In May this year, I joined members of the Mental Health Resistance Network at an event at the Old Vic. It was a panel debate on the state of mental health provision in the UK, one of their Voices Off events linked to the production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. The original panel was Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Mental Health; Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind; and Simon Wessely President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. MHRN members protested that there were no service user speakers, and eventually Peter Beresford and Alice Evans were invited onto the panel.
Inspired by the desperate lack of service user voices, mental health activists rapidly got together a zine to distribute at the meeting – a passionate collection of first-hand experiences of living on the sharp end of mental health disability in the UK. Jay Watts of the Alliance contributed a cartoon strip. I promised a short piece but couldn’t finish it for the deadline. Here it is – my belated contribution.
What’s wrong with people wanting to talk in public about other people’s mental health without including them in the conversation?
We psychotherapists definitely like to talk about our clients in the third person, though we don’t usually do it when they might be in the room. We do it behind their backs.
We like to exchange anecdotes about how difficult so and so is; about the terribly interesting unconscious meaning of what so and so said; about the clever little interpretation we were ‘able to offer’; about how narcissistic, borderline, dissociated, manic, aggressive, negative or just plain bonkers… so and so is.
So and so is not usually there when we speak about them, which is a good thing. If they were, we wouldn’t feel quite so free to show off how clever we are to our colleagues, or our students, or our partners and friends. We might feel a little inhibited, just a little caught out. A little wanting in ethical authenticity.
For the Mad Old Vic panel, the rationale for talking about, not talking with, is surely that three of the panel members have professional authority in the field.
A senior psychiatrist, the CEO of Mind, and the shadow Minister for Mental Health surely have something intelligent and authoritative to say about people who suffer psychologically. Could it be they have their own psychic pain somewhere tucked away inside them? Better not to ask. We are here to talk about people with mental health problems, not to talk about our own problems.
If you ask me, an awful lot of people are scared shitless by madness. Like they are terrified of poverty. Poverty and mental illness – handmaidens of hell. What they have in common is their contagion. You know, if you get too close the lurgy spreads from you to me. We psychotherapists are scared of this. We fend it off with the technologies of our trade, our magic words like ‘countertransference’ and ‘projection’ – spells we cast to keep the horrors at bay. They make it clear that it’s your problem not ours.
Sitting up there on their panel’s rostrum, I am hoping our trio of professional experts will be able to make a few basic facts clear.
First, that there has been a growing epidemic of mental ill-health in the UK from the 1980’s onward, as evidenced by the massive increase in anti-depressant prescriptions and the need for a huge expansion of primary care psychological therapies to millions of citizens. Thank goodness for pharmaceutics and CBT.
Second, that there is no connection between increasing mental ill-health and the introduction of neoliberal economic and social policies by Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, under the sway of ideologues like Hayek and Friedman. Atomising communities, destroying social housing, breaking the trade unions, deskilling labour, generating massive inequalities of wealth and income, increasing poverty, undermining social welfare provision, consistently cutting the mental health budget, creating a precariat of low pay, part-time, zero hour employment; overseeing a staggering increase in household debt, manufacturing a global financial crisis, following it up with austerity policies aimed at the least well-off, waging imperialist wars in the Middle East – all of this has no bearing on the mental health of the nation. It is NOT true that it is our society that’s sick.
In fact, third, psychological pain and distress is located in the individual. A good proportion of it is probably genetic and/or the embedded dysfunctionality of troubled families. A lot of it is negative thinking, laced with self-pity and dependence on a welfare culture. People need to strive more, skive less. With a judiciously administered balance of encouragement, nudge, threat, bribery and coercion most people will recover their capacity to join in our happy society.
Finally, we need to trust our psy experts up there on the podium, give them more money and more power. Let them get to work on this contagious epidemic of loneliness, depression, fear and anxiety. Trust the technologies of diagnosis, treatment and cure that are so successfully defining and dealing with the epidemic, offering each suffering individual recovery into happiness, optimism and the chance of being part of our hard-working family. Stop putting money into the welfare state, stop putting money into old fashioned care and treatment. Focus on building the innovative, practical recovery strategies that are quick, easy and cheap.
I suppose when we come down to it, talking with people is not very easy, and not very conclusive. All too often it turns out that, like you, people are really very complex and confusing human beings. Before long, talking with people at any depth over a decent period of time undoes your sense that you may know something more about being a successful person than they do. In fact, talking to people soon leads you to realise that you don’t really know very much at all, once you’ve been taken outside your comfort zone. Soon you are flying by the seat of your pants in that intersubjective realm that is so human and yet so disturbing. Most of us, quite rightly, get busy trying to establish anchors, to impose narratives of meanings that are familiar enough to our poor old egos and their ‘entitlements’.
Otherwise, this is exactly how the contagion gets going. Whose pain, love, fear and loss am I feeling? Yours or mine? When we begin to experience our differences, who is right, who is wrong? Why is it so bloody hard to be me and let you be you? What am I frightened of? Like the testimonials to lived experience in the zine, people move us and not necessarily into worlds we want to visit.
This is not the kind of experience that facilitates handy diagnosis, treatment regimes and evidence-based efficacy.
In an age when a tide of depression and anxiety is overwhelming us, when the loud and increasingly disingenuous promises of more resources for mental health services are outdone only by the savagery of regular service cuts, and when the rhetoric of a revolutionary expansion of psychological therapies is being swamped by mushrooming waiting lists, shorter courses of treatment and undertrained and underpaid workers – surely the very last thing we need are the voices of service users and survivors muddying the waters.
If we are not very careful, the conclusion that neoliberal society itself is a mental health disability afflicting all our citizens will be difficult to disguise.