There are a lot of social movements now that are gaining awareness and support in new ways thanks to the global communication the internet has made possible. For example, feminism, Black Lives Matter, climate activism etc. And it’s very encouraging to see that more people are becoming aware of how these all link together too. There’s still a very very long way to go, that’s for sure, and in some ways the enormity can seem overwhelming. But there’s certainly movement happening in these movements, and a lot of passion. But what about mental health?
When we think of the mental health movement we think of mental health awareness. And for the vast majority of people what they come in contact with under ‘mental health awareness’ is hotline numbers, slogans telling people to reach out, self care tips, and really very repetitive, surface level approaches. The general public does not seem to be aware of the deep issues and abuses in psychiatry, how we view mental health, and how it really impacts all of our lives. In all the fighting for a better future, mad liberation is overlooked, underestimated, misunderstood, or ignored. And that’s damaging for all of us. We cannot be fighting for racial justice, trans rights, and human rights without mad liberation. And yet so few people seem to be aware of it – in fact many people seem scared to approach the topic, which just shows how deeply the stigma and ignorance runs. Maybe, just maybe, mad liberation is the missing piece in the social justice fight.
Take for example the language we use to describe other social movements – you are a climate activist, a civil rights activist, a human rights activist, but you are a mental health advocate. That’s not to say advocate is a bad word, it is absolutely not, and it’s a badge I’m proud to wear. But to call myself a mental health ‘activist’ sounds wrong. Why? Is it because advocacy feels more acceptable? Perhaps it connotes simply raising awareness within the status quo, continuing to adhere to systems already in place rather than radically opposing them and fighting for change. Maybe not, but I certainly think there’s something in the language.
Furthermore, why is it always mental health advocate, and rarely mental illness advocate, or madness advocate? For me that sums up the major narrative surrounding the mental health movement, because it focuses on the palatable part that challenges less assumptions and less people, that appeals to everyone. Everyone has mental health, so everyone should care about mental health! Yeah – that’s not wrong. But a lot of people are deemed mentally ill. A lot of people deal with the consequences of madness in this society their entire lives. And the narrative focusing on the easily digestible, easily implemented parts of mental health awareness leaves them behind yet again. It silences and harms them.
Psychiatry uses mental illness to uphold societal values. Always has. That’s why drapetomania was a proposed mental illness to explain why slaves wanted to escape slavery. That’s why being gay was classified as a mental illness until 1990, and being trans was classified a mental illness until 2019. And that is why one of the major diagnostic criteria for mental illness nowadays is disruption to a person’s ability to work – productivity and fitting into expectations of normality are societal values.
But people are very rarely encouraged to consider this. They are encouraged to be aware of the signs of common mental illness in the context of deriving from the expectations placed upon us, and recovery in the context of making people be productive citizens again. The common mental health awareness narrative traps us. It does not allow us to redefine healing, to discover the socioeconomic factors in wellbeing, to find community, or to change the pace at which we live. It does not allow us to think about the deeper questions of why, and how can this really be better.
But what would happen if we questioned? We would hear the voices of psychiatric survivors shouting about the abuse they have endured in the mental health system. We would discover how mental illness and criminalisation are deeply intertwined, and perhaps discover how to create true justice by supporting and liberating people in new ways. We would start to ask, what would happen if we didn’t sedate people into the same reality, but rather found ways to help people incorporate their own reality into their world? We would find new ways of sharing resources, kindness, connection, and changing the pace at which we live. We would find new language to define our human experience. We would free all of us to actually consider what happiness entails. Finally, we would find the link to all the other socioeconomic problems we are facing today, and in doing so find new solutions and progress towards all of them.
We need to be kind and we need to be supportive, but we don’t need to be afraid to really ask questions about mental health, its presentation, and the treatment of madness as it is. Mental health activism is needed. Mad liberation is needed. But a deep held belief that mad people need protecting – or being protected from – has too often tried to stifle the missing piece in social justice movements. Mad people deserve to be heard, believed, and treated with respect and dignity in social action spaces just like anyone else.
So I ask the question – is mad liberation the missing piece?
Maybe. I don’t know for sure. But I think it might be. I certainly think solidarity between oppressed, hurting, and caring people is necessary for progress. We won’t fix everything; we will get things wrong. But as long as we keep questioning, and keep learning, we can make a difference. It’s worth a try at the very least.