It was February 2016, the UK-EU referendum debate was beginning to warm up and my tolerance for absorbing toxic tweets and frustrating Facebook posts was dwindling fast. What then pushed me over the edge was yet another celebrity-inspired media frenzy about a psychiatric “illness.”
Despite the progressive image conveyed by British critics of psychiatry (both professionals and survivors), the biomedical discourse in the UK is still deeply embedded in public consciousness and actively promoted in anti-stigma campaigns and media reporting. Actor, writer, and national treasure Stephen Fry’s documentary “An exploration of manic depression” told of how he needed to take lifelong medication for his “bipolar disorder.” Celebrity and comedian Ruby Wax was on a riotous roll, and everywhere you looked, it seemed, someone was promoting the “broken brain” message.
The mainstream narrative, which tells of discrete diagnoses and disorders, was all over the place.
I am a psychotherapist, and somehow, when we weren’t looking, this “disorder” narrative managed to sneak into the field of psychotherapy and counseling. Despite all our knowledge about attachment, trauma and relationships, many of my colleagues have ended up colluding with the message that people are “ill.”
I see an increasing number of clients—and particularly young people—who arrive at their first appointment convinced that they have bipolar, or even worse ARE “bipolar.” Many, by the time they get to me, have internalized this as part of their identity along with the understanding that it’s a lifelong situation. Others come with crippling anxiety and a parallel belief that it is something that is part of them, that their brain is dysfunctional and they have no control over it.
I finally thought: I have to do something or risk getting a diagnosis myself! I figured that getting people together to initiate a conversation about psychiatric diagnosis would be a pretty good start.
This conversation led to the creation of a daylong event on October 15 in Birmingham, England with Dr Lucy Johnstone, clinical psychologist, MIA blogger and author of A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis. Lucy had been a Twitter ally of mine for some time, and within a couple days of advertising the event, which we titled “A Disorder For Everyone!”, we had people eager to travel from afar. People came from London, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to discuss the culture of psychiatric diagnosis, evidence of a growing popular resistance to the “broken brain” narrative.
The day was a huge success! Survivor Jo McFarlane got us started with a moving live performance of some of her powerful poetry.
Lucy then talked the audience—a mixture of professionals, current and former ‘service users’, carers and interested lay people—through a critique of diagnosis and an overview of the alternatives. In the afternoon there was time for discussion and trying out some of these ideas.
Finally, spoken word artist Jasmine Gardosi ended the day by bringing one of my own poems—inspired by voice hearer and activist Eleanor Longden—to life.
Feedback on the day was excellent, and we have been invited to repeat the day in several other cities, starting with ‘A Disorder for Everyone!’ days in Edinburgh and Bristol this coming March.
After the Birmingham event, I started the Facebook group ‘Drop the Disorder?!’ with the aim of providing a supportive forum for the discussion of all matters related to psychiatric diagnosis, ‘medication’, and medicalization of emotional distress. In three months, membership has risen to over 2400 members globally.
The members of ‘Drop the Disorder?!’ come from a variety of backgrounds: they are professionals, survivors, ‘service users’, carers and people with a general interest in the debate. We have been delighted to welcome some well-known figures in the movement, including Rufus May, Rai Waddingham, Michael Cornwall, David Oaks, Bob Nikkel, Jim Gottstein, Kermit Cole, Malcolm Stern, Mary Maddock, Ted Chabasinski, Terry Lynch, Bonnie Burstow, Peter Kinderman, Lucy Johnstone, John Read and Katinka Blackman Newman and Paula Joan Caplan who I had the pleasure of meeting in New York in November. As you can see there are several MIA bloggers among the mix and we hope to welcome more soon.
Joining me on our admin team are activist and blogger Nicky Hayward, clinical psychologist and author Gary Sidley, counselor Teri Tivey, lived experience educator Joanne Newman and social worker Lanie Pianta.
The group provides a space to discuss important but controversial issues that arouse strong feelings, and at times it has felt like a bit of a roller coaster. However, I have been moved by the thoughtfulness and warmth people have shown to each other as they share feelings, experiences and dilemmas about working in, and being on the receiving end of, the psychiatric system. Many such issues that have been discussed and debated include “ADHD,” ECT, “Personality disorders” and “medication.”
We share lots of great pieces by critics of mainstream psychiatry around the world, passionately promote appropriate events and publications as well as doing the crucial networking which makes our movement stronger by the day.
It feels as if there is an appetite for new ideas and for change. There is definitely a sense of energy and excitement as connections are being made, views are being endorsed rather than silenced, and emotions are being expressed and heard.
People have told me that they feel hopeful, and that the group is a precious space for them. I too am hopeful.
One of the shared ambitions of the administrator group is that we can ultimately develop this resource into a much-needed “Mad in the UK” site.
In the meantime, I urge you to take a look—we welcome members from across the globe, and are indebted to Mad in America for links to some of the most popular articles and blogs. It’s time to ‘Drop the disorder!’