Mental illness- challenging the stereotypes.


Everyone at work is discussing the first episode of a BBC TV programme at the moment called ‘How mad are you?’

You can check this out on the BBCiplayer on this link

Now I must confess to being someone who loathes reality TV programmes- although I did watch Taransay one (Castaway?) which kicked the whole genre off in the UK. I am a sucker for anything filmed on a small Hebridean island.

However, the idea of this one caught my interest even before I watched it. 10 people in a castle. 5 of them have diagnosed mental illnesses, the other 5 are (wait for it) ‘normal’. They all get to perform lots of tasks and batteries of tests from psychiatrists, who then have to declare who they think is mad, and who is sane.

Anything that challenges the prejudices and stereotypes about mental ill health that still prevail is great as far as I am concerned- particularly if in the process the power relationships get reversed, and the black arts of psychiatry get placed in the hot seat…

I should confess to a bias here- I have worked as a Mental Health Social worker, then as a therapist, and now as a mental health manager. I was drawn to work in this area because my faith lit in me a desire to make a difference- to seek brokenness and try to bring healing. I have been inside the Mental Health system in the UK for most of my working life- and have discovered that it can be a very frustrating and at times an infuriating experience.

At its worst the psychiatric system in this country tends to suck in people at the most vulnerable time of their lives. The next part of their experience is often about LOSS.

Loss of freedom and choice.escher_about-institution

Loss of opportunity

Loss of relationships

Loss of employment

Loss of identity

Loss of motivation

Loss of hope

Loss of self esteem

…and once these things are gone, it becomes very difficult to transcend the circumstances you find yourself in. It becomes almost impossible to escape.

Sure, the system also GIVES people things. It offers a kind of sanctuary- either the physical safety of a ward or care environment, or a more emotional/psychological kind of security given by the label- ‘depressed’, ‘schizophrenic’, ‘manic depressive’. It also offers a whole new role- that of a ‘sick’ person, who needs help from the ‘experts’ who can treat them with medication or therapy- people who can take the messy chaos of their humanity and squeeze it through a scientific colander and filter out all the bits that are not helpful. (If only huh? I think we could all do with this process about once a week…)

And all these things too become like prison bars.

There are some encouraging signs though. Some people who have carried mental health labels are starting to take back the power. This can be best seen in the ‘recovery’ movement. Check out this article on the Re-think website, or The Scottish Recovery Network site.

Recovery thinking perhaps grew out of the hearing voices network, who dared to suggest that just because people heard voices, this did not make them less human- it did not make them mad. Many people even questioned the very nature of psychiatric diagnosis- suggesting (not for the first time) that schizophrenia was nothing more than a reaction to trauma- both trauma outside the system, then more trauma within it.

The voices from the recovery movement are mostly those who have been through the system, and managed to come out the other side. They have often found themselves in conflict with the powers within system- because they speak a different language, and do not conform. Some of their rhetoric is seen as (and perhaps actually IS) downright dangerous. They no longer are interested in talking about ‘cures’ to ‘illness’- rather they seek the right to choose their own path, and their own solutions to life crises.


(Cartoon from here)

That is not to say people do not need help. We are surrounded by people who are damaged and vulnerable. But many of us in the system, and many others who are subject to it, are convinced it needs to change. And the ideological challenge brought to us by the Recovery movement is like light in darkness.

And so as a Christian, I reckon that this is a flavour well worth seasoning.

1 thought on “Mental illness- challenging the stereotypes.

  1. Pingback: Making recovery real… « this fragile tent

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