By coincidence, I finished Henry’s Demons the day after ‘World Mental Health Day’. Let us imagine this day is actually important, and not a hashtag concocted by Twitter to generate good publicity. In that case, as so often, it was notable only, as far as I could see, for a total lack of discussion about mind-altering drugs. Yes, funding for mental health is important, and ‘Care in the Community’ has largely failed, sometimes with tragic results, but these do not tackle the root cause of most, if not all, mental illness.
With that in mind, Henry’s Demons, by the well known foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn and his son Henry, ought to be as integral to World Mental Health Day as pancakes are to Shrove Tuesday. The book is a joint account of Henry’s seven-year descent into mental illness, written mostly by Patrick and interspersed with Henry’s firsthand accounts. There is also a series of excerpts from the diary of Henry’s mother, Jan, which are actually the most harrowing of all. Written in the heat of the moment, they are devastating, though far from overblown.
What is Henry’s mental illness? Patrick calls it schizophrenia, and also mentions ‘bipolar disorder’, though acknowledges that these are largely subjective and still not fully understood. What matters is that at some point while studying in Brighton Henry began to lose his mind: he would go for long walks barefoot, swim in the freezing sea and even climb into people’s gardens and strip naked, all, he says, at the behest of trees, roots, flowers and other voices from the natural world. Together, he and Patrick recount his admission to, and frequent escapes from, one mental hospital after another, until, after seven years, he began to regularly take the medication he had shunned for so long.
With no history of mental illness in his family, Patrick looks elsewhere for a culprit. Though he does not say it explicitly, he – and Henry – mention a particular illegal drug often enough to make even the dullest mind take notice. From the age of 14, Henry smoked copious amounts of cannabis, and continued smoking years after he was first sectioned. Patrick admits he thought it was harmless, but soon realises it is a major factor in the destruction of his son’s mind.
Without being flippant, there is something schizophrenic in a nation that purports to care greatly about mental health, yet also not only fails to police a dangerous mind-altering drug, but actually advocates its legalisation. As this book shows – and Henry’s tale is far from unique -, cannabis is a grave threat to mental well-being. How much tax revenue would compensate for the fear, anxiety and misery endured by Henry, his parents and (as Patrick painfully describes) his younger brother, Alex? Those who wish to legalise – and profit from – cannabis ought to read this clear, measured and powerful tale of one family’s struggle with insanity.