By Peter Beresford
As a mental health service user/survivor, I have always valued the idea and philosophy of independent living developed by the disabled people’s movement. But I have also regretted that it has largely passed the survivor movement by because this has left us vulnerable and exposed. Let me explain.
The philosophy of independent living has gained international significance and had international impact. Building on the social model of disability it has challenged traditional free market views that all of us should ‘stand on our own two feet’ as isolated individuals. Instead it has highlighted that we are all interdependent and for anyone to be independent, particularly as a disabled person, then they need the support that makes it possible for them to live on as equal terms as possible as non-disabled people. They also need equal access to the mainstream world through the removal of disabling barriers.
Survivors historically haven’t developed either an equivalent of the social model of disability or the philosophy of independent living. I believe we are now paying a price for this. Instead, the professional-led idea of ‘recovery’ has become central in government mental health policy and practice and while it seems to offer mental health service users some positives, I believe ultimately it is taking us down a damaging and wrong road. Of course it’s great that recovery suggests that mental health service users/survivors shouldn’t be written off and can contribute and be active citizens. But it is based on an inherently medicalised model of ‘getting better’. This has two worrying implications. First, governments like the current Coalition, measure getting better in terms of being off benefits and in paid employment – when we know that the labour market is discriminatory, damaging and devaluing of service users. Second, policymakers are taking recovery to mean ‘getting better’ in the sense of no longer needing any help or support. Of course this fits badly with the reality of many people’s experience where, just like other disabled people, they may need some ongoing support to live fully and equally and they may have particularly bad times, even though they can get past these with the right kind of help.
All this is why a new book from Canada assumes an especial importance for survivors in the UK and internationally in these difficult times. Mad Matters*, for the first time, pulls together the large and growing body of work – both activist and theoretical – that has been taking place in Canada to advance demedicalised approaches to madness and distress. The upfront use of the word ‘mad’ may be difficult for some mental health service users/survivors who have been on the receiving end of mainstream use of this term to demean and devalue them. But it is also a statement here that there is a commitment to reclaim both language and experience, that people are determined not to be coopted by the psychiatric system and that their critique seeks to stand outside it. This has rarely happened before and certainly not in such a far-reaching way as is represented by this book.
In my view it provides the most substantial, well-evidenced and inclusive discussion there has so far been of non-medicalised user-led understandings of madness and distress. It offers major insights internationally from the Canadian experience. What is also particularly helpful is that it draws on the perspectives of service users, practitioners, educators, researchers, activists and policy people. This is a really substantial book by people who bring professional, research and experiential expertise to the subject. It highlights the diversity of mad experience and viewpoints, the destructive impact and ineffectiveness of psychiatry, the emergence of survivor research and academic engagement. It helpfully problematises seductive but ultimately damaging ideas like ‘recovery’. Apart from its value for all concerned with ‘mental health’ issues – on both sides of the counter – it is likely to be of value in building bridges between survivors and disabled people, between disability and mad studies and between disability and survivor activism.
*Mad Matters: A critical reader in Canadian mad studies, (2013), edited by Brenda A. LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume, Toronto, Canada, Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc ISBN 978-1-55130-534-9 380pp Price $49.95 Canadian http://www.cspi.org/books/mad_matters
About the author
Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network