Last May I officially became a grumpy old man when I wrote a letter to the BBC complaining about Have I Got News For You.
I don’t normally watch it on account of the fact that it hasn’t been funny since about 1984, but it was on and I was there and Ian Hislop, a perpetually angry little man, started ranting about Alastair Campbell, the former adviser to Tony Blair.
Hislop was not “doing satire” on Campbell. He was not being witty or funny, he was not deconstructing politics or power, he was simply calling him “mental”. He ranted without a discernible punchline or point about him being mental and how this disqualified all he did and said.
Now even the most liberal interpretation of humour - that is, you can say anything as long as it is funny - failed to save this embarrassing tirade. Nobody laughed. A few did giggle - the way they might when they hear a drunk burp in a library. But I didn’t write to complain about it not being funny. I complained because Campbell had spoken and written at length about his mental ill health and was part of a national anti-stigma campaign. Ironic really that what you get as a high profile person “coming out” as mentally unwell is name calling on primetime TV.
‘The BBC doesn’t do racist gags now does it? It has drawn a line in the sand. Unfortunately however, “madness” remains on the wrong side of the line’
Anyway the reply - which took a mere four months to materialise - missed the point. “Jokes are made about all of us at some time,” it said vaguely. So will the new series turn its comic attention to wheelchair users, gay people or Pakistanis? One hopes not. The BBC doesn’t do racist gags now does it? It has drawn a line in the sand. Unfortunately however, “madness”’ remains on the wrong side of the line. We may be more accepting of difference but not if that difference involves those who are mentally ill.
I mention this now because I was listening to some mental health student nurses recently talking about how vital the issue of stigma and discrimination is for their patients and how this issue - along with so many others like counselling, recovery, risk management and relapse prevention - combine to make the work of a mental health nurse fundamentally different to that of an adult or children’s nurse. The branches are united by the principles of care but the skills, knowledge and activities are separated by their patient needs.
I remain interested in the ever lively debate around nurse education. How can we ensure we equip everyone with all they need to make them able and confident? Well maybe we should think of them less as branches and more as separate trees in the same forest? Make the courses separate from the start and thereby allow students to have education and practice that focuses on their patients’ needs all the way through the training.
Too much genericism doesn’t help students. Particularly mental health ones. Mental health nurses do a unique job in a perpetually misrepresented and misunderstood world. They need and deserve more specialist educational investment. Ultimately that is down to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. So I won’t be holding my breath.