Yesterday, the Sun caused widespread outrage on social media after it published photos of Paul Gascoigne looking in a very bad state and accidentally exposing himself as he headed to an off license to buy alcohol.
In many ways, that particular tabloid newspaper publishing something distasteful and incendiary is nothing new – hell, it’s not even the first time they’ve posted photos of a clearly ill Gascoigne on their front page.
However, once again, the wider implications of the Sun‘s choice to publish the images and story is significant. The decision is, quite simply, disgraceful – not least because they accompanied the images with a headline saying he has hit a ‘new low as he exposes himself in the street on the hunt for more booze’.
While there is a morbid fascination around celebrity culture within this country and across the world – and of Gazza in particular, whose dramatic fall from grace is utterly tragic and heartbreaking for those who remember the former England international in his 90s heyday – once again, these editorial decisions from the Sun have consequences.
People like "it's so sad about Gazza", then sharing pic of him designed to monetise his addiction/mental state. U, & the Sun, are the worst.
— HannahJane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) July 11, 2016
In the aftermath of the photos appearing on the paper’s website and in print, it didn’t take long for the images to circulate online and a disappointing number of people began to mock Gascoigne and make jokes about his appearance.
However, mental health and alcoholism are no laughing matter. In 2016, suicide is still the biggest killer of men under the age of 50 in the UK – a statistic which doesn’t get any less shocking the more you read it. In addition, mental illness accounts for 28 per cent of disease in the UK every year.
Writing in the Telegraph today, Matt Haig – a novelist and journalist who is an outspoken campaigner for mental health awareness – wrote about how the response to Gazza’s issues, noting how it represents a problem not only with the Sun but with wider society as a whole.
But this is 2016. The mental health conversation is supposed to have moved on. We are meant to be in a better place. And besides, just because we expect something shouldn’t have to mean we accept it. You see, this isn’t a mere case of celebrity intrusion. Gascoigne is ill. He has a long history of mental health problems, having been open about his battles with panic disorder, depression and consequential alcoholism.
So let us be clear at exactly what is happening. A national newspaper has reported the struggle of an ill celebrity and a legion of social media users are now mocking him for exhibiting signs of that illness. Would they be quite so quick to do so if the illness was a physical one? If it was a sports star in a wheelchair, or with MS, or going through chemotherapy? I don’t think so. I certainly think there would be less jokes or pseudo-sympathetic photo-sharing lighting up the Twittersphere.
In other words, this isn’t just a problem with The Sun. It’s a problem with society. We do not understand that things like addictions or the life-threatening anxieties behind them are illnesses. And this public shaming isn’t just bad for Gazza. It’s bad for people who suffer with mental health problems generally.
It reinforces stigma, particularly among men, who are the most likely to stay quiet if they suffer from a mental health problem.
Indeed, the Sun‘s decision to print these pictures (which we certainly won’t include in this article out of respect), they are opening the man up to ridicule and further the idea that illnesses like depression are something to be laughed at.
This only contributes to a culture of continued silence around mental health and we could continue to see a rise in illnesses like depression as men and women feel uncomfortable speaking about their struggles.
Fortunately, there are still good people out there who were absolutely furious with the Sun and their decision to post these photos of the England legend.
Twitter was soon swamped with messages of support for Gazza and many chose to post photos and videos of Gascoigne in his pomp and remember the man as the brilliant footballer he was:
Retweet these pictures of Gazza rather than the ones in @TheSun
This country's behind you Mr Gascoigne. pic.twitter.com/kk3tTRSWnV
— Cal (@Panayisalad) July 11, 2016
The Sun exposing a man who's clearly going through a very rough time. Let's remember Gazza for times like this. pic.twitter.com/0xaAD2H5mVAdvertisement
— Red Army! (@MYMUFC1) July 11, 2016
— Spurs Nostalgia (@thfcnostalgia) July 11, 2016
Don't like that Gazza pic doing the rounds. These two always make me smile pic.twitter.com/xNOWQiNyTb
— Richard Holmes (@richolmestwit) July 11, 2016
These are the pictures of Paul Gascoigne that should be shared and not the one seen in The Sun pic.twitter.com/m0iaeRM2Bs
— Daniel Jenks (@DanielJenks89) July 12, 2016
The scum of a paper The Sun will follow Gazza until the day he dies, this is how I'll always remember him! pic.twitter.com/IwK0oey00N
— Tom Crossland (@TCrossland55) July 11, 2016
Well said. Let’s remember Gascoigne as the incredible sportsman he was and not shame a man who is battling his own personal and private demons.
And, more importantly, let’s stop trivialising and sensationalising mental illness. Headlines like those in the Sun help nobody – those with mental health illnesses need our support, not our mockery.
As Haig concludes in his brilliant piece:
You can’t snap out of any illness. But sometimes, slowly, with careful steps, we can walk towards recovery. We want to make sure we don’t place any stigmatizing obstacles, or lurid headlines, or other toxic mind pollution, in anyone’s way back to life.
If you or someone you know has mental health problems, do not suffer in silence.
The Samaritans offer a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.