Sunday, 12 May 2013

Don’t start blaming the neighbours Now things have quietened down a bit, what can we say about the questioning of neighbourliness around 2207 Seymour Ave in Cleveland Ohio? Don’t blame the neighbours; avoid knee-jerk conjuring of halcyon historic community; and take mental health more seriously. Exhibit A is the cliché of American ‘community’ life, half-heartedly examined by Rupert Cornwell in the Indy for instance: ‘Cleveland has somehow given the lie to all this. If communities are supposed to look after their own, this particular one failed.’ I think it must be a bewildering, deeply disturbing experience for the neighbours concerned and I don’t see that it helps to clobber them with a sense of having let the side down. As I wrote a year ago with reference to such contexts, the experience of local people may be complicated by a sense of guilt mixed with cruel deception: ‘Can we understand how it felt in retrospect to have been a neighbour of Josef Fritzl, and to have respected his privacy? I imagine people saying simply, We knew nothing, what should we have done? – and never really recovering. An anti-social or deranged individual determined to use privacy as a smokescreen will do so, unless as a society we were to dismantle the structures and culture of privacy… ‘How close could the best of good neighbourliness have got to an Anders Breivik or a Josef Fritzl? No closer than they’d let you, through a street rep scheme perhaps, and no closer. You cannot see what he brings home from the stores in boxes or the magazines going through the letterbox, or what he views online.’ So far I don’t see that the case of Ariel Castro is particularly different. And it doesn’t help to refer to more halcyon days or localities, mythical or not, unless we are also going to offer analyses which suggest how we can reduce the likelihood of deranged behaviour having brutal and lasting impact on the lives of others. With that in mind, there’s one social imperative which seems to be missed every time: the need to create a culture in which the disorder of the individual in question is self-recognised as treatable by an available, confidential, caring system. Castro is said to have prepared a ‘suicide’ note in which he speaks of a sex addiction and said he needed help. What realistically were his chances of getting it, of taking it? Maybe we need to put more effort into pre-emptive services for all kinds of mental ill-health; and to normalise or de-stigmatise the idea of consulting them. Implementing the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Mental Health and Policing would be a start: ‘mental health is core business’ it says. Today we tend to find the treatment of people with mental illness, in previous centuries, distasteful or even barbaric. Unless we learn how to learn from tragedies like Seymour Avenue, I think that future societies may reflect in the same way about our own primitive disinterest in mental health.

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