Thursday, 2 March 2017

Is Mental Health Political? A Panel Discussion

image description: a purple background with handmade patches by the artist hancdote that read 'did some self care', 'you are strong', 'I am trying', 'don't give up', 'stay hydrated' and keep trying', above the patches is a title that reads 'the arts students' union mental well being project: Mental health matters'.

Back in January I was invited by Arts Student Union Officer (and all round good human) Scarlet Shaney Langdon to speak on a panel discussion at London College of Fashion on mental health feels alongside artist superstar IggyLDN, zine queen Hannah Daisy and mental health mega genius Leah Frances. 

Here's a a rough transcript of some of my answers :) 

Many of you make artwork with themes relating to mental health - what inspired you to do this and what political impact do you think art and media has in destigmatising and challenging society's perceptions of mental health?

With Doll Hospital at least, the work I do comes not from the conventional idea of 'inspiration', or the traditional model of 'destigmatisation', which as my friend Rose Lyddon points out has the real potential to throw more marginalized mental illness experiences under the metaphorical bus, but more from a necessity to cultivate a creative space away from ableist expectations. I’d written on mental health themes in more open online spaces and found the politics of respectability inherent in the performance of online publishing to be incredibly limiting to the complexities of trauma and mental illness. I think I just recognized a need for a space for and by mentally ill individuals.

We work under capitalism, a system where people have to work to survive and are forced to constantly compete with each other. What impact do you think the capitalist work ethic has on mental health?

In many ways capitalism has not just simply worsened mental health but created a new model of mental suffering. This applies to both employment and unemployment, so much of the groundwork for Doll Hospital was created when I was unemployed so the latter is particularly on my mind. You only need to look at the relationship between long term unemployment and suicide to realize the reality of this.

However, when we talk about capitalism we need to open up our understanding of oppression to consider not just mental illness, but other experiences impacted by ableism such as chronic illness and physical and developmental disability. I personally struggle with my physical health and find these struggles exist in conversation with my mental health, a symptom of my physical health troubles is severe fatigue, this symptom is worsened dramatically when I push myself to match unrealistic ideals of hyper-productivity, this fatigue makes me suicidal, it’s a horrible knock on effect!

Capitalism is designed for the able bodied and able minded but considering poor working conditions even if a person enters in this ‘abled’ state, in all reality they are not going to exit it like this, poor working conditions are destructive both physically and mentally.

Theresa May recently announced plans to “transform attitudes to mental health.” What impact have the Tory government’s policies had on mental health in Britain? What do you think the government should be doing to actually make a positive difference?

Off the Record, a Bristol based charity for youth mental health, whose work I really respect, described May’s recent announcement as ‘meaningless gesture politics’ and there’s so much truth to that, to perform an interest in mental health from a position of power holds a great deal of currency right now. As much as mental health can happen to anyone we can’t ignore the fact that the most socially isolated, socially marginalized are the most vulnerable to mental illness, that unemployment and suicide are critically intertwined, that as much as people love to make fun of young people ‘self diagnosing’ on tumblr these medical institutions have consistently failed those in need, and turned away those who have sought the courage to get help.  As Clare Allan pointed out in her great piece for the Guardian these ‘destigmatise’ mental health iniatives can be used a manipulative tool to distract an audience from the root cause of why so many people are suffering.

We are currently facing a student mental health crisis where we’ve seen a 132% increase of students disclosing mental health issues, and most universities failing to provide adequate support. What would you say are some of the factors contributing to that?

It can be hard to base this purely on statistics as that does not consider students who in the past did not feel like could disclose, and of course students right now who don’t feel safe doing so.

Nonetheless, from personal experiences as a student I have had first hand experience of this failure. I once worked up the courage to confide to a lecturer I was having suicidal thoughts and was referred to Powerpoint presentation classes to improve my confidence! It’s totally bizarre and really worrying.

To understand mental health in academic spaces we need to consider sexual violence in campus spaces, imbalance of power between lecturers and students, which can again lend itself to abuse, institutional racism, classism, ableism and misogyny whose affects are so devastating.

And there is of course the practical realities of being at university, what it means to be in a different city, or even a different country or continent, the financial struggles, the fear of what comes next, it all piles up. It is also important to understand that there are many young people who are not in academic spaces, who have been shut out, rejected from such institutions, young people’s mental health is not contained just to higher education.  

How does structural oppression such as racism, sexism, ableism and LGBT-phobia affect people’s mental health and access to adequate services?

Structural oppression does not just shape access to mental health services it shapes the very way we approach and create what we now know as ‘mental illness’. To understand the nuances of this and work towards making a change we need to be investing and amplifying some of the amazing advocates working within the field of intersectional mental health.

A few I’d encourage you to support are Recovr, a UK based iniative to connect young black individuals to black therapists and counsellors, Imade Nibokun of Depressed While Black, Semana Thompson of Queer Indigenous Girl, Vilissa Thompson of Ramp your voiceUnmasked Women, an art curation project on black women’s mental health troubles, Thick Dumpling Skin, a collective for Asian American folks with eating disorder struggles, Dior Vargas, of POC + Mental Illness Photo Project, Bassey Ikpi, creator of The Siwe Project, the Kenyan mental health support hub My Mind My Funk and No More Martyrs which focusses on mental health support and suicide prevention for black women.

In the media, young people are often called the “snowflake generation” and we often hear comments suggesting that mental health is just a “millennial problem.” Where do you think this is coming from and what would your response be?

In general I don’t worry too much about what sub-Reddits or Guardian columnists have to say about mental health struggles, after all the notion of moral panics over self centred and entirely media created ‘generational groups’ resurfaces pretty much each decade.

However, it is concerning that this republican bootstrap mentality, where rugged individualism must be reasserted to conquer the notion of ‘oversensitive’ millennials and override the concept of ‘trigger warnings’ and the call for ‘safe spaces’ has in part propelled Trump to his position. Especially considering how such subjects have been utilized by far right fascist groups as proof that their freedom is somehow being taken away.

Mental health issues are often seen like an individual’s weakness that a person needs to address on their own, rather than something inflicted upon us by society and the system we live in. How do we challenge that idea? How can we collectively address mental health problems in our communities?

This individualistic approach exists not just towards mentally ill people but within ourselves. We internalize these attitudes, we think that to for our struggles to have worth we must cultivate a singular institutionally affirmed voice, whether that’s some kind of inspirational tedtalk, ‘you could be like me’ book deal, an accessible online brand, the celebrity spokesperson genre, the tortured genius myth. What we see as activism or advocacy is still aggressively individualistic, and cult of personalities inevitably lead to abuse of power. And for me, like I am a clinical narcissist so these ideas actually worsen my own mental illness! One way to question this structure is to question how these pre-set ideals of what it means to talk about mental illness, what ideas of ‘personal worth’ and ‘productivity’ means, this change need to also come from within ourselves.

But equally there is a particular model of social justice that encourages the martyrdom of the most marginalised for the so called 'movement'. Disabled women of colour are presented as disposable, and as artist and poet Khairani Barokka reminded me in a recent interview I conducted with her for Doll Hospital Issue 5, that in a ableist, exploitative world staking a creative space out for yourself is an incredibly defiant act. As much as self care can be manipulated to encourage capitalist productivity we need to remind ourselves that to care for oneself is still radical, we can't forget that.