they were five years ago.
Alessandra/Flickr Creative Commons
10/10 Mental Health Foundation: Living With Anxiety report
The stresses of modern life are thought to have created "The Age of Anxiety".
OK! Magazine went one up on this, inviting viewers to "WATCH the moment Tara Palmer-Tomkinson pulled out her own hair extensions seconds before Heathrow arrest." But I guess that portraying a vulnerable woman as a freak-show garners clicks. Who cares how humiliated, frightened and shaken she was.
You only need to take a step back to see that someone tearing out their own hair extensions in public is reacting to extreme distress and fear. Apparently she was running from people taking photos and laughing at her – is taking more photos and mocking her more really the answer? In cases like this people need love, understanding and friendship (and if you can’t give that then you could at least leave the person alone.)
I understand this from first-hand experience. I too am on the autistic spectrum and have severe panic attacks caused by unfamiliar situations. At times I appear shaky, weepy and out of control. But in general people have been very kind to me.
For a long time, however, I was unwilling to reveal my panic attacks to my friends, thinking they would judge me, think me crazy, unhinged even. To discover that they did not think this (and that several of them also have the same kind of attacks) was an incredible relief. For me, panic manifests itself in uncontrollable weeping and locking myself in a room (if in public I seek out a toilet cubicle.)
By suggesting that Palmer-Tomkinson’s illness makes her a disappointment, or a burden to her family, is deeply harmful to people who like me have experienced the terrifying phenomenon that is a panic attack. I call my mother, sister or a friend when I am having a panic attack, and I can't imagine what it would be like to read in a paper the next day that I had let them down by doing so. In fact, I think the reverse, they would be disappointed if I were not to call for help when I so need it.
To make it a spectacle to be gawped at is even worse, alienating mentally ill people and making them think they need to hide their problems rather than seeking help. In a year where much has been written about the importance of removing the stigma of mental illness, parts of the media still approach the topic with the sensibility of playground builles.
More than one in ten people have a disabling anxiety disorder at some point in their life, according to Anxiety UK. Should these people then feel like failures? People who have let down their friends and families? Of course not.
The media’s crowing over Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s illness is not only deeply cruel to her as an individual, it is also disrespectful to the many people in the UK who suffer from anxiety and panic.Reuse content