Belfast Telegraph

Media behaved like a pack of school bullies over Tara's airport panic attack

By Hope Whitmore

The other day a woman who is on the autistic spectrum and who has a long history of struggling with addiction had a panic attack at Heathrow Airport. The reaction one would expect would be sympathy - "How awful to be so ill! To lose control, to be reduced to shaking, shouting, crying with fear."

Instead, the Press greeted the news with glee, mercilessly ripping into Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. According to the Daily Mail, her "tantrum" occurred because she was "denied access to a first class lounge", while The Sun ran the headline "Tara Nicked By 8 Gun Cops."

I guess it's easy for the papers to jump to conclusions that the former "It" girl was just being posh and melodramatic, rather than looking into the terrifying world of mental health problems, and the crippling fear and anxiety felt by many on the autistic spectrum.

Even after Palmer-Tomkinson revealed that her loss of control was due to a panic attack, the Mail (a newspaper to whom she had confided about her autism in a previous interview - and, trust me, coming out as autistic is a big deal) continued: "It is hard to overlook the comedown which that Heathrow scene represents".

The woman had a panic attack, yet they described the incident as a "comedown". What? This was a sign of illness which can be overcome with treatment.

Most appalling though was the suggestion she has let down and disappointed her friends and family, with the piece ending by declaring her mother will have to "pick up the pieces".

OK! magazine went one up on this, inviting viewers to "watch the moment Tara Palmer-Tomkinson pulled out her own hair extensions seconds before Heathrow arrest." But I guess that portraying a vulnerable woman as a freak-show garners clicks. Who cares how humiliated, frightened and shaken she was.

You only need to take a step back to see that someone tearing out their own hair extensions in public is reacting to extreme distress and fear. Apparently, she was running from people taking photos and laughing at her. Is taking more photos and mocking her more really the answer?

In cases like this, people need love, understanding and friendship (and if you can't give that, then you could at least leave the person alone). I understand this from first-hand experience. I, too, am on the autistic spectrum and have severe panic attacks caused by unfamiliar situations. At times, I appear shaky, weepy and out of control. But, in general, people have been very kind to me.

For a long time, however, I was unwilling to reveal my panic attacks to my friends, thinking they would judge me, think me crazy, unhinged, even.

To discover that they did not think this (and that several of them also have the same kind of attacks) was an incredible relief. For me, panic manifests itself in uncontrollable weeping and locking myself in a room.

By suggesting that Palmer-Tomkinson's illness makes her a disappointment, or a burden to her family, is deeply harmful to people who, like me, have experienced the terrifying phenomenon that is a panic attack. I call my mother, sister, or a friend, when I am having a panic attack and I can't imagine what it would be like to read in a paper the next day that I had let them down by doing so. In fact, they would be disappointed if I were not to call for help when I so need it.

To make it a spectacle to be gawped at is even worse, alienating mentally ill people and making them think they need to hide their problems rather than seeking help.

In a year where much has been written about the importance of removing the stigma of mental illness, parts of the media still approach the topic with the sensibility of playground bullies. More than one in 10 people have a disabling anxiety disorder at some point in their life, according to Anxiety UK. Should these people then feel like failures? People who have let down their friends and families? Of course not.

The media's crowing over Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's illness is not only deeply cruel to her as an individual, it is also disrespectful to the many people in the UK who suffer from anxiety and panic.

Belfast Telegraph


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