From centre stage to the gutter: the ugly politics of mental illness and aviation noise

Guest Blog: Chris Keady

4th August 2020

Coming out

Five years ago I ‘came out’ publicly to try and help others understand what serious mental illness can do to people and those who care about them, and why aviation noise potentially posed the greatest unresolved risk to their sustained health and wellbeing. This needed to be addressed, and a range of genuinely innovative, accessible, solutions was suggested.

The narrative was grabbing attention and winning plaudits across the UK, Europe and the USA, and     I was fortunate to share platforms with MPs, and leading stakeholders and researchers for example, at the Greater London Assembly and the House of Commons. I also spoke on BBC radio, blogged, and campaigned extensively, and ran the first Mental Health and Aviation Noise week. This was all done to promote greater clarity around the genuine health issues that excessive, concentrated noise presented, and the need to address these when designing future flightpath solutions. The approach was informed, inclusive, and solution seeking. It sought to work ‘with the grain’, and to benefit all affected people or communities, wherever they might be.

The bowels of hell

I shared that I had ‘lived’ with mental illness most of my life. Episodes of depression had progressively become worse and my prognosis consequently wasn’t good, especially as on the last occasion I came very close to death. Clinically I had developed psychotic depression, along with delusions, and constant restlessness and pacing (psycho motor agitation). I was in the ‘bowels of hell’, and was truly mad, with the most severe form of depression diagnosable. Years later I learned of the terrible toll this took on my family, innocent bystanders, who were powerless to make it better. Their scars and tears are still fresh.

Barricading myself in rooms for ‘safety’ having been threatened and assaulted on secure wards,  absconding from nurses who I thought wanted to kill me, self-harming with blades and ligatures, it was thought I would never recover. I was a shuffling wreck of the person I once was, failing to respond to a series of treatments. But when the system had virtually given up on me and wanted to move me into a ‘home’ (essentially to permanently ‘warehouse’ me), very slowly, with the love and support of those who truly cared about me, I began to edge back to the real world over several years. Although tiny, faltering steps, they were also monumental milestones, as laces replaced velcro shoe fasteners, trouser belts replaced none, and I was left alone around knives, ligature material and hardware that before I would have tried to misuse. Short, unaccompanied walks down the road and back, and later to the local park and shops – marathons at the time – were progress landmarks. Eventually travelling on buses and the underground, and being left ‘home alone’, before returning to work, against all the odds and advice. This is why I have vowed to never ever going back and to helping others (1).I meant it.

The fight of our lives

So, my fight, and that of others in a similar situation, is to maintain our sanity, and right to live in relatively quiet enjoyment, without – as in my case – being irretrievably tipped into the abyss.  I have already been destabilised, to an extent, by the possibility of excessive, ‘new noise’ being unfairly dispersed: despite all the warnings, the issues have not, as yet, been properly addressed. Instead mental health, and in particular the affected invisible disability minority have been ignored and isolated. I don’t have to ‘call’ this for what it is, as for most people `it surely speaks for itself.                                             I believe this is unconscionable, and it is why, when political leaders say they will ‘train’ racism away, or conduct research -yet again- instead of acting on what is already known, I truly despair! Either we’re for equality, or we’re not. Either we never discriminate against vulnerable minority groups, or we do. Either we actively promote fairness in all our undertakings, or we don’t. We can’t opt in and out as it suits our mood – Hokey Cokey like – as this is a recipe for moral bankruptcy. We need to be ‘signposts’, not ‘weathervanes’, if we are committed to ‘levelling up’ society, and making a real, sustainable difference. We don’t need any more fake equality or lily-livered commitment to it.

Personally, and on behalf of the invisible disabled, I must also flag up some more concerns. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who are responsible for developing airspace/flightpath change policy and agreeing the ‘big picture’, won plaudits in 2016 when facilitating best practice guidance for aviation passengers with invisible disabilities. Yet disturbingly, there apparently wasn’t any mention of mental health in their recent national consultation on airspace change policy, or any meaningful independent research into the impact of concentrated aviation noise on mental health, or relevant  existing mental health conditions. Yet it is the involuntary customers – those who will have to ‘suck up’ the noise – while others benefit – who will potentially pay the biggest price of all. Frankly, it is quite wrong to appropriate the rights of others to quiet enjoyment of their homes. It is even uglier when this includes the rights of those comprising an invisible disability, minority group, as this is likely to significantly exacerbate the detrimental impact on their wellbeing. (2)

Telling it how it is: the stark reality of mental illness

I have therefore felt forced to ‘tell it how it is’ from an involuntary consumer’s perspective, so  others, including critical industry stakeholders, campaign and community groups, and local and national politicians – may understand the stark reality of mental illness, the struggle to stay well, and the risk of new/concentrated noise potentially leading to an irreversible, or terminal decline, for some overflown. My motivation has always been to stay well, to help others in the process, and to tell the truth, but to never frustrate or to deny the rights of others to a better life – ironically, the rights that are now apparently being denied to a minority group.

It has not been easy to ‘go public’, but so many good people have acknowledged that by discussing the previously ‘undiscussable’, they have been given a voice, and a sense that they are not alone. In fairness, notable authority Dirk Schrekenberg (3) acknowledged that my narratives (blogs) provided a missing link between the empirical research such as his, and the day-to-day struggle to maintain mental health in overflown communities. Also, leading aviation noise campaigner, and commentator, John Stewart (4), has acknowledged the critical risks identified with potential new flightpath configurations, such as ‘hot spots’, and where a break from noise (respite) was unlikely to be adequate for some individuals. In such cases several different local solutions could be found for individuals with significant mental health conditions (illness), and again innovative solutions were suggested. These still remain accessible. More generally, people who needed to access noise mitigation solutions should also be able to – it should not be a ‘post code lottery’.

Ugly politics, horse trading and discrimination

Politics, and especially the ‘politics of noise’ can be extremely ugly. People and even neighbours can be with you one day and against you the next, so long as it pushes noise elsewhere- anywhere except above their heads. Let’s be clear, people don’t want noise. Noise is selfish and can make people meanspirited. And consultation doesn’t sort everything out. It is an imperfect process that usually shifts noise, or more noise, to a weaker community. In this way lives are ‘horse traded’ or bartered away. Although often presented in a more sanitised way, this is the reality. Often people don’t fully understand what has been ‘donated’ to them until it is too late.

New Year’s eve 2020 saw John Stewart publish my blog setting out a series of practical measures that needed to be taken to protect people whose mental health was (most) likely to be affected by new concentrated flightpaths. This was even where breaks from noise, respite, were provided. (5)

Like all blogs in the series since 2015, it was very well received, with one exception – unusually, some of my core followers failed to engage (aviation community and others). I later found out, from trusted sources, that I had been briefed against and consequently marginalised. I found this hard to believe until, out of the blue, I received communications, from a significant national influencer, who was systematically picking apart every recommendation I had made to protect the ‘noise vulnerable’ while  offering nothing in responsedenying even ‘reasonable adjustments’.  They appeared determined to shut me down, and with it, the essential debate I had tried to foster. I doubt if they ever stopped to think whether undermining and isolating me would affect my mental health, or trigger a (final) relapse, instead they were more concerned that debate and support for a  genuine minority group might damage the case for concentrated flight paths or delay their deployment.   

Most recently my blog ‘only ‘fair flightpaths’ will do, when every life matters’, June 2020 (6), received the same ‘isolation treatment’ from my previously avidly loyal aviation community followers (and others) who now resolutely failed to engage on matters they had previously enthused about. Only John Stewart retweeted it, apart from a very healthy cluster of non-aviation followers, recognising the important but neglected, public health/public interest issues at stake. There was a continuing reluctance to acknowledge that the proposed approach to ‘once in a lifetime flightpath change’ needed to address several outstanding issues, including ‘reasonable adjustments’, to ensure that the mental health of all the overflown was protected, and especially those who may have serious (noise sensitive) mental health conditions. It also flagged up other significant issues that needed to be addressed before finally defining the airspace masterplan and operational arrangements – matters which appear still not to be addressed. Please read and share this blog if you haven’t already. It’s a real eye opener.

Sent to Coventry

Being ‘sent to Coventryfor telling the truth, and pleading for help, I find almost impossible to comprehend. In truth it I have found it damaging and it has triggered a marked decline in my mental health.  I’m reminded here that when I worked with vulnerable adults such behaviour was generally regarded as psychological abuse. It’s what happens when good people do nothing.

I am arranging for my blogs to be curated (7) – initially John Stewart has kindly agreed to this – so that they may be accessible for others to understand the struggle for help and support and the nastiness of noise. Lessons need to be learned and acted upon as the mental health of the overflown, and especially those with significant noise affected mental health conditions, are presently simply ignored – airbrushed out of existence – as though they did not exist – like the overflown invisible disabled do not exist. Really? Really, this is not a ‘good look’, nor a good feeling.

Appropriate measures must therefore be agreed and put in place to protect this invisible minority before any airspace changes are agreed or implemented. 

Thank you to all the wonderful people who have so unselfishly helped me to ‘punch above my weight’ and ‘tell it as it really is’, even if the message – the ‘truth’ – has latterly been more heavily supressed. You have been an inspiration.

I know if Mahatma Ghandi was still around, over all he would not be impressed and would probably remind us that ‘’the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable member”. I’ll leave others to make up their own minds about this, but please don’t take long as lives literally hang in the balance.

 Footnote

1 https://chocksawayblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/no-going-back/

2Guidance for airlines on assisting people with hidden disabilities. CAA. 2016

But no follow through with those most impacted – the overflown!

3 Dirk Schrekenberg. Center for Applied Psychology, Environmental and Social Research, Sennbrink 46, D-58093 Hagen. Dirk is a pre-eminent authority on environmental noise and aviation.

4 John Stewart is Chair of Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (UK)), committed to reducing noise for the overflown and reduction of night flights.

5 https://chocksawayblog.wordpress.com/2019/12/29/protecting-the-noise-vulnerable-measures-to-mitigate-low-level-concentrated-aircraft-noise/  Blog sets out the practical measures that needs to be taken to protect people whose mental health will (most) likely be affected by new concentrated flightpaths. This was even where breaks from noise, respite, are provided

6 https://chocksawayblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-fair-flightpaths-will-do-when-every-life-matters/‘only ‘fair flightpaths’ will do, when every life matters’.June 2020

7 The blogs are a unique record of the struggle for the   impact of aviation noise on mental health, and especially pre-existing noise vulnerable, to be recognised and addressed. They highlight the struggle to remain well in this hostile environment and the risk of irreversibly tipping into the abyss, if agencies fail to act fairly/responsibly.

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