Whose mental health is it anyway?

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Years ago, a friend of mine hosted his own photographic exhibition in a disused wing of a London psychiatric hospital. Entitled Black Dog, the show documented a series of images depicting his personal struggle with depression. Reminders of the more devastating consequences of an archaic mental health system permeated the austere space. His photos hung from crumbling bricks from which the bare minimum of paint had long since cracked and peeled. Windows fit for a doll’s house compounded the institutional atmosphere impossible to shake off; remnants of care and comfort untraceable, if they were ever present at all.

Flanked by others gathered for the opening, some commended our mutual friend’s industriousness, while others sneered at his apparent self-elevation to the ranks of artist. One particular ‘professional’ deemed the show an audacious move by a ‘non-creative’ (sic), querying his bona fides as an artist.

To my knowledge, he had never claimed to be an artist per se but I could understand her annoyance. However, as a social care worker with a dedicated interest in mental health issues combined with an appetite for the arts, he had no problem testing the boundaries of his own expression, and flung himself into the various strands of discussion he considered available to him. There was no doubt in my mind that there was also an underlying subversive element to his enterprise. Susceptible to depression, yet with a wicked sense of humour and a healthy iconoclastic streak, it was no coincidence his show emerged shortly after being snubbed by organisers of a local mental health festival. A mischievous manoeuvre that provoked some valid questions he managed to cleverly raise in a roundabout way.

The local area in question is synonymous with provision of mental health services and houses a number of iconic institutions alongside a famous art college within an edgy, unsanitised, creative scene. The resulting vibrancy has generated a number of mental health based charities and arts based mental health organisations where support services and creativity overlap with madness. Anyone familiar with these sectors will know that while the possibilities for cooperation are endless, so too are those for competition and tension. In reclaiming control over their well-being, many advocates and service-users grew intent on reclaiming the disparaging language used to describe them. From this, the ‘mad community’ was born. And from a visionary and leader within, Bonkersfest came to life:

“A free annual one-day summer arts and music festival, illuminating creativity, madness, individuality and eccentricity; combating stigma and promoting good mental health. BonkersFest! is an empowering tool for the mad community who organise and deliver the event themselves in partnership with a wide range of mad run groups and arts organisations”

The Arts. Community. Mental health. Empowerment. The scope for competing perspectives was predictably wide; my friend one of a number of casualties of this contested terrain, as many of us expected him to be. As an advocate, rather than a service-user, he failed to qualify either as an ‘artist’ or a ‘mad person’. The definition of a mad person remained vague, but a survivor or user of treatment services gave it a loose definition.

The end result was a festival as chaotic as it was enjoyable, characterised by authentic grassroots ownership devoid of corporate gloss; a showcase of creative work by mad people. They had achieved it “themselves”; the day a victorious culmination of the vision of an ex-service user and survivor of schizophrenia. A local chieftain.

In attacking and seizing control of the local discourse on mental health, the rule-book on ‘dialogue’ was temporarily torn up. The most stigmatised and silenced survivors of the mental health system took their rightful place on the stage to celebrate and validate their survival on their own creative terms. In that context, the defiance adopted in drafting the terms of engagement was understandable. In minimising the place of the ‘professional’ and the high functioning depressive, the message of madness was kept intact, untarnished from the well-meaning efforts of the mainstream professionals from which they felt alienated and who too often spoke on their behalf.

Leafing through the programme for the First Fortnight Festival, the relatively new Dublin arts festival addressing mental health issues, it’s hard not to wonder what members of the aforementioned mad community would make of it. Would they find the slick and professional production irksome? What of the programme content? The input from service users? Would it be considered mad enough? Too many of the usual commentators and broadcasters? Any humour? Not humorous enough?

It would seem churlish to criticise any efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues, and while the organisers would likely be commended for theirs overall, I suspect the programme would be pored over in pursuit of evidence of a kindred ethos and spirit.

As it happened, the strict ethos of Bonkerfest was unsustainable. It was to have a short lifespan in the end, falling victim to funding cuts, as so many other worthwhile projects did, and whatever organisational deficit that brought the curtain down. Perhaps, to be truly authentic, it was meant to be a temporary intervention. Even so, it’s tempting to imagine the potential it had to grow from strength to strength into a two-week format similar to First Fortnight, galvanising others along the way and prising wider the potential for dialogue. For that to have happened, a more inclusive and professional production would have likely been required. Whether this would have comprised the integrity of the programme, we’ll never know. I like to think there is room for everyone on the spectrum to come together. We’re all on it somewhere.

That said, is it ever possible to have a mental health festival that fits all? The rise of depression and anxiety as the dominant discourse on mental health in Ireland continues. That this development is cited as sufficient evidence of mental health being taken seriously, makes the jitters and concerns of those with very different conditions understandable. Various personality disorders and schizophrenia remain misunderstood and on the periphery of mainstream discussion, if at all. Understanding depression is a start but far removed from de-stigmatising these conditions, as is supporting the integration of survivors and sufferers into the community and the workplace.

As much as the missed opportunity for Bonkerfest is lamentable, one hopes the organisers of First Fortnight will adopt some of its patrons’ defiance and courage in attempting to bring those silenced and stigmatised in from the margins; and to help give them ownership of the dialogue and direct some questions towards the status quo.

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