Mentally ill people continue to be ignored even in this age of therapy

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The Independent Online

On Wednesday, a mentally ill remand prisoner, Victoria Robinson, hanged herself with a towel. She'd been imprisoned, awaiting trial, on charges of making threats to kill. It might appear obvious that a psychiatric ward was more appropriate for this woman than a prison. But even within HMP New Hall, West Yorkshire, the pleas of her solicitor for admittance to the hospital wing were refused. She is the fourth woman to have died at New Hall in the past year, and the 14th to have committed suicide in custody since January 2004.

On Wednesday, a mentally ill remand prisoner, Victoria Robinson, hanged herself with a towel. She'd been imprisoned, awaiting trial, on charges of making threats to kill. It might appear obvious that a psychiatric ward was more appropriate for this woman than a prison. But even within HMP New Hall, West Yorkshire, the pleas of her solicitor for admittance to the hospital wing were refused. She is the fourth woman to have died at New Hall in the past year, and the 14th to have committed suicide in custody since January 2004.

On Thursday, a report from the National Audit Office was published, disclosing that efforts costing £885m directed since 1997 at decreasing the truancy rates in British schools had made no impact on the problem at all. Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly believes discipline problems in schools - such as truancy - can be solved by targeting parents. National Union of Teachers leader Steve Sinnott supports her in this belief. He said schools could not "get instant results when parents collude in truancy".

If these two pieces of dispiriting news seem unconnected, they are not. The parents of habitual truants are now considered to be the sort of people who ought to be jailed for their pathetic inadequacy. As our idea of what sort of disruptive activity should be considered criminal expands, so does the prison population - especially women and children. Usually, however, what they really need is psychiatric treatment of their own.

You'd imagine that in this era of self-help-manual mega-sales, therapeutic intervention would be the first port of call for troubled or troubling individuals. You'd be wrong. Unless you have money, or need only a couple of sessions with a therapist, that simply isn't an option.

Tony Blair this week has been making great play on the idea that his government is going to start heaving malingerers off incapacity benefit. Those who are jobless due to mental illness have been particularly targeted. Yet what no one seems to understand is that alongside their £55-74 a week (try living on that, then see what it does to your mental health), most of these people are getting just anti-depressants and - if they're lucky - occasional chats with a social worker. They don't get better because they aren't treated for their problems.

Instead, the Government spends money on tackling what it thinks are symptoms. At the moment, it is encouraging schools to sign up for "modules" teaching young children about various social ills, such as illegal drugs. The fact that those who have mental troubles tend to suffer serious ill effects from drug use is not reflected in this one-size-fits-all approach.

The sad thing is that it would not even be that expensive or difficult to provide much more mental health support. The Alcoholics Anonymous movement proves - and is despised by professionals because of it - that trained amateurs organised into effective self-help groups can be powerful forums in helping people to tackle their problems and take responsibility for their lives. Self-help can never replace medical intervention, but it could work alongside it with great success.

Instead, rather than addressing the mental health problems of individuals, the approach is to nanny the many who are getting on with their lives. Often this is done in the name of "inclusion", or of "care in the community", but usually it is ideologically motivated nonsense that doesn't work.

¿ While I believe that a complex society such as ours must look after its casualties within a robust welfare system, I do admit that there is a dichotomy at the heart of our bureaucracy. The "dependency culture" is real and damaging, whereby those who cannot take responsibility for their lives are given minimal financial help without addressing the problem at a psychological level. Some enterprising benefit recipients ought to set up an anonymous self-help group. Sadly, that's a contradiction in terms as well.

Keep it in the family

People warned model Kate Moss that her romance with the singer-songwriter Pete Doherty was dangerous. They were probably worried about his drug addiction. But what is proving a threat to Kate is the explosion of media coverage that has greeted their liaison, much of it focusing on the wild ways of the model's loyal circle of celebrity friends.

Moss has always been secretive about her private life, has never given interviews and has relied on the loyalty of adoring friends to ensure that her unconventional lifestyle remains a mystery. Doherty, on the other hand, has lived his life like an open book, not only writing autobiographically, but also offering access all areas to the media and posting a running commentary of private thoughts on the internet.

Among all the gossip and innuendo that have been published, though, one detail says more about the way we live today than any other. The Daily Mirror yesterday ran a double-page graphic illustrating "Kate's Web of Celebs". It used colour-coded arrows to show the different sorts of relationships.

Interestingly, red denoted a "sex-and-love" relationship, while green denoted a "family" relationship. Only two sets of people got green - the Appleton sisters and the Gallagher brothers. Yet, the listed people had had many children with listed partners and former partners. Marriage, and shared parenthood, very sadly, are not considered by the Mirror to be a family relationship.

I've heard of marriage-wrecking, of course. But this is ridiculous.

Conceptual art - just the thing to take personally

I didn't realise until the other day what everyone else apparently does - that the German artist and Second World War pilot Joseph Beuys attributed his habitual use of fat and felt to a wartime crash. He was saved by a band of Tartars, who treated his burns and exposure by covering his body with fat, then wrapping him in felt.

I'd always assumed that the fat and the felt in his art represented the destroyed humanity of the death camps - the fat being rendered human physicality and the felt rendered human clothing.

The great thing about conceptual art, though, is that my interpretation - lacking as it was in the salient facts - remains entirely undamaged by this new knowledge. Indeed, I feel confident about challenging the dead artist, and suggesting that despite his status as one of the post-war German artists who really faced up to what his country had done, he too was in denial.

Maybe that's why conceptual art is so very popular now. One is always right, no matter the facts, when one projects a meaning on to a piece. In our relativistic, all-shall-win-prizes culture, such elasticity of interpretation flatters everybody.

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