John Bird: I will miss Eric. But how can we help others with mental illness?

"Out in the streets, out on station platforms, we have decanted our mentally ill"

got a message about Eric recently. He had died in The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, North London. He was in his mid-50s. He had a way with people that I had not seen amongst anyone else. He got talking to people who seemed to be made sensitive and good with him. Wherever he went, he seemed to bloom friends.

We got on very well. He was a one-time Big Issue vendor. Once, he had gone into a Royal Albert Hall charity ball with a Big Issue camera team and asked people how rich they were. And embarrassed people in an innocent way. He, along with the camera team, were thrown out.

He was a heavy smoker and not a good eater. I don’t know what killed him, but when I first met him over 20 years ago, he was full of a kind of rich seam of survivalism. As if he would not be worn down, even by his own throwing away of golden opportunities.

I took him to Portugal to talk to groups of drug and street users and he charmed and entranced many more than I could do. He was soft and kindly. There was a bit of Christ in him.

I have no idea what were the complex reasons for his cyclical breakdowns where he turned against everyone, including his own family

I got the message from a miner’s son who had arrived in London in the early ’90s. And who had fallen into homelessness, and then had risen out of it by using photography. He knew which club to be at for which personality. All picked up while selling The Big Issue. Enormous skills of communication. He rang me, the miner’s son, and said that Eric had died and asked if I could write about it. I said I would write about what I knew about Eric. I did not know about his end. I was not there.

Why? Because periodically, Eric would go mad at the world and at my place in the world. I invited him to Parliament when I joined the House of Lords and he went mad, shouting and spewing hatred down the phone. Recoiling into a world of blaming the world for all of his homelessness. ‘Everyone was an arsehole!’ And I took my turn at being one, in his eyes.

Only by threatening to come round and give him a seeing-to did he sober up and stop blaming me for the plight he’d found himself in since he was a boy.

I have no idea what were the complex reasons for his cyclical breakdowns where he turned against everyone, including his own family. I don’t know what made him cleave to homeless people until he thought they were conspiring against him. In the end, falling out with everyone. But I do know he needed help, and the only kind he got was social security – a disability allowance – with him carrying his inner wounds until they broke out again, and made him a different person to the charming man he formerly was.

The miner’s son rang again and said “Are you going to write about Eric?” I said, “What should I say?” He said, “You should say that he was a brilliant person. That’s all. And that now he’s gone.”

One of the worst things about mental health is that it normally only involves yourself. With Eric, he couldn’t think about me and my struggles

I spent two Christmases with Eric and he complained about both of them. He said he wanted something wild. I said that I wanted something quiet. He wandered off on both occasions, saying that I didn’t know how to enjoy myself. He did not understand that I was coping with problems. I’d had so much done against me, and done so much against myself, that at times all I wanted was tranquillity. I just wanted to be with my godchildren at the time. And not do the ravey things. Eric wanted some mad Christmas. And on two occasions, he rejected my two quieter plans. We argued about it for weeks after.

One of the worst things about mental health is that it normally only involves yourself. You make your own lack of wellbeing prominent. With Eric, he couldn’t think about me and my struggles to make sense of the world.

But why could I do it, why could I think of others, and not just myself? Because I had appointed myself, by choice, to volunteer to sort out those in grief.

I struggled, but had to listen to others struggle. Now isn’t that the basis of all
psychoanalysts?

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I wrote some of this on a station platform in Yorkshire. I had almost finished, when a man sat on the bench beside me asked, “Are you a solicitor?” I said, “No.” Then he stood up and said, “Fuck you, and fuck everyone.” Out in the streets, out on station platforms, we have decanted our mentally ill.

I wish it was easy. But it’s not. As our marketplace world produces more unhappiness, we may yet have more Erics. And more angry, drunk men on station platforms. Happiness comes out of the world we live in.

Perhaps there ought to be a tax on those who earn so much out of making the world more mentally ill. How many mental health problems come out of our obsession with gadgets and smartphones? With half of all mental health problems ingrained by the age of 14, how much avoidable grief is caused by our immediate, unending fixation with social media?

With the likes of Apple paying £8.12m in taxes off the £1bn-plus it raked in last year, all of this makes for healthy bottom lines for digital companies, but not so for our young and impressionable. For consumerism, perhaps not Eric’s problem, is the problem of the many.

I miss the good Eric. The bad, I could not stand. But then, I’m certainly no saint.