Are you listening? Is a question I find myself asking these days, in blogs, Emails and social networking, to people in power and authority, with mental health portfolios and power to bring about change. They’ve said they’re listening but how will I know that what they say is true. Seeing is believing. If I see change then I will know that they have heard the voices of the survivors, service users, carers and family members who have been speaking out incessantly about human rights abuses, unfairness and injustice in psychiatric settings and elsewhere.
The dilemma in mental health world activism is that we all may be looking for change in different ways although working collectively for the cause. For some of us it may be that improved access to services will suffice without any changes to the content on offer. For others of us we may be looking for a paradigm shift from bottom to top, a real shakeup and different way of working with mad people, in and out of the system. Radical change. New beginnings. Nothing less will do.
Another challenge for the campaigners is the speed and rate at which we are travelling. Like Goldilocks and the 3 Bears story the porridge could be too hot, too cold or just right. For example some will like to run on ahead and not be kept back while others may prefer to take their time, considering the options and risks. As a person who gets bored easily I prefer to run with it and deal with the risks and setbacks as they happen. I remember that being on anti-psychotics took away my “running” ability and being sequestered made me feel hopeless. Anti-depressants didn’t lift my mood and lithium made no difference either. I had no option but to get off the drugs to survive.
There has to be room in the collective for all sorts of activism or the movement for change is in danger of resorting to hierarchical shenanigans where cronies are favoured or worse a totalitarian-like regime where critical voices are silenced and protestors shunned. In the few years that I’ve been involved in mental health world action I’ve seen this type of behaviour in different settings, almost from the first. It took me by surprise as I hadn’t experienced the same ferocity in “normal” community development settings over 30 years of being involved. The power dynamics in psychiatry obviously impact on the mental health world outside of the institution. As with anything you get used to it, after a while.
It’s helpful I think to be a “shape-shifter” in psychiatric survivor activism which means adapting and reshaping aims and objectives, being prepared to withdraw so as to advance in other areas. You might describe this as tactics. It’s often more about the process than the outcome and I’ve found the community development approach a sustaining factor in my continued participation. I came into the fray in my mid 50’s and my “advanced” age with its accompanying life experience is a definite advantage, in terms of getting back up again after being knocked back. All grist to the mill.
Persistence pays off or so the saying goes. There’s something in us as survivors that makes us determined to be heard and to be listened to. Telling our stories until the message sinks in. Repeating the mantra until it has an effect on the listener. Refusing to be silenced whatever the cost. Stubbornness in the face of unbelief. We may not be popular and be invited to all the “parties” if our message isn’t “in”. In fact we may have to gatecrash and show up without a ticket. You know how annoying these type of people can be. Who invited you?
Sometimes we may never know if our words have been read or our voices heard or our truth believed. Yet we have to keep on saying it. We owe it to ourselves. Telling our stories is what it means to be alive and kicking. There are so many ways in these days of world wide web links, to share our words and the person we are, and to remain in control of it. The possibilities are endless and exciting, the risks to be embraced. On being listened to.