Viewpoint: Do famous role models help or hinder?

  • 14 May 2013
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Churchill and Fry in top hats

It's Mental Health Awareness Week - cue the annual round of lists of "inspirational" public figures. But do famous role models actually make a difference?

If you're a person who experiences mental health difficulties, as I do, you'll be familiar with an oft-quoted list of inspirational fellow travellers, such as Winston Churchill and his famous "black dog" or national treasure Stephen Fry and his bipolar disorder.

The media retains a fondness for presenting exceptional disabled people as inspirational.

"Look," they say. "Here is a person who has achieved so much. Do not lose heart, you too can overcome your disability if you follow their example."

This may at first seem a benign point to make but, I wonder, does it do more harm than good?

The dominant positive media stories offer up high-achieving disabled people as examples of the human spirit triumphing over adversity. Other positive tales are of people rising to stratospheric heights "despite" a physical or mental health difficulty.

While Churchill's achievements are hard to dispute, the best I can conclude from his story is that being born into an aristocratic family in the late 19th Century, getting stuck into a military career then standing for election is a good way of advancing your career - factors that are mostly beyond the reach of an average person with mental health difficulties in 2013.

There are few prominent people with mental health difficulties and few disabled people who are household names or opinion formers.

Image caption Churchill - the new MP for Oldham - in 1904

Often it's those who feel disabled people need encouraging who choose the list of role models for us. So rather than being presented with figures who we think are genuinely inspiring, they can simply be someone else's idea of what is needed to spur us on.

Sociologist Richard Sennett tells of how so-called inspirational figures can challenge people's self-respect rather than encourage them. He outlines it in his 2003 book Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality.

Sennett grew up in the projects of Chicago where his mother was a social worker. He excelled at cello and gained a scholarship which led him to New York, shifting to sociology after a condition reduced his ability to play.

Years later, when invited back to his old neighbourhood to give a speech of hope to excluded young people, Sennett spoke alongside an electrician, a secretary and a young doctor who had worked his way up from nothing.

The secretary told of learning shorthand and getting a job with a union official, the electrician of how he broke into his trade. The young doctor told of his journey, saying: "If I can do it, so can you if you believe in yourself."

Despite his story appearing the most inspirational to outside eyes, the audience heckled the doctor - they didn't appreciate his message.

Sennett wondered why this was and realised that the young doctor's story had challenged the self-respect of those listening. "Whereas the secretary showed the young people what to do, the young doctor told them who they should become," reasoned Sennett.

Exceptional figures are important but so too are those with whom we feel real affinity and who can show us practical steps we can take in our own lives.

At a time when experiences of disability are becoming politicised by changes to social security benefits, some feel that inspirational figures drawn from the ranks of celebrity obscure the real challenges faced by disabled people. These challenges include a lack of relationships and money to make sure that life is not just bearable but enriching and enjoyable.

Where the inspirational figure is selected for us, and the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment - especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence.

Knowing a famous person has the same impairment as you can be reassuring, but only in the vague way that hearing of a successful distant relative is reassuring.

Most of us will never scale Everest, compete for our country at sports or have a showbiz career. This doesn't mean we've failed.

Churchill might tell me something about the art of statecraft, or Fry about the pressures of fame and the joy of words, but someone closer to home, with a life more like mine and challenges more like mine, will tell me far more about a life with mental health difficulty and how best to live it.

Mark Brown is the development director of social enterprise Social Spider and editor of One in Four magazine. Written by people with mental health difficulties, for people with mental health difficulties, the magazine celebrates its fifth birthday next month.