Conference Calls for Survivor Workers Union

1ST UK Conference for Survivor Workers Manchester Mechanics Institute 28th February 2001: The event was, in fact, was launched the evening before, most appropriately, with a social and entertainment hosted by Mad Pride. Conference opened, not so much with an air of expectancy, but rather one of achievement – wonder even.

Manchester Mechanics Institute
Manchester Mechanics Institute

The thoughts of some delegates stretched back to the heady days of the eighties, perhaps to the landmark Edale conference in 1987 of Survivors Speak Out. Who would have guessed, remarked Peter Campbell, where the movement would now be some fifteen years later?

Ron Coleman a leader amongst a later generation of activists takes to the floor, heading straight to a disused lectern stacked in the corner, an historical relic of the Trades Union Congress. He addresses veterans and new activists alike. “It is important to remember,” he announced, “that this historic event takes place in a historic building.” Indeed, these same chambers in the nineteenth century, saw the coming together of trades unions to form the TUC.

That the history of the labour movement and the professional associations is not without blemish with regard to discrimination and betrayals, was not disregarded. That new struggles for civil and human rights were being opened up, was put firmly on the agenda by the opening speakers: David Crepaz-Keay, Deputy Director Mental Health Media; Angela Linton-Abulu, Chair Black Women’s Mental Health Project; Rachel Perkins, Clinical Director Pathfinder Trust. Coleman’s remarks that we should look forward to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool as the natural venue of the next conference was not however so much open to debate. In fact it brought the house down.

The Mechanics Institute was packed with 200 delegates with 200 more having had to be turned away before the conference subscription could be closed. The vision of the steering group led by Rose Snow has to be credited in achieving what some had predicted was not possible, or at least, too soon. Issues covered in parallel workshops included: management, supervision and support in the workplace; perspectives on discrimination, both personal experience and in structures and systems; trades union representation; unpaid activism and volunteering; status pay and valuing work; promoting inclusion of black and ethnic survivor workers.

Delegates included survivors working in the statutory and voluntary sectors, self-employed trainers and consultants and those working in academic institutions on topics related to mental health. Delegates and correspondents with the conference reporting team included survivors working in jobs where their personal experience of distress is relevant to their work – whether or not they are able to be ‘out’ about it. Trusted allies were to attend by invitation only, but even here the bookings had to stop before the invitations could be sent out.

For those fortunate to be present, the mood in the conference corridors was akin to those rare moments in history when revolutionary forces come together. Under one roof were those activists whose disparate views, analyses and aspirations have been seen by some, in the past, as signs of division. Now difference was both strength and unity. Of course, it was also a time of bumping into old friends and comrades. Alan Leader remembered the party in London, back in the mists of the nineties, which preceded the broadcast of the BBC Horizon documentary Hearing Voices. It was then that we savoured how, despite frantic lobbying of the establishment by Marjorie Wallace, for once, the reactionary lady was put in the shade. Leader laughed uneasily, “Ten years ago we were all fighting the system. Now we are all in it.” Indeed, looking around, it felt like we had come over the barricades, the fortress was crumbling and we were standing inside. A new phase in the struggle had begun.

A full conference report is being prepared by Rose Snow and Viv Lindow and will be available in the summer. Correspondence with the conference reporters is available by visiting the website: Again Asylum places its pages at the service of these debates.

Terence McLaughlin
Overtaking the Asylum.


Survivor Worker Conference Jottings

by Rufus May

The first National Survivor Worker conference provided a unique meeting place for those of us who have used mental health services who now work to promote positive change in (or out of) the mental health system to share knowledge and ideas. As someone who has worked in mental health services for the past six years with personal experience of being a psychiatric patient this conference was very welcome.

The conference was a 2 day event packed into one. There was a celebratory atmosphere, a blend of cautious optimism, solidarity and familiarity. At the same time it was acknowledged that serious business lies ahead, and the the very real barriers that exist to genuine partnership style user-involvement in services. For me the event was something I would have liked to slow down a bit. This is credit to the organisers who were clearly dedicated to covering a broad range of valid topics. For example, there were discussions of barriers of racism, accounts of the success of work initiatives, and political mobilisation (unionisation) to counter discriminatory employment practices all taking place in the same introductory half hour slot. It was refreshing to see a range of power issues discussed so openly. It set the tempo for the day where diverse views were exchanged. This event was definitely a positive sign of things to come in the future. As Rachel Perkins said “there may be a million miles to go but we’ve come along ten.”


In The Belly Of The Beast

I took part in a work-shop about Survivor Worker’s working in Health trusts, facilitated by Peter Relton and Steve McKenna. It was good to compare experiences. The work-shop was rich with ideas and debate. It was clear that work-places where Survivor Worker’s had a clear platform to draw on their survivor/critical perspective, a manager that valued this role and outside supervision, made working towards positive change a more straightforward and rewarding process. There was a discussion of general toxicity in modern society that might lead to people’s original distress forming.

Including the pressures caused by global corporatism and poor working conditions. This lead onto a discussion of whether as ‘change agents’ we should involve ourselves in wider political agendas by linking with other campaigning groups outside of the mental health field interested in change. The need for preventive mental health initiatives was brought up. Juxtaposed against this prevention theme was a notion of Mad Pride – that people did not want their madness prevented as it richly contributed to their lives. More food for thought. We considered the contributions survivor worker’s brought to Health Trust work-places.

Suggestions included; commitment, optimism, productive outrage, creativity, a unique boundary crossing perspective and ultimately a bit of soul. We talked about the need to counter derogatory psychophobic humour rife in mental health staff teams that perpetuates exclusive ideology. I am not arguing for a humour ban in mental health work-places, merely that the targets of humour are more evenly spread amongst the contexts we work in, something a bit more reflective.


Challenging Colour Blindness

Another work-shop I attended, facilitated by Robert Jones and Una Parker looked at how white survivor workers can support black survivor workers. Culture and mental health is an area that is crucial to maintain a focus on social and cultural identity seems to me an important and neglected aspect of the recovery process. For example, of the seven people who were being treated alongside myself for psychosis when I was a patient, whose out-comes I am aware of, the difference is striking in terms of cultural back-ground. Of the two white people, one is a free-lance user/mental health consultant, the other is a journalist; Of the five black people, two are dead, the other three are on neuroleptic depots, one has Tardive Dyskinesia.

The conclusion I draw from this experience is that there are significantly greater social obstacles to recovery for black people (I would also extend this dis-advantage to other devalued cultural and social groups). Just as you don’t have to be a survivor to campaign for improved rights and services for the mad, I think that just because I am white it does not mean that I should not try to address the even greater levels of oppression black survivors face within mental health services.

I particularly feel this as it is something I have personally born witness to. The work-shop had only just got going, when it was time to finish for the day. However two themes that emerged and left an impression on me were firstly, the need for all of us to acknowledge our own racial (and other) prejudices, that the problem is within us as well as in the institutions we work for. Secondly, I was struck by reality that blackness in white society has a visibility which cannot be hidden “this colour allows no camouflage”, that this culturally different experience should be acknowledged and respected. This theme of valuing and respecting difference goes against a pressure in social structures for minority groups to assimilate to a dominant norm.

The first National Survivor Worker Conference was a powerful event which I found both inspiring and moving. Big Thanks to Rose Snow and the other organisers, also to all the attenders whose desire to make change happen was and is happening (this is starting to look like the blurb inside the cover of one of my CD’s!). The lunatics may not be taking over the asylum but, we’re inside now and we’re not going away.