NEWSMAKER: A unique insight - David Crepaz-Keay, Chief executive, Mental Health Media

Simon Ellery

David Crepaz-Keay is an authority on madness. At least, that is what the press release announcing his appointment as chief executive of Mental Health Media states. As a chief executive who openly identifies himself as a survivor of the mental health system, his appointment represents a breakthrough for mental health charities.

"It's really important for the mental health sector to lead by example," he says. "For the message to stick, mental health charities have to practice what they preach and hire people with psychiatric diagnosis at all levels."

Crepaz-Keay has a long psychiatric history, having been diagnosed in the past with a range of mental illnesses including manic depression and personality disorders. He was detained under the Mental Health Act himself in 1983 and has first-hand experience of the problems and discrimination faced by people with mental illnesses.

During his five-year stint as deputy director of Mental Health Media, the ratio of people hired with psychiatric disorders grew from 20 per cent to half of the current 12-strong workforce.

He says that while other sectors fighting discrimination have made real strides challenging perceptions, the mental health sector hasn't had the same success in terms of language, access to financial services or employment. Newspapers have become less tolerant of derogatory terms such as 'nigger' and 'cripple', but still accept 'psycho' and 'nutter'.

He says that many people have experience of mental illness but keep quiet about it. "You can understand why, but until people speak about it it will remain taboo," he says.

Scribbling notes as he speaks, Crepaz-Keay bursts into fresh enthusiasm as he refers to Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell's revelation this year that he suffered a nervous breakdown.

"That was important because here is someone who is in a senior position talking about a serious experience. He is prepared to do it openly and he can still do his job."

Having tackled his own mental illness, in 1989 he found a job making computer models of underground water systems to study the effects of flooding and pollution incidents. Then he worked for five years as a freelance consultant in mental health before he started working for Mental Health Media in 1998. A year later, he was made deputy director.

Mental Health Media primarily provides resources and training to mental health service users, but in the past few years it has widened its scope.

This year the charity launched its anti-discrimination tool-kit. Together with a video and web site, it provides best practice for tackling discrimination and the stigma attached to mental health.

As part of a move to boost its profile, the organisation is hosting a broadcast awards ceremony in October at the Baftas to recognise programmes that provide positive portrayals of people with direct experience of mental distress.

In June, the charity is running the Reel Madness film festival at London's ICA art gallery to bring together a "diverse range of films and genres from around the world". This is being run in conjunction with the Documentary Filmakers Group and Rethink, a charity for people affected by severe mental illness.

The move aims to give programme makers a broader understanding of mental health and challenge the old stereotypes. Crepaz-Keay points to the surge in video diaries on TV as a trigger for this.

"That fascination for what goes on in people's minds is a great opportunity to explore the personal stories that we want to get across," he enthuses.

Crepaz-Keay hopes to multiply the number of programmes made by the organisation.

Currently around five videos are produced a year but he wants to multiply that figure and ensure most are produced by survivors of the mental health system. He says that although there are a lot of good films about mental illness made by families and carers, more should be made by those with first-hand experience.

"There is not the same depth as there is from those with direct experience. It would be good to show how it would feel for you rather than how it feels for your brother," he says.

And despite heading a charity that resists taking policy stands, Crepaz-Keay needs no invitation to attack the Government's draft mental health bill.

Widely slammed by mental health groups for turning 'carers into jailers', the rules mean people are more likely to be detained and makes it harder for those who rely on medication.

"I would not be able to do this job if I were not allowed to come off the medication that I was prescribed," he says. "Every now and then you get a consensus in mental health, and at the moment there is a strong consensus that the direction is flawed since Virginia Bottomley launched the ill-thought-out supervision registers."

He says the draft bill is "pandering to misplaced public perceptions of dangerousness" and the idea that there are hundreds of murders committed by people with psychiatric illness each year when "actually it averages at around one a month".

As the organisation's chief executive with his own history of mental health problems, Crepaz-Keay is qualified to make these criticisms. But as the organisation moves into its 40th year, the man in control is injecting fresh first-hand insight into the entire mental health sector.

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