Channel 4’s Caroline Flack documentary reminded me that you can never know what is going on inside someone’s head – unless they feel up to telling you.
In 2019, I stood up in front of a room of strangers and told them that, earlier that same day, I’d looked down at the scars etched on my left arm and, for the first time, hadn’t felt embarrassed or as though I needed to cover them with a long sleeve T-shirt. Instead, I’d realised they were a sign of strength – not weakness – because they were a daily reminder that, like my skin, I was healing.
I still vehemently believe that. But the documentary reminded me that the large majority of people don’t or can’t think in the same way. Let’s be honest, we all like to pretend that the society we live in is more accepting of mental ill health now. But it isn’t.
Caroline’s mum, Christine, revealed in the hour-long film that the much-loved TV presenter had battled with “highs and lows” and “depression” since she was a child. “She didn’t want anyone to know,” Christine and Jody, Caroline’s twin sister, repeatedly told the camera.
Who can blame her? Her agent, Louisa McDonald, explained that the photographs from the night Caroline was arrested for allegedly assaulting her boyfriend in fact showed a bed covered in mostly “her own blood”, from self-inflicted injuries.
“She had to have plastic surgery on her arm where she’d cut it so bad,” Christine said. “She did do that when she got really low. She’d cut herself before.”
The fact that elements of the press and social media trolls continued to harangue a woman who was suspected of harming herself is not only worrying – it is evidence that the work being done to destigmatise mental illness is not having the impact it should.
In any given week, you’re likely to find stories that echo the same avoidable issues which led to Caroline’s untimely death by suicide. In the past four days, for instance, Roman Kemp released a documentary exploring the death by suicide of his friend, radio producer Joe Lyons, and the “silent emergency” of mental illness among those who feel unable to speak out.
Journalist Ash Sarkar also won a defamation case against Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill, who was forced to publicly apologise for inciting a social media campaign of racism and misogyny against Sarkar. “Unfortunately, this isn’t just the work of online trolls. It’s facilitated and tacitly encouraged by some in the press,” Sarkar said on Twitter after the apology was issued.
The penny clearly hasn’t dropped for a lot of people – and sadly some of them are the most powerful in the country. When Rishi Sunak announced his Budget earlier this month, he failed to allocate a substantial amount of money to the NHS, including any vital mental health services apart from veteran support.
“Disappointingly, the Budget included practically no references to mental health or severe mental illness and demonstrates that it is not currently a priority for the treasury,” the charity Rethink Mental Illness said in response to the chancellor’s announcement. “This is despite significant increased demand for services caused by the pandemic and worsening outcomes.”
It begs the question: what has to happen in order for mental illness to stop being a “silent emergency” and become one that is taken seriously? The answer cannot be the continued loss of lives like Caroline’s. But it is this ignorance and avoidance that leads people like her, and myself at the time I was self-harming, to believe nobody cares and, worse, that people actually judge you.
What is the last thing you’re going to do when you feel ignored and judged? Speak out.
“You’re either ashamed of it [mental ill health] or you’re frightened someone will think something bad about you,” Christine says at the end of the documentary.
To some it may seem obvious but to me it feels necessary, after watching the events that led to Caroline’s death, to issue this reminder: mental illness has not been destigmatised, and more needs to be done. Caroline’s flamboyant but cruelly self-conscious life shows us that.
Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death is available to watch on All4
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. The average response time is 24 hours
If you are based in the US, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week