Individualisation of suffering is key to the prevailing ideology surrounding mental illness. Credit: http://ark4n.deviantart.com
I used to buy the Sun newspaper. Not just to fit in with mates at secondary school but right into my first year at university. I knew there was something to be ashamed of in this filthy habit, armed as I was with my oft-deployed excuse: "I only buy it for the crossword and the football transfers."
This was true. I never read the news. In general, I lived a remarkably apolitical existence. This was some feat considering I have a Jewish communist great grandfather, socialist grandparents, a union lawyer dad and an older brother who went through his Che Guevara phase at around fifteen.
I dropped out of university in early 2007, five months before Northern Rock bank hit the skids. Who knows whether the student experience would have politicised me? Perhaps the process would have been helped along by the backdrop of the approaching financial crisis?
But something else politicised me instead: a crushing, rapid descent into depression, social wilderness and personal crisis.
I experienced anxiety and depression as a hostile takeover of my life and sense of self. I went from being outgoing and sociable to being unable to talk to people or leave the house. This was within the space of a few days. There was no discernible cause.
It was quickly clear that I couldn't continue at university and so I moved back into my parents’ house, where I have lived ever since.
Several years of isolation, suicidal thoughts and internal struggle followed. I remained unable to escape the confines of my bullying psyche, let alone my house.
Unable to work or study, have friendships, or experience joy, reading became my true love, my source of meaning, my attempt to make sense of what had happened to me. I obsessively read classic literature, history, philosophy, political economy - I had felt a profound sense of loss at not being able to finish university. I became determined that I would instead educate myself.
But an impenetrable sense of terror and despair continued to accompany me through my every waking and sleeping hour. I began to work my way through an impressive list of psychotropic medications and psychotherapies and eventually attended an NHS psychiatric day hospital for six months.
A "service user" within the psychiatric system gains a unique insight and practical education in state discipline as well as the lengths gone to in enforcing normativity. Having grown up white, straight, male and middle class, I was privileged to rarely, if ever, be told that I had to be something other than what I was.
I seldom encountered gross injustice or violence, blatant discrimination or the kind of treatment faced from the earliest ages if you happen to be a person of colour, don't fit a gender binary or adhere to accepted ideals of sexual behaviour.
Apart from being a non-religious Jew and encountering minimal levels of playground anti-Semitism, this was the first time I found myself in a situation of social and political ostracism (as well as a self-ostracism that proved just as powerful). I discovered for myself that the experience of the personal deeply informs the political.
Leaving the psychiatric day hospital to instead attend the asylum of Occupy the London Stock Exchange at St Paul's Cathedral was in many ways a descent into further madness. Many "occupiers" were well acquainted with psychiatric services and medications - as well as using drugs not sanctioned by the state, but often taken for similar reasons.
Chaotic, naïve, and ultimately politically problematic and ineffectual, the initial occupied space did nevertheless open up the possibility for social and political interaction that is elsewhere absent from society.
I felt that I was in crisis, but also that the crisis was much bigger than just me. Getting involved in political praxis seemed to be the best way to channel what I was experiencing.
There is a lot to be said for the practice of "politics as therapy."
The personal account or "journey" format often proves insufficient when attempting to understand what we do and why we do it. An analysis of political subjectivity is crucial. Shifts in capitalist expansion, social environment and class composition, technological development and the onset of crises tend to precipitate political transformation on an individual and collective basis.
The advent of the printing press or the collapse of the automotive industry in mid-west America, for example, are not external factors to people’s lives or isolated moments in history. Indeed, any such upheaval is bound to lead to transformative changes in the lives and political ideation of those experiencing it.
Our social environment shapes our psychology. We must consider how the policy, ideology and debate that surrounds “mental health” or madness is framed.
The individualisation of suffering is key to the prevailing ideology and discourse surrounding mental illness. This will often focus on a supposed misfiring of brain chemicals, a “cure” to which can be found in the form of pharmaceuticals - often prescribed by your GP before any contact with mental health services.
Attention may also turn to an individual’s lack of positive attitude, but this problem can be “fixed” by a six-week course of cognitive behavioural therapy. So much human suffering is pathologised and medicated when it is either "natural" (i.e grief or the general variety of mental experience) or is directly or indirectly linked to social, political and economic factors that remain absent from debate, let alone actively contested on this terrain.
Psychologist and author Bruce E Levine suggests that much of today's intervention under the auspices of "mental health" is all too political.
"What better way to maintain the status quo," Levine asks, "than to view inattention, anger, anxiety, and depression as biochemical problems of those who are mentally ill rather than normal reactions to an increasingly authoritarian society?"
He also argues that many potential activists and "natural anti-authoritarians" are prevented from opposing power: "Some activists lament how few anti-authoritarians there appear to be in the US. One reason could be that many natural anti-authoritarians are now psychopathologised and medicated before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities."
The historical origins of madness within western culture and how it became increasingly medicalised should not be forgotten. Michel Foucault exposed how the origins of "confinement" of the "insane" in asylums and workhouses were an integral part of the violent replacement of the feudal commons way of life with capitalist work discipline during the 16th and 17th centuries.
This process is in keeping with continual "primitive accumulation" akin to and contemporary with the conquest of the “New World” and the persecution of heretics and witches. Their land and means of reproduction were stolen and appropriated, while authorities continually oppressed and attempted to proletarianise them.
Initially, the "Great Confinement" saw the imprisonment of the old, the unemployed, the "criminal", the "insane."
As Foucault explains: "Before having the medical meaning we give it, or that at least we like to suppose it has, confinement was required by something quite different from any concern with curing the sick. What made it necessary was an imperative of labour. Our philanthropy prefers to recognise the signs of a benevolence toward sickness where there is only a condemnation of idleness."
The conflation of pejoratives like lazy, sick, unemployed, idle are more than familiar to us in today's discourse surrounding welfare benefits and the imperatives of labour. And it is not just the DWP and Atos who pressure people back into work, NHS psychiatric services also seem to believe that it is work that sets you free.
The capitalist class would like us to be just sick enough not to fight back, but not so sick that we cannot work. The challenge for us is to find ways of organising and helping each other so that we can find adequate levels of social reproduction, care and support to give us a platform to engage in the therapy of class struggle.
This article was originally published in 2014, and is republished here for World Mental Health Day.
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