A big thanks to Mark Brown, editor of One In Four Magazine, for this powerful, thoughtful post on being ‘inclusive’ when representing mental health, the people affected by it and those inspired to make change. You can follow Mark on twitter @MarkOneinFour.
‘Mental health: Who is speaking for whom?
We’re at a funny old time in mental health. To quote Charles Dickens ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. We’re living through a period where every bit of news that’s positive for people with mental health difficulties seems to come balanced by a bit of bad news either about mental health services specifically or about the state of our country, economy or government.
Through the growth of blogs, social media, campaigns like Time to Change and even publications like One in Four we’re seeing a greater visibility for people with mental health difficulties and our ideas and experiences.
Once, before we all started blogging, tweeting, facebooking and organising the main voices about mental health were the voices of either medical professionals, well meaning (or otherwise) politicians and major charities. They were mostly voices that claimed to speak on our behalf. Now the internet and access to the platforms it creates for sharing, discussing, organising and making things happen has challenged that in fundamental ways.
Where once we might have been happy to contribute to a service user involvement opportunity or to take part in a consultation, more and more of us are making a space where our voices, opinions and, as importantly, our actions can be seen and heard.
Where once there were a few voices lucky enough to make it on telly or into the paper, now there are thousands in the public sphere across social media, all reporting from the frontline of life with a mental health difficulty.
That’s obviously a wonderful thing and a step forward. It does, however, present us with some challenges, too.
FORGETTING EVERYONE IS ALLOWED A VOICE
As individual voices speaking from our own experiences become more numerous, so too do the range of experiences and ideas that are available for debate and comment. We’ve been so used to other people speaking for us that we sometimes forget that someone writing a blog, adding a comment or chatting on twitter or writing for a magazine isn’t a person speaking from a position of authority but actually just another person with mental health difficulties sharing their views or experience. So we go in all guns blazing and start attacking people who are more similar to us than they are different.
It’s sometimes tempting where someone’s experience or opinion differs strongly from our own to accuse them of ignoring our opinion or, even worse, of not telling the truth. We, in effect, forget that we’re conducting with other people with mental health difficulties. They think they are advancing opinion based on their own experiences, we accuse them of trying to speak for other people.
The more different voices about mental health there are in the public sphere, the more plain it becomes that while there are many things that people with mental health difficulties experience that are similar, there are as many ways that someone’s experience may differ. People who experience schizophrenia have different experiences to people with depression. Older people have different experiences from younger people. What happens in Devon isn’t neccessarily what happens in Dorset, or Glasgow, or New Orleans. Beyond those differences who you are influences how mental health difficulty impacts on your world. Your economic circumstances, your religious or family background, your political beliefs; all these things will shape how you experience mental health difficulty and how you feel about it.
We have to make sure that we’re always open to discussing this whole mental health thing with people who don’t have the same experience we do. We’ll never find out what all of us agree on if we just focus on where we disagree.
A political movement is one where lots of different experiences choose to focus on trying to get somethings to happen to happen. They don’t all have to have had exactly the same experiences or even have all the same ideas. They move forward on what they all agree upon.
If the things that are focused on aren’t the same things they are passionate about, especially if those things are not issues that have a widespread footprint in debates people make the mistake of seeing this as actively and on purpose excluding their voices.
I think it’s legitimate to level criticisms at large organisations that speak on behalf of people with mental health difficulties and also claim to be inclusive, in general, of all people with mental health difficulties. I find it a bit more problematic when we’re talking about smaller groups and individuals. I always think of it like this: It’s entirely appropriate to lobby Parliament to pay attention to issues as Parliament, in theory, represents the will of the people. It’s not so OK to turn up at a local knitting group and declare that because they don’t also do kite making they are actively excluding kite makers from public life.
What’s lost there is respect for people making different choices and in it’s place is the idea that people doing different to you and coming to different solutions is somehow those people trying to rub out the ideas and experiences of someone who feels differently. In other words, a different experience or opinion is taken as an attempt to delete or negate your opinion – ‘If you are different from me, you are trying to erase me’.
As campaigners, bloggers and activists we have to make sure that we are enabling a wider debate to take place while also making sure that we can find ways of moving forward. We have to respect different opinions and experiences and find common ground whilst also remembering that no one can ever produce something that will make happen everything that every individual thinks should happen.
WHO ARE YOU SPEAKING FOR?
If you are claiming to speak on behalf of a larger group of people with mental health difficulties, the best way of making sure that what you say about mental health represents them and their ideas is to actually talk to them.
People in the past have asked me what right One in Four has to speak for people with mental health difficulties. I always say that it doesn’t. One in Four is a magazine written by people with mental health difficulties that speaks to people with mental health difficulties. To do that we try and put together a magazine that has interesting and useful stuff. Sometimes that’s things we think you should know. Sometimes it’s things we think you’ll enjoy. Sometimes it’s things we think will challenge. We’re not trying to sum up every single experience and idea of mental health difficulty in one place. We’re something you might want to buy and read, not something that is trying to represent you.
It’s the same for the majority of bloggers, tweeters, campaigners and activists. They’re all trying to do something helpful, useful, enjoyable, challenging or provocative. They’re all entitled to their own view of what mental health means and what we can do about it.
Even if we don’t agree with them, it’s always better to extend charity and respect, otherwise we’ll use up all of our piss and vinegar fighting with each other and we’ll have nothing left over with which to change the world.
Sadly, no one can be all things to all people. No movement can please all of its members all of the time. No group can represent all experiences and situations equally and get things done.
When it comes to an area as diverse as mental health what we need is more acceptance of different views and opinions, not less. We can listen to each other without necessarily agreeing. We can talk about different points of view without betraying our own. We can promote people taking different approaches even if they aren’t the approaches we could take. We can create a climate where big ideas are debated and minority voices are heard rather than just being ‘included’ by tokenism.
I’d rather have ten black mental health bloggers than ten people who aren’t black adding “and black people have different experiences of services” at the end of every post they make about their own experiences of mental health services. The same goes for any other group that may be under-represented in mental health debate.
We should be doing everything that we can to create spaces for people to speak for themselves. And I think that’s what is already happening.
NO ONE CAN DO EVERYTHING AT ONCE
A third challenge that an increase in different and differing voices in mental health brings is one that we’ve always had with One in Four: No one can do everything all at once. Every one time you choose to publish a article about a particular issue, there are a thousand things that you could have published an article about instead.
People can feel very upset, rejected or angry if their particular issue isn’t included or referenced. I see this happening in mental health all the time where people who decide to focus on one particular issue are criticised for not covering an issue that other people think is more important.
None of us can do everything or focus on everything all at once.
All of us are impatient to get things sorted out as quickly as possible. We all have to decide where to direct our time and effort. For someone to focus on an issue close to their heart is understandable. They aren’t the government, they aren’t a big charity, most of the time they aren’t even getting paid. In our enthusiasm and passion to make our point we can often end up savaging someone closer to us rather than learning from them, while we let the real subjects of our anger off the hook.
It’s always easiest to battle with other people with whom you share similar issues than to battle with the people in positions of power who could do something about those issues. Always.
As individuals few of us have the time or the resources to come up with something that will encapsulate the experiences of all people with mental health difficulties and change their situation. We have to avoid attacking other people for not having all of the answers or for focusing on one small particular part of the problem. Lots of little things can sometimes add up to a big thing.
If we’ve spent ages battling big organisations and huge discriminatory ideas, fighting for justice where none has been forthcoming, we can, often by accident, turn the same tools and weapons against someone who really has no more power or influence than us. We end up turning our peers into our enemies by assuming their different interests are an attempt to destroy us, rather than just a different focus. We make people that are more like us than not into ‘the enemy’.
All three of the challenges that a huge broadening of the space for people to talk, share and debate mental health have the same solutions: Promote discussion, value difference, work to find common ground and have respect, kindness and charity.
After all, how are we expecting to make the argument that society should be more accepting of us and our difference if we can’t even manage to accept each other?’
Mark Brown is the editor of One in Four magazine