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Paul Gascoigne's struggle is not entertainment. Mocking him only adds to the mental illness stigma

Yesterday, The Sun printed a photograph of Paul Gascoigne that quickly caught the attention of Twitter. Next to the headline 'AGONY OF SICK GAZZA', the photo showed the visibly ill 49-year old as he as he climbed out of a taxi underdressed to buy some alcohol. It immediately began to circulate online, with jokes firing around the internet at the former England player’s expense.
The Telegraph reported: 
Now, on one level this isn’t a surprise. Gascoigne has long engendered a sense of intrusive fascination among the British public, and The Sun has previously come under attack for laughing at unwell sports stars through their notorious 'BONKERS BRUNO' headline. 

But this is 2016. The mental health conversation is supposed to have moved on. We are meant to be in a better place. And besides, just because we expect something shouldn’t have to mean we accept it. You see, this isn’t a mere case of celebrity intrusion. Gascoigne is ill. He has a long history of mental health problems, having been open about his battles with panic disorder, depression and consequential alcoholism.

So let us be clear at exactly what is happening. A national newspaper has reported the struggle of an ill celebrity and a legion of social media users are now mocking him for exhibiting signs of that illness. Would they be quite so quick to do so if the illness was a physical one? If it was a sports star in a wheelchair, or with MS, or going through chemotherapy? I don’t think so. I certainly think there would be less jokes or pseudo-sympathetic photo-sharing lighting up the Twittersphere.
In other words, this isn’t just a problem with The Sun. It’s a problem with society. We do not understand that things like addictions or the life-threatening anxieties behind them are illnesses. And this public shaming isn’t just bad for Gazza. It’s bad for people who suffer with mental health problems generally. I don't think it's hyperbole to call this kind of microscopic interest in the troubles of a former sportsman dangerous, as it can directly make symptoms worse. Mental illnesses are, by definition, illnesses of thoughts, and articles which lower the esteem and ramp up the self-loathing of addicts or depressives do not help. They just feed the cycle.

It reinforces stigma, particularly among men, who are the most likely to stay quiet if they suffer from a mental health problem. This is a country, after all, where suicide is now the leading cause of death for men under 50. We know that suicide is largely preventable, as rates vary widely not just between genders but between eras and cultures. But if we are a culture ready to ridicule depressed alcoholics then the rise in both depression and alcoholism will continue, as it is the shame and silence and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness that so often leads people, again particularly men (who are over twice as likely to develop a dependency to alcohol), to self-medicate.

As someone who has spent the last two years campaigning for greater mental health awareness, I have heard first-hand from men and women about how hard it was to ‘come out’ about their problems. One thing that makes it easier for them to talk about mental health is if they see other people doing so. Sports stars are perfect examples of this. But we have a long way to go. One in four people suffer from some kind of mental health problem, but many sports stars and other public figures – apparently for good reason, given yesterday’s coverage – feel reluctant to talk about their mental health issues.

Of course, people have always ridiculed what they’ve feared. But we all need to work harder to create a culture where we aren’t ashamed to talk about our health, because the shame can lead to further harm. We fear the unknown, so the more we talk openly, free from ridicule, the more we know.
The moral here is that we all need to grow up. We certainly don’t want to help monetize stigma by sharing health-shaming pictures, and we also don’t want to contribute to an atmosphere where people feel they have to ‘man up’. You can’t snap out of any illness. But sometimes, slowly, with careful steps, we can walk towards recovery. We want to make sure we don’t place any stigmatizing obstacles, or lurid headlines, or other toxic mind pollution, in anyone’s way back to life.

Drinkline

Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline for people who are concerned about their drinking, or someone else's.
The purpose of the Drinkline service is to offer free, confidential, accurate and consistent information and advice to callers who are concerned about their own or someone else`s drinking regardless of the caller`s age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or spirituality.
Helpline: 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm)


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