The Untold Story of Rosemary Kennedy

By Jack Ford.

The sad but true story of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of former US president John F Kennedy, highlights a lot in terms of the treatment and portrayal of women with mental health issues in the 1950’s

The third oldest of Joe Kennedy Sr.’s children, Rosemary Kennedy had difficulties from a young age. She was regularly excluded from her siblings’ games, as she found it hard to take part, and she also had big problems with reading, which saw her fail twice to graduate from kindergarten.

At 15, her parents had her removed from public school, largely out of shame, and sent her to a boarding school in Rhode Island, where she was kept separately from all the other students. One letter she wrote home read: “Darling Daddy, I hate to disappoint you in any way. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome every day.”

Despite her educational struggles, she was seen as an even-tempered and happy young girl, who had a number of hobbies and interests, enjoyed social outings and showed a great interest in social welfare and education. Rosemary was briefly educated in England, where the family had moved to after her father was appointed US ambassador. It was during this time she was said to have made great strides in her character and school work.

A young adult when the family moved back to America, those around her would see sudden, evident changes in Rosemary. She had become boisterous, combative and was prone to mood swings. In an attempt to remedy her new behaviour she was placed in a convent, but she would regularly sneak out.

The family did not know how to control her, and with her two oldest siblings – John and Joe Jr. – about to enter the world of politics, there was a fear that Rosemary’s behaviour would threaten their chances of winning office.

It was then that a doctor friend of Joe Sr. told him about a procedure that could fix neurological problems like his daughter’s – a lobotomy. Without hesitation, and not hesitating to inform anyone else in the family, Joe whisked 23-year-old Rosemary away to Wingdale Psychological and Correctional Facility in New York to have one performed. He ignored all the warnings about the risks associated with the procedure, and any possible wishes of his daughter, and Rosemary was lobotomised.

She went silent on the operating table, and when the doctors tried to get her to respond, not only was she unable to speak, she was unable to move. The operation had gone wrong. The Kennedys’ fought to keep Rosemary out of a mental institution all their lives, but following the botched procedure, there was no other option but to commit her. It took months of physical therapy to get her to move again, but she never regained the ability to walk or speak.

Rosemary spent the rest of her life in Jefferson, Wisconsin, at a specialist support school. The family largely played down her disappearance, and when they did eventually acknowledge her, they cited mental deficiencies as the reason for her absence from the public eye. Aside from her mother, on one occasion, she never received a visit from any family member, and in 2003, at the age of 85, Rosemary Kennedy passed away.

Rosemary Kennedy’s actual condition is open to speculation, but in a new age of understanding of mental conditions, it’s easy to see signs of a variety of illnesses that today are easy to treat and manage.

She was not alone in her persecution either, history has seen innumerable people with easily treatable and manageable conditions either being given the wrong care or institutionalised. Women have fared particularly badly; with their own feelings not regarded. Often, any change in personality was jumped on and scrutinised, and until recently, emotional changes associated with the monthly cyclecould have been classified as ‘hysteria.’

Accounts from history like this go to show us is how far we’ve come in how we view and treat mental illnesses.  Rosemary’s sad story unfolded at a time when there was little known about the causes for mental instabilities and stigma surrounded them, not helped by the Kennedys trying to protect their now famous name.

About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

Gender and the Psych Ward

By Lindsay Riddoch

The psychiatric acute ward is a place that most of us don’t spend much time thinking about, and definitely attempt avoiding ever having to face. As a microcosm simultaneously of society, and of what we deem unacceptable within it, it provides a unique and powerful insight into what we’re getting wrong. We know that more women appear to suffer from mental health problems than men, and that the system incarcerates a disproportionately high number of black men. Both of these topics have lately been often discussed both in the health system and across broadsheet journalism. While we have these discussions in theoretical and philosophical terms, however, real people’s lives are playing out behind the locked doors of psychiatric wards up and down the country.

Much as the psychiatric ward attempts to place ‘madness’ firmly outside the realms of society, there’s something you realise very early on if you ever come to inhabit this micro-world. No individuals ‘madness’ is individual. It did not grow outside of a society, but instead found its very roots in it. The reality of this is constantly played out before your eyes on wards. People express their anger with rampant racism — more uses of the ‘N’ word than you could imagine. People are paranoid that the government is spying on them — using the very real situation of the snoopers charter as evidence. Women are terrified that the doctors are going to rape them. You can track the biggest fears associated with OCD through homosexuality to paedophilia — whatever is given the spotlight as the worst thing someone could be, is what people start to fear. People’s pain takes the form of the society in which it was created. And it was created. Human beings are not born in this level of pain, some sort of interaction between an individuals psyche and the world which they are inhabiting explodes into a cacophony of psychosis, mania and depression.

If madness expresses itself in line with society — or against it — then surely those who are most frequently held in its grips will be those that society pushes to the brink. As a white girl, I will not try to take this argument any further with regards to black men, as it is not my area. However when it comes to women there is a very disconcerting trend. You find a certain kind of women in psychiatric hospitals. Women who have been abused, usually by a vast array of people, and who therefore desperately try and hold onto control in whatever way they can. They are labelled crazy, manipulative, attention seeking. Yet these women are, potentially, reacting in the most sane way possible to the insane circumstances they find themselves in. Yet, they wind up locked in a psychiatric ward while the men that did this to them walk around freely. These women are told they are maladaptive, unsafe, out of control, and once again have their very basic freedoms taken away from them.

There are so many of these lost women who have never found their voice because their reaction to the power that is taken away on a daily basis landed them in locked psychiatric wards. They scream every day for someone to hear their voice, and we as a society either berate or pity them. We either tell them they’re badly behaved, or that they are ill. We don’t stop long enough to hear their stories. We give them therapy to change the way they approach the world but don’t give them the housing or jobs that they need to change the world.

This is all part of placing the root of their emotions squarely inside them — and outside of society. We blame women for their emotional reactions — labelling them over-emotional — when in actual fact our emotions are the expression of the often powerless situations we find ourselves in. This fact is intensified in the volcanic atmosphere of the psychiatric ward. It is terrifying to see so many victims of (much as I hate to use this phrase) the patriarchy be re-assaulted by the controlling power of (predominantly) white male psychiatrists. Constantly screaming to gain one ounce of power back, they have their basic freedoms taken away all over again.

I am not a believer in the fact that the whole psychiatric system is an assault on human rights. It is my opinion that the Mental Health Act and its ability to treat people against their will, is a bastion of our belief in humanity. We will not let people drive themselves to their own death, no matter how much we may dislike their way of being. In accepting this, however, we must also accept the power that our ability to ‘diagnose’ emotion creates. To see ‘mental illness’ and our ability to label emotional suffering within the medical model as part of our forward thinking intersectional liberalism is dangerous. The labelling of emotional reactions is not as simple as validating someone’s suffering. It becomes a way to demean, control and restrain usually the most vulnerable. It is not, therefore, something we should take lightly.

Over the last few months, the micro-world of the psych ward has become my world, and on my journey I have met so many inspiring women. People who have been knocked down time and time again, and yet continue to fight to survive. Their fight for survival looks strange from the outside — it looks like cuts on arms or rageful fits at three in the morning. It looks like shrieks of terror at the mere sight of a doctor or threats to kill oneself yelled at the top of voices. It is, nonetheless, an inspiring fight. Mental illness cannot be a panacea for all of the worlds problems. We must understand that these women are survivors of whatever has happened to them. We must continue to treat them, but we must do so while acknowledging the injustice that has been done to them. If we are so intent on medicalising emotion and behaviour then we should seek to treat the perpetrators before they can create any victims — rather than treating the survivors when it’s already too late.

Mental Health and Gender: How Writing About Feminism has Helped my Depression

By Anonymous

I have never publicly or openly written about my depression. If I’m being truthful, I’ve never really felt comfortable enough to do so. I find it difficult to be honest about the way that I’m feeling, even with my closest friends. For the last ten years of my life I have been weighed down by it, but I have not said the words “I suffer from depression” more than a handful of times.

I wear a smile on my face like a mask and use it to pretend – to convince myself – that everything is absolutely fine. I laugh at the appropriate moments, I attend all of the social events, and I act as if everything is okay. I have spent a lot of my time and energy encouraging others to be truthful about the way that they feel, to relinquish themselves of that stigma. But when it comes to facing my own truth, I put plasters on my wounds and try to get on with my life.

And, whilst I have never had anything published on my depression, I have published a fair few articles on other subjects – most frequently on gender inequality and feminism. For a long time, I never made the connection between the two. They were very separate parts of my life, with the common factor that I had grown up battling both, and my feelings had only become stronger with time. However, it recently occurred to me that they are, for want of a better word, symbiotic. For me, they are interdependent and writing about feminism has, in all honesty, helped me to deal with my depression.

In the most basic sense, writing has been more therapeutic than therapy itself. There is an authenticity that I feel I can project on paper that talking isn’t able to give me. My emotions don’t hold me back; my fear of being judged doesn’t take over. I have the freedom to express myself more honestly and I have found that writing about something I care about, something that I have emotions towards, is a liberating outlet. Conveying my words, my beliefs, has made me feel more open generally. The feminist narrative that I write about is the product of that passion: it is the protective layer that I use to detach what I am saying from myself. It is personal but not too much so. It is important but is not exclusive to my experience.

It would not be untrue to say that there is an element of animosity that is associated with both depression and gender inequality as well – there is denial over their existence and over the extent of that existence. Depression, and mental health more widely, are still heavily stigmatised. There is a lack of understanding, which means that the extent of the potency of depression is often undermined. “Everyone feels sad”, “but you’re always so happy” and “it’s all in your head” are but a few phrases that have been said to me, and others. With regards to gender inequality, there is the similarity that issues are often assumed to be over, or exaggerated. I have been told that things are “not so bad”, “we don’t still need feminism” and “we have come a long way”, as if this is a reason to stop fighting for it. Writing about the latter has been an outlet to convey my feelings on the former: I am able to communicate my dissonance over the way that both are challenged together.

I have also found that what I have learnt through feminist discourse has helped me understand my own mental health a lot better. In relation to inequality, if you have been lucky enough not to feel the effects of something, we call it privilege. I would apply the same truth to mental health. It can be difficult to know what it feels like if you are not affected by it, but to deny its existence is dangerous and careless. When I am faced with this ignorance, or lack of empathy, I take comfort in knowing that this is a wider phenomenon. I use the academic idea of standpoint as a framework to situate mine and others’ feelings. I still get angry, but that anger has a utility, which I try to redirect. I do not feel isolated by it, I empower myself with it, using it in an argument through words on a piece of paper.

In a similar vein, feminism allows me to deflect feelings from myself to the wider sphere. Feminism, or at least the feminism I subscribe to, calls for breaking down gender binaries, allowing us to be more free and true to ourselves. I spend so much of my time angry and upset with who I am and what I do, which is made significantly worse by my depression. Feminism gives me the opportunity to relieve myself from blame – blame which I know I should not be holding on to anyway. I don’t hate myself as much, I forgive myself, I even let myself believe that I am doing something good by standing up for a cause. That feeling is irreplaceable.

***

Experiences differ drastically but, for me, living with depression feels like living with a broken window. That which is meant to make me feel protected is instead shattered, leaving me vulnerable and cold. What is meant to allow me to see clearly and from a place of comfort leaves me with a freedom to see everything with heightened senses – everything is clearer and with greater precision. It adds rawness to my life but steals away my sense of security, so that I am left with shards to cut me and an opening straight to my weaknesses. If I sound like I am glorifying depression, that is by no means my intention. I will spare you the details but depression is a big part of who I am and my relationship with it has been volatile.

Like most women and like most people who suffer from depression, I have been told to smile on more than one occasion. For me, being told to smile is a prime example of how both gender and mental health are performative. There are expectations about how you should present yourself. There are assumptions about how you should feel. I don’t want to be defined by my gender. I don’t want to be defined by my depression. I don’t want to be defined by a single part of my identity. I want to be defined by who I am as an individual – not the individual characteristics that I comprise of. I want and I don’t want so many things. But in the meantime I will settle for this: writing about feminism provides me with a purpose. It has been a lifeline and a reason to keep hoping that things can get better. As someone who has lost most of my hope, this is invaluable.

Mental Health and Gender: How Much Do Suicide Statistics Really Tell Us?

By Lindsay Riddoch

Trigger Warning: Suicide

In 2013, 6,223 people died by suicide in the UK. That’s more than 6000 individual tragedies, and many more friends and families whose lives will never be the same again. In reality there were almost certainly many more people who died by suicide than that – but coroners tend to avoid ruling suicide if they possibly can. Every single one of those deaths is, I believe, partially the responsibility of the whole community. It takes a village to raise a child, and for every child who fails to be given a life worth living, every member of that village bears some blame. Suicide is mostly at home in silence – in the hidden corners and closed wardrobes of the family home. It is right, therefore, that so many organisations fight to bring these statistics to our attention; that they attempt to shock us into talking about it, dealing with it.

I have for a long time bitten my tongue when it comes to the means with which many organisations use statistics about suicide. I thought – well yes, they’re not getting it completely right, but at least they’re raising awareness. However, as the issue of male suicide in particular moves to the forefront of people’s consciousness – as it becomes a key argument as to the problems faced by males based on gender roles – I think it’s time to bring these arguments to the fore. More men die by suicide than women. That is – with the caveats as to coroners’ rulings – a fact. However to attempt to measure the collective misery of a group, or to understand the public health risk factors for suicide merely by ‘completed’ attempts is a statistical fallacy – and a dangerous one.

Suicide statistics are well renowned as complex. They are recorded differently across the constituent nation states of the UK and based almost entirely on coroner rulings. Coroners will, as said, tend to rule a narrative verdict unless they can be certain of the intent. Therefore the deaths recorded as suicide will tend to underestimate the number of deaths based on methods that could be seen as ‘self harm’ – such as poisoning or violence to self. More than this, even if we were able to collect a solid data set on completed suicide this would be much less important, in my opinion, than a set on ‘attempted suicide’. Whether or not an attempt on one’s life is completed, and leads to death, tells us nothing. If we are attempting to measure distress, or work out ways to prevent suicide, then our focus should be on all those who attempt to take their own lives.

I know at this point that some would argue that ‘completion’ is a sign of intent. In other words that those who attempt to take their lives, and do not complete it, were ‘not as serious’. In my opinion this is not only factually impossible to prove, but very dangerous. No one outside the mind of the person who makes an attempt on their life can, or should try to, class how ‘serious’ that attempt was. It is true that people can use methods that could be used to take life for self harm – poisoning (overdose) being the most obvious example. However individuals, and professionals, know the difference between those two things. Taking one’s life requires a fair amount of knowledge, timing and chance. To imply that someone’s attempt wasn’t ‘serious’ as it wasn’t ‘completed’ demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of how the suicidal mind works – as well as the huge element of chance in completed versus non-completed suicides.

Whether or not you actively believe that suicides that are completed are ‘more serious attempts’, every time you quote statistics on how many more men die by suicide than women you are re-enforcing that idea. As far as we can tell women attempt suicide more than men do. The reasons they complete less often are widely debated but often stated in terms of method. Women will often choose a ‘less violent’ method, such as overdose. While overdosing is lethal there is a time lapse. This makes it more likely – the chance element – that someone may find them and take them to hospital in time. Perhaps this could also mean that more female deaths are not ruled as suicide, as they choose methods that could also be used as a means of self harm. There may also be an alcohol element – more men who die by suicide have drunk alcohol in the hours before, and alcohol problems are also more common in men who die by suicide. Alcohol would subdue the natural inclination to struggle or fight off the attempt – perhaps therefore explaining the difference in completion rates.

Basically though, we don’t really know why there is such a difference in completion rates. While it does show that there is a ‘gender element’ to suicide – in so far as the differences in methods and such seems to often divide along gender lines – it does not show that suicide is ‘more of an issue’ for either of the sexes. Suicide is a tragedy. Every single one of those 6,223 deaths is a tragedy. It is a highly personal, and complex, issue. Gender norms do create a multitude of issues for men, and difficulty discussing emotions is one of them. However the suicide statistics are not the right way to make that case. First and foremost because we shouldn’t be looking at ‘avoiding suicide’ as the end goal. The level of suffering shouldn’t be that intense before we want to change it. Suicide always represents a tiny part of the story, and when we focus on it we set the aim as ‘staying alive’ instead of ‘living a life’.

Furthermore, every time we quote the numbers on completed suicide we are, if accidentally, furthering a narrative of hysterical women who don’t really mean it. When we repeatedly quote only the statistics on the number of completed suicide we are silencing the great numbers of people who attempt it – and who then have to carry on living. We are feeding into the narrative that they ‘did not really mean it’ because if they had, they would have completed it. The reasons that more men complete suicide are complex, but they are not because more men wish to die than women. We need to keep talking about suicide. We need to make sure that everyone has resources available that work for them – including male specific initiatives like CALM – but we need to stop making suicide a gender issue. It’s a human issue.

Mental Health and Gender: Have We Been Failing Men?

By Lucy Campbell and Megan Carter

Originally delivered as the winning speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Kent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

Trigger Warning: Suicide

Around 75% of all successfully committed suicides in the UK are male. This is not a new statistic – for thirty years men have been up to three times more likely to kill themselves. It has become our country’s leading cause of death for men under 50, with 13 male suicides every day. It’s a problem many feel strongly about, but there is a strange reluctance to address this as the feminist issue it is.

How we discuss gender has become strangely polarised – our treatment of men and our treatment of women is always considered separately, as if these behaviours existed in isolation. Over the last century, feminism has encouraged women to challenge traditional gender roles and improve their quality of life; but men have been largely uninvolved in these discussions. Despite campaigns like the UN’s ‘He for She’ trying to widen the debate, men’s lives are still governed tightly by gender norms. As feminism pushes for intersectionality – recognising the needs and rights of BME, LGBT and less affluent women – where men fall in this discussion is still uncertain.

It is important to note that patriarchy is not a dichotomy of men against women. For some men to have authority, there is a clear model of what a ‘good man’ is, and men who fail to live up to this standard are also punished and held in check. These are ‘unconventional’ men – homosexuals, househusbands, the androgynous, disabled, etc. The masculinity of these unconventional men has always been put on trial. This can have profound implications on their mental health, as their gender means they are expected to remain emotionally resilient, physically strong, and capable providers.

Let’s begin with emotional resilience. From our foundation years, we use gendered language to discuss mental wellbeing. We tell boys that ‘big boys don’t cry’ and to ‘man up’. We tell them which behaviours are ‘girly’ and that to show emotions is to be feminine. The British obsession with the stiff upper lip can have lifelong consequences for how men express themselves and use support networks. Half as many men share their concerns with family as women and two thirds as many share with friends. Retired men are at greater risk, as the loss of work relationships can leave them socially isolated. Even medical support is overlooked, as men visit the doctor 20% less than women. Consequently, men often turn to destructive alternatives, being three times more likely to become drug or alcohol dependent. Furthermore men are twice as likely to react angrily to distress. 50% of suicidal men have been in trouble with the police, leading mental health workers to question if we mistake male mental illness for anger. It could be that diagnosis and treatment is tailored better towards women. Men’s Health Forum, National Mental Health Development Unit and Movember Foundation have all concluded men respond positively to ‘shoulder to shoulder’ rather than ‘face to face’ therapies, as they feature peer support and ownership of a problem. Maybe this is why (despite representing most of the UK’s suicides) men make up only 38% of NHS ‘talking therapy’ referrals.

Clearly a perceived tenant of masculinity is concealing weakness – and this plays out emotionally and physically. Whilst many have not followed through in practice, we have become increasingly conscious of the language we use to describe women. However there is not the same self-awareness for men (and indeed some deliberately seek to objectify men’s bodies in order to even the odds). Aidan’s Turner performance in Poldark was infamous – for being topless and muscular. Men’s bodies are scrutinised, with clear notions of what is attractive and manly. Words like ‘dadbod’ mock the average man’s figure, and Dove has never launched an ‘every man is beautiful’ campaign. Is it surprising some men still equate muscles with manliness, regardless of the costs? Once a problem within professional athletes, UK steroid abuse now excels heroin users. NICE believes that 59,000 people took steroids last year; most users were male, with a young average age. There is a growing phenomenon of men, obsessively pushing their bodies to create the perfect gym selfie and have their appearance validated by others. But men also experience other forms of body dysmorphia. In 2014 the Royal College of Practitioners indicated a 66% increase in men treated for eating disorders in the last decade. But society regards these disorders, with their anxieties, concerns about appearance and need for control, as inherently feminine, locking men out of discussions and treatments. It is telling that society is willing to diminish the significance of this mental illness due to the strong associations with young girls – and risk harming everyone in the process.

Evidently many expect men to act emotionally and physically strong – and this is exacerbated by the persisting belief that they must be ‘providers’. Men are still judged by their capacity to support their families and more often than women their employment forms an irrevocable part of their identity and self-worth. Research reveals one in seven men may develop depression within 6 months of being made redundant and unemployment may treble a man’s suicide risk. Following the 2008 economic downturn, thousands of men were left without work or unable to support themselves – they had failed at being ‘good men’. But being a provider is not just financial – particularly for fathers. Just as women are pressured to balance career with family, men are expected to be increasingly involved with their children whilst working. Transitioning to fatherhood is filled with additional financial pressures, emotional moments, changed relationships with partners and less sleep and the Medical Research Council has observed the rise of Parental Postpartum Depression (PPPD); 3% of fathers had been depressed in the first year of their child’s life, 10% by the fourth year, 16% by the eighth and 21% by 12th. Yet little is done to address PPPD, despite the obvious benefits of cross-gender support for new parents fighting depression. And if we need anymore evidence about the importance of this provider role –the highest suicide rate is for divorced men, who have faced changes to their support systems, finances, and access to their children.

No doubt some will take this argument to mean that ‘women have gone too far’; others will say we’re ignoring the persisting issues women face within society. But equality is not a competition and compassion is not finite. It is possible to acknowledge that both genders are stigmatised and we can combat them together. This is a feminist issue – men ‘must’ be resilient, strong and providers, because women ‘must’ be emotional, weak and cared for. For many men who cannot fulfil how they ‘must be’, poor mental health is a consequence of these rigid gender expectations. There are a number of steps which can be taken to reduce the rate of male suicide; awareness of the prevalence, collaborating with local health boards to recognise the needs of vulnerable men, supporting charities with recovery programmes. But what is resoundingly evident is that men will continue to take their lives at a staggering rate, unless society recognises that men can be more than stoic, muscle bound heads of house – there is no right way to be a man.