An open letter to Katie Hopkins

Amber Cowburn 18 May 2014

Dear Katie,

I think we should talk about mental health.

I was directed to your interview in the Tab by a friend who warned me that it would ‘hit a nerve’. I was intrigued; your highly publicised views on children’s names and people who have ginger hair have only ever indirectly struck me as faintly ridiculous. However, when the nonsense becomes vitriol, and is injected into the subject of mental health, my friend was right to know that I would be enraged.

As President of Student Minds Cambridge, and one of the founding trustees of teenage mental health charity ‘The Invictus Trust’, I deplore your views, and felt it necessary to set you right on a few things; not just on the behalf of everybody who has suffered from mental health issues in Cambridge, but also on behalf of all those who are working to raise awareness and change attitudes towards mental health across the country.

Firstly, the lowlight of your comments for me was that depression is a “default position” for “people who have not been able to get a grip on their lives”. This statement is not only cruelly-worded, but also a wildly misinformed generalisation. Suggesting that depression is a “default position” implies that most people suffering with mental health issues use it as an excuse or justification to moan, when in fact the majority of mental health sufferers don’t admit to their issues, let alone seek help. Here in Cambridge, whilst 92% of students have experienced mental distress, only 17% have sought any kind of help. That shows neither strength nor weakness; mental health issues are mired with shame, suffocated in stigma, and are often struggled with in private, and it is careless comments like these that damage any effort for change.

Let’s revisit that statistic of 92% of Cambridge students having experienced mental distress; “those who can’t get a grip” suddenly refers to more than 9 out of 10 of the students at the ‘most elite university in the country’. You make people suffering from mental health issues sound lazy, weak, or incompetent, and I assure you that they are none of these things, nor are they are a minority. Only 8% of students have accessed the University Counselling Service, but I can assure you that those 1500 students are all dynamic, intelligent and successful people, who disprove your heinous generalisation. There is no shame in needing help to find headspace, coping strategies, or time to talk.

We all have the power to end our own lives, and, sadly, there are far too many who act on that power, so your patronising assumption that mental health is used as a ‘default position’, is somewhat dwarfed by the devastating suicide rates in this country. At Cambridge alone, welfare teams anticipate 50-60 suicide attempts a year, not including those of which they are not made aware.

Comparing a Mental Health Charity with a Donkey Sanctuary, whilst being both bizarre and cruel, hits on the key issue of the mental health image problem. It is highly stigmatised, widely misunderstood, and is neither cute nor sexy, but do you know what really doesn’t help? Pointless z-list celebrities, who use their temporary platform in the media to sling more mud at the cause by making shallow and ill-educated remarks about mental health. The progress made by impressive personalities such as Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Frankie Sandford, has been invaluable, and more of this needs to be done.

Personally, the idea of it being “great to break taboos” alongside the remark that you “always challenge people as to where they were taking the debate” is troubling. Surely, in order to break the taboo, we simply need to have more debates. We don’t need to know where they are going, we just need to listen. Talking increases awareness, helps those suffering find empathy and advice, and hopefully in the long term, saves lives. It is a shame that when you did decide to lend your somewhat arbitrary platform in the public eye to a subject that needs balance, media attention and considered discussion, you instead lambast it with careless vitriol. It is opinions like these that are drowning out the cries of those suffering from mental health issues, which, by the way, is one quarter of our population.

You were given the opportunity to come and speak at Cambridge to Cambridge students, and I am deeply saddened that you used this opportunity to spout an ill-informed opinion about a fragile subject that deeply and personally impacts the lives of a large majority of our student body.

Yours,

Amber Cowburn

President of Mental Wealth (Student Minds) Cambridge University
Founding Trustee, The Invictus Trust www.invictustrust.co.uk

(All statistics are from either the UCS or from Helen Hoogewerf-Mccomb, who spoke at the Student Minds Conference 2014 – from the minutes of her speech)