Read this first

I started to think about mental health and society a long time ago. When I was a child one of my parents suddenly became very ill and, because, their behaviour was not very easy to understand and worried the adults, state powers were used to detain and treat them.

I was told that my parent was ill, that they were not responsible for their actions, that the Dr.’s would fix them and that it was not my fault. I was told not to engage with delusions and not to talk to them about their experiences. Which I suppose was information that was good enough as far as it went and of course it is not a child’s responsibility to look after a parent.

It’s just that I had a lot of questions about what happened that were not answered and which I thought about a lot, because nothing the adults said made much sense to me and I certainly didn’t agree with it. I got the sense that my questions were difficult ones that they couldn’t answer. Instead of help to make sense of things, I got quite a lot of patronising answers to my questions.

The questions I asked were ones which clearly vex people working in mental health professions now, so I can understand (with a bitter, wry shrug) why they weren’t take too seriously when I asked them as a child. I asked things like;

  • What is mental illness? Why do you use it to mean so many different things?
  • Why do you do tests for physical illness, but not for mental illness?
  • What does a diagnosis of a mental illness tell us, other than what we already just told you, about what is going on?
  • Why do professionals say that someone has a mental illness, and say that they have diminished responsibility because of the illness, then get cross with them for not taking responsibility?
  • Why do staff get angry with you if you talk with someone about their unusual beliefs and experiences?
  • Why is force and violence something mental health professionals are allowed to do?
  • Why are the adults OK with this when they say they are there to help?
  • Why did staff behave in ways that I thought were very likely to end up with a patient getting upset, then seem surprised that the patient got upset?
  • If I never felt frightened and therefore never needed to use force , why did the adults need to use violence?

This blog is about these sorts of questions which still bother me. In general, I’m very interested in the concept of psychological trauma and how we need to work out better ways of avoiding harming each other so badly and of responding when people are harmed in this way. In some ways these are questions about problems in psychiatry; which is to say problems in our society, in our institutions, in our communities and in our homes.  It seems to me that these questions are something that is a matter for civil society, not for psychiatry, the judicial system, the education system or the health system. I think we need to engage in these conversations so that we are not allowing the way people in our lives or our communities are treated to be outside our control. I want to think about how it could become possible to move towards a connected, peaceable approach to other people whether they have had or not had any experience of mental distress or Madness.

Unfortunately, I am not exactly sure what I want to say and in the spaces that do exist for these conversations, such as mental health activist spaces. I’m not sure my voice would be as well informed and meaningful as other people’s viewpoints. Even when I do have some ideas about what I want to say, I am pretty sure I don’t know how to say it. This means I could express myself in an unhelpful way, or even fail to express what I mean very well at all. This blog mean I can get my thoughts in order and maybe connect with others, without intruding on groups that have their own needs and purpose.

It is impossible to talk about mental health, mental illness or Madness without talking about the dark side of being human, of violence and abuse and the various ways we have of harming one another. So I wanted anyone coming across the blog or anything I post to first think about that, that there may be references to the ways our society has chosen to believe it is sometimes OK to treat people. People may feel that this is very upsetting, or triggers very difficult feelings in them.

Take care of yourself if you read a post.