'I would NEVER hurt the Blue Peter Garden.'

In 1983 I was ten years’ old and Sophie Ellis-Bextor was four.

In those days there was no distinction between mental illness, mental health and mental health problems.  It was all the same, and it was all grubby and scary and bad - universally and entirely stigmatised and shameful. 

I cannot think of one single positive or sympathetic portrayal, real or fictional, of someone with mental health problems from that time, just mad axe murderers and psycho killers.  Maybe Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that he wasn’t trying to randomly kill people, but the message of Marvin was DON’T get stuck talking to him.  

Most families had an uncle or aunt who had had mental health support (or ‘had a nervous breakdown’ in the whispered language of the time) but it was all hidden because people might say there was ‘mental illness in the family’, it could taint everyone.

There was certainly no Professor Green, Stephen Fry, Zoella, Ed Sheeran, Sophie Ellis-Bextor or the lovely gardener Monty Don, all of whom have spoken with clarity and power about their own experiences of good and bad mental health and how these have sometimes been hard, but also made them the shiny happy people they are.

1983 was also the year the Blue Peter Garden was vandalised.  In a famous bit of television, the presenter Janet Ellis (Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s mum) announced this very solemnly to the children of the UK.  They made a bit of a meal of it and it’s become a popular YouTube clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJXFwpM2txk

I watched this recently from a Twitter rabbit hole and was absolutely stunned by a moment at the end which shows just what it was like back then when the opinions of my generation were being formed.  Celebrity gardener Percy Thrower, the Monty Don of his day, says to Janet:

“People who do this sort of thing must be mentally ill Janet, mustn’t they?”
Janet: “I think so”
Percy: “Terrible when you come to look at it”

This hit me much more than the out-there stuff of Hitchcock’s Psycho.  In an everyday, without-question offhand conversation on the most proper of proper children’s television programmes, good old decent Percy says to everyone’s lovely big sister Janet that calling people who trample flower beds a vandal or criminal isn’t bad enough – let’s make them properly ashamed by saying they have mental illness.

You wouldn’t get that nowadays, Prince William would have none of it.  My son is the same age now as I was in 1983, my daughter is a little older than Sophie was.   They won’t hear things like that and they won’t think that.

I’ve had and have mental health problems – at one time quite badly.  People were worried about what I might do to myself, but not so much about whether I might dress up as my mum and stab someone in the shower, or break into a garden and smash a lovely urn given by someone from Barnet.

That’s because things have changed.  But they haven’t changed themselves.  People with mental health problems and their allies have changed things.  I remember being a trustee of Mind when we agreed to launch an anti-stigma campaign with partners, learning from something similar in New Zealand.  Later on we called it Time to Change.  I’m rather sad to see that funding for Time to Change has run out and it will close this year.  It gets a lot of credit, and deserves that, although really what we did at Mind was just to skilfully sail the winds of what millions of people decided to do for themselves – to stop being ashamed and start talking about their mental health.

At Demelza we have this at our core.  No-one can manage the sort of pressures that families who use our services manage without being able to talk about it.  That’s often within a framework, such as bereavement support or creative therapies – but it’s still talking.  Or actually sometimes it isn’t talking, because many of the children have no or limited verbal communication.  They still need to communicate though – through art or music, play, movement, whatever it may be, it’s the same thing.  And because it’s at our core we talk to each other too, as staff and volunteers.  One of the questions I’m most often asked is how I cope with the emotional demands of this job.  The answer is in this blog.

So thank you to everyone who talks, and listens, in celebrity-world, in the real world, in my emails, zoom calls and everywhere else.  Happy Time to Talk Day.'


If you need support with your mental health, you can visit www.mind.org.uk

If you are a Demelza Family and need support please contact FamilySupportDepartment@demelza.org.uk