Profile: Paul Farmer, Rethink

Rethink PA director is keen to keep mental health on the media agenda

Amid the chorus of disapproval over The Sun's coverage last week of former boxer Frank Bruno's mental health problems, some of the most intelligent debate came from Rethink public affairs director Paul Farmer.

As lead campaigner and lobbyist at the mental health charity, as well as chairman of umbrella body the Mental Health Alliance (MHA), ordinarily mild-mannered Farmer was understandably disgusted by the crass nature of the tabloid's initial coverage.

He says: 'I think most people were pretty appalled to see the "Bonkers Bruno" headline. It was pretty insensitive and I suspect The Sun had underestimated the affection the public felt for Frank Bruno.'

Oxford history graduate Farmer believes this public affection for Bruno and the speed with which The Sun altered its attitude, referring to him as 'sad' in later editions, suggest there is hope in his battle to gain greater understanding of mental health. 'The fact the headline was changed reflects the success of mental health organisations such as Rethink in sensitising the media,' he argues.

Farmer, who was comms manager of Samaritans from 1994, before joining the National Schizophrenia Fellowship in 1997 (renamed Rethink last year), also believes the outpouring of support for Bruno and The Sun's backtracking have brought greater media scrutiny of psychological welfare through spin-off coverage.

'The combination of a person who is genuinely liked by the public and a slightly higher degree of understanding of the issues among the media means we could be seeing a change in perspective,' Farmer says.

'It should increasingly be recognised that if somebody has a mental illness, the first thing they need is access to care, then to be treated with dignity and respect.'

Farmer is keen to keep the issue on the media agenda and has launched a campaign aimed at ending stigmatisation of psychological illnesses.

He believes the number of high-profile people being affected by mental health problems and even talking about them to the media show that 'the tide is beginning to turn'. He cites a recent campaign in New Zealand as a useful template: former All Blacks rugby union star John Kirwan spoke movingly on TV about his experience of severe depression.

Awareness has also been increased by more effective campaigning from the mental health community.

Farmer is seen in the sector as a key player in achieving this singular voice as a founder of the MHA, which encompasses 60 bodies.

The alliance emerged from concern that the Government's 1998 decision to review mental health legislation would lead to the psychologically ill being detained without treatment and more people being treated forcibly.

The MHA also felt the mental health community could only oppose it effectively in unison.

This was, Farmer says, key to overcoming the lack of communication and trust between different mental health organisations.

Farmer plays down his role in holding a disparate group of bodies together, saying: 'I'm really just a front man.' But Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health director of communications Andy Bell, who works with Farmer in the MHA's comms group, says: 'A lot of the credit for bringing together a very broad church of charities and professional groups is due to Paul.

'The way he chairs it is very open. He encourages rather than stamp his feet, which is essential to keep it working under pressure.'

Farmer says of himself: 'People have always said I'm a good listener.

I try to take that style of engagement into the work I do at Rethink.'

Samaritans chief executive Simon Armson agrees. 'A lot of very senior people within mental health organisations think very highly of him,' Armson says. 'He is able to cross boundaries and engage people at all levels.

He's an all-round good bloke.'

Farmer has a sensitive side, too. He was, he says, drawn towards Samaritans as a 'humble press officer' in 1990 because a number of friends and family members had experienced emotional distress.

Before that, he was assistant director of the Clerkenwell Heritage Centre, a charity that was 'trying to make Clerkenwell trendy before it was trendy'.

Being married with two small children, he says, is 'a pretty hefty occupation'.

But he still has time to play football on Thursday evenings in Islington with a group of primary school teachers - but strictly 'for therapeutic purposes', you understand.

HIGHLIGHTS

1989: Assistant director, Clerkenwell Heritage Centre

1990: Press officer, Samaritans

1994: Comms manager, Samaritans

1997: Public affairs director, Rethink (known as National Schizophrenia

Fellowship until 2002)

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