Thoughts of Equality, Freedom and Justice on the Road to Activism

[on Mad in America 5 February 2014]

I’m a relative newcomer in the field of mental health survivor activism and human rights campaigning, although an old hand at resisting psychiatry and recovering sanity.  I suppose the lifelong experience of psychiatric treatment made me loath to get involved in the power struggles of what I believed was an oppressive system until I was drawn in by the peer movement with its potential to shift the paradigm and bring about real change.

For me to make a full recovery from mental ill health and psychiatric interference it required a critical mindset and an independent streak.  For others it will be different because we are all individuals and make our own way in life, if allowed to.  I like to run free, in my mind as well as in my body.  I don’t like swallowing pharmaceutical drugs although I can take a mild painkiller for a headache no problem.  

But having to take psychiatric “medication” was like swallowing mind-altering drugs and being brainwashed, losing my personality and what made me “me”.  If I’m feeling pain there is a reason for it.  Don’t force a painkiller on me until I ask for it.  Why should this request be unreasonable?  Putting a psychiatric label on me shouldn’t give anyone the right to coerce me into ingesting drugs that make me worse and take away my freedom.

In 2009 I reached a crossroads in my new life as a promoter of the peer support model and self management in mental health.  It came after a trip to the IIMHL (international initiative for mental health leadership) conference in Brisbane, Australia, with an exchange in Auckland, NZ, as a carer representative funded by Scottish Government.  [this year it’s in Manchester, England, 9-13 June]  I’d got the opportunity to take part at the last minute, after raising questions about the selection process of people with “lived experience”.  It seemed that my keenness was being rewarded.

There were various issues that arose during my trip that caused me when back home to consider giving up working in mental health and going back to what I was doing before, working as a lecturer or in community development.  By the end of 2008 I’d been getting excluded from Scottish mental health developments because of speaking out about inequalities or cronyism.  And I’d only been really involved since the January of that year.  I could see that my values, personality and life experience wasn’t going to fit well into the culture of the user movement in Scotland. 

I considered and reflected, wrestled with the thought that it wouldn’t get any easier trying to be “meaningfully” involved.  How could I thole (put up with) it?  I’m not a patient or tolerant person if faced with hypocrisy or ignorance, and don’t like being told what to do by someone with less experience or knowledge which happens more and more, the older I get.  But I couldn’t let go and had to keep going.  Why should I let myself be excluded and badmouthed?  Stubbornness won the day and I got back into the ring.

If I’d known what was ahead of me then I might have had second thoughts.  Just as well we don’t know what’s coming around the bend.  It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride the last 5 years which took me from peer support to writing, survivor activism and human rights campaigning in mental health matters.  I’ve had to  advocate for my sons in psychiatric settings, challenge forced treatment and mental health safeguards that aren’t safe.  Through it all there have been allies and antagonists, in equal measure, and I’ve developed a thick skin and a sharp tongue.  It’s inevitable in an activist role and I’ve come to accept it.

But I still have a hankering for the peer agenda and seeing the development of proper peer run crisis alternatives in the local Scottish areas.  Alternatives to clinical models of mental health and psychiatric drug “therapy” (an anachronism to my mind).  That’s why I got involved in the first place, to see changes, sea changes, paradigm shifts, people before systems, first do no harm.

It will require a taking back the power and not just empowerment, which is fine in the real world but not in the mad world of mental health where the softly, softly approach just won’t wash.  For who ever likes to give up the power they have so that others can have more power?  Let’s get real.  That’s not to say I’m advocating force or coercion.  Look what happened in animal farm.  It’s going to require a range of tactics for ensuring level playing fields and straight paths.  And ongoing adjustments to see that it remains so. 

Interestingly the more that I’ve got involved in activism the more that other activists have tried to influence my work or to have me join their cause.  It’s been like “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”.  At times very irritating but par for the course, when people have been disempowered and believe that justice hasn’t been done.  I know what that feels like, the sense of injustice at human rights violations in psychiatric situations where complaints processes favour the professionals and the voices of the “mentally ill” are silenced.  By chemicals or notes or slanderous accusations.  And I’ve come to realise that being a writer, activist and campaigner in mental health matters is all about justice.

There will be justice … when those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are.” Thucydides

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