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It's Time to Defy "Mental Health" Oppression

I am just back from the annual workshop in England on the "mental health" system which has been led for the last seven years by Jim Read and Jo Saunders. Jim leads the survivors' workshop, and Jo leads the allies. I am an ally, and I would like to tell you why this is such important work, not only to me on a personal level, but also in my work.

For some years Jo began the work in our workshop by asking us what we did secretly which would, if we were seen by others, cause us to be "put away" into the "mental health" system. This question draws attention to the fact that not only do we all do things which would be thought of as "mad," but shows how thin the line is between those who get caught and pulled directly into the system and those who keep their behaviour which is wide of the conventional "norm" secret in defence against the system. We may not think about it awarely, but all of us know exactly why we keep these daily behaviours hidden.

My job takes me into the "mental health" system at intervals during the week. I work with older elders, tutoring in and administering art workshops in a variety of settings where older elders meet. I decided to do this because getting people in touch with their creativity is the fastest way I know to get them in touch with their real power. My job gives me the chance to talk to all sorts of people, from the older elders' group to the people who work to care for them. I am currently running a programme of workshops for the care workers, which is a great way to spread ideas even faster.

On one occasion when I was at work I began dancing to some music that was on. One of the psychiatric nurses asked me, as a joke, "Vivien, do you want some Valium?" All I had been doing was dancing to liven the atmosphere and because whilst I am at work I often feel full of exuberance. It was a chilling "joke," and I remembered Jo's questions at the start of so many of her workshops.

I have, and most other people have, quite a record of interrupting the rubbish we see around us when we encounter it, and yet I must also admit to having not acted boldly far more often than when I have. I have to face this and ask myself why. Why should I find that my brain, whilst knowing what to do, and often having worked out a strategy, still seems to turn to concrete when I am faced with the prospect of actually doing something? The answer is simple -- the existence of the "mental health" system, which lurks like an unseen monster in all of our lives.

Jo drew our attention to the current plight of Princess Diana, who, having gone against the system by separating from Prince Charles, is now having doubts cast upon her "sanity." Is she in the grip of an eating disorder or having a "nervous break-down"? We have also looked at the use of oppressive language, such as "mad," "insane," "gooney," "flakey," "loopey," and so on. These ever-present, light, and yet insidious parts of our everyday speech help to keep the nails of the oppression in place. They are insulting to the survivors, but they hurt us too, by being a constant reminder that the system is always there and only too ready to swallow us up.

The system is ever-present, attacking all of us all the time, but it is usually unseen, out of sight and out of mind, but it attacks us in counselling too. It leaks into our thinking to persuade us that the issue isn't really all that important in our particular lives, is too boring, wearisome, and marginal to bother with, or it is something we might dip into from time to time, but that our attention should be focussed more profitably on other things. Even our discharge is affected as we put severe limits on how much we let go at a time. We don't want to frighten our counsellors or scare ourselves into imagining that we are mad after all. We would hang onto the distress rather than risk that. We refuse to "go over the top" or let it all out as fast as possible or as much as we need.

Memo -- check on the way younger young people discharge. If they need to scream, they scream!

In my job with older elders the "mental health" system looms large! As soon as any person shows the slightest kind of memory loss they are brought into the system. It is something that all the older elders I work with are very clear about and fearful of. I often hear them saying such things as, "Am I being a silly old woman?" or "Am I getting forgetful?" It seems a better option for them to draw attention to their own forgetfulness than have someone else tell them or, worse still, diagnose them. It implies that whilst you are getting forgetful, at least you realised and so can't be altogether "mad" or "senile." Once again it keeps people quiet, and the rest of the society moves forward more slowly as a result of not being able to benefit fully from the experiences of their generation.

In England we treat older elders appallingly badly, and the existence of the "mental health" system prevents them from objecting and demanding something better. It also seems almost greedy to swallow people into itself. There is one woman in my class who is called Doris. She is a delightful woman who has lived a most remarkable life so far, but at the moment she is suffering from a rare neurological disease, which is currently incurable. It has had the effect of twisting her once statuesque body and making speech difficult, causing frequent nose bleeds, and causing her limbs to shake and be quite unsteady. Recently she has had some nasty falls and as a consequence is becoming more and more frightened about what is happening to her. So, since it is four years since the disease was first diagnosed, she decided to go to the consultant and see if there was any new development which would help her.

She cannot manage to get into many forms of transport, so she had to travel the twenty-five mile journey by taxi. She also had to pay for the consultation out of her meagre savings. Yet once she was there, the consultant spent more of her consultation time testing her memory! At last she plucked up courage and told him that there was nothing wrong with her memory; it was her legs she had gone about. There is nothing that doctors seem to dislike more than an illness that they can not diagnose or treat, so he had tested her memory because if it had failed her in any way, he would have been able to take her into the "mental health" system and thereafter forget about her. She would have been in a different category. Thank goodness she objected!

In this country the existence of the "mental health" system makes it quite legal for residents to be locked into their old people's homes. Nearly all these homes have digital locks on the outside doors or hidden switches to unlock them. Sometimes doors are secured by two handles, one at the top of the door the other at a more usual height. As both handles have to be operated in unison, exit is totally barred from anyone walking with a stick or sitting in a wheel chair. Thus for thousands of older people their homes are their prisons, and the sentence is for life.

Many homes boast wonderful gardens, but these are there purely to reassure the relatives who are often the ones who make the decision about their older family members going into such homes. Once inside, the older person often cannot get out to use the gardens or have a breath of fresh air. In one such home just outside Gloucester there are fifty acres of beautiful park land, which the residents can only look at from the windows. They are also restrained in that home, though everything that happens there is perfectly legal. The home has some wonderful furniture, including some luxurious loungers for people to recline in. How good it must look to outsiders who just go there to visit. But once in these reclining chairs, the older person is unable to get up again without assistance, and so is stuck there regardless of their wishes or needs until it is convenient for the staff to move them. It is also perfectly legal for people to be drugged. In many homes the staff are kept to a minimum in order to save costs and boost profits. It is a common practise to drug the clients who are classified as being "wanderers" because it is easier for the staff to know where each person is all the time and once drugged they stay put more easily.

I must redress the balance a bit here. Some really good things are also going on in this country for older elders, even those who are in the "mental health" system. There are some very good and forward-thinking people working in this field. They are exactly the sort of people I would want to have looking after an older relative of mine. I have seen some wonderful counselling done with the clients, when certain members of staff have sat with someone to listen to them and let them cry. When I have said how healthy I think such things as crying, laughing, shaking, etc. are, they have been very ready to agree and to let it happen. One nursing manager has learned to do massage in order not to prescribe drugs, because she has realised that it works and that people can be kept free of tranquilisers if they receive this type of treatment. I was very sad when I learned that she was to leave the unit she had been manager of. Then I realised that she was only doing a side-step to take over one of the wards and that as a consequence her challenge of convention in the system would continue there. Meanwhile another nurse manager whom she has trained will take over. She is also doing quite a bit of teaching, spreading her ideas even further. She and her team are completely within the system, but their different approach is certainly revolutionary. Also, the work I am doing and the work within the rest of the organisation I work for is certainly challenging the system all over the place, and it is growing. It puts me in a powerful position to be the kind of "hit and run" merchant which my job allows me to be.

Much of what we are doing in RC for the liberation of ourselves and the rest of the world is completely revolutionary too. We need to take on board the fact that nearly all revolutionary moves forward that the human race has achieved have been by people who were thought of as "mad" by the public at the time. Yet had they not risked this stigma and dared to be different, they would never have said or done the things they did say and do which moved people on. We would still think that the earth was flat, for example; most of the world's art would not have been created; and most of the scientific discoveries would have remained uncompleted. We need to look at this issue fair and square and discharge on how it makes us feel if we are ever to achieve the breakthrough we are all looking for. We need to be prepared to take the risk of being considered "mad," and we can look to the "mental health" system survivors as our examples, the beacons of courage which we have to follow.

This year at the workshop I heard again the quote, "We are not mad, we're angry!" and it seemed to be something of a clarion call to all of us in our fight against oppression. Let's risk "mad" and get angry!

Vivien Richmond
Gloucestershire, England

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00