‘Such high levels of mental illness mean this issue can no longer be brushed under the carpet. Is there any issue which touches nearly everyone’s lives yet is so ignored or misunderstood by politics and media?’ This is the concluding statement of Michael Richmond’s article submitted for this special issue of Asylum, in which we explore Anti-capitalism and Mental Health.
We share his sentiment, and it has motivated us to bring together these authors and these ideas which we hope will contribute something to what should be a growing field of inquiry into the relationship between crises in economic, social and political life and our mental well-being and autonomy. We were invited to guest edit this issue after meeting members of the Asylum team at their conference last year.
We attended as students of psychology and medicine, as members of grass roots anticapitalist groups, and as individuals who have experienced the pressures of activism and politics on our well-being and the well-being of our friends, comrades and colleagues. However, our interest isn’t only in how being involved in anticapitalist activism puts a strain on our mental health.
Andi explores this in the article ‘Against Superheroes and Martyrdom’ and Elinor illustrates it beautifully in her cartoon on pages 12 and 13. More than this, though, is the impact of capitalism, as a specific form of economic and social relationship, on how we deem what it is to be mentally well or unwell, and consequently how those diagnosed mentally ill are treated. Several articles in this issue explore the particular ways in which capitalism forms and limits our understanding of mental well-being.
Writing as activists, survivors, service users, academics and practitioners, they look towards alternative spaces and projects through which we can begin to practice more democratic approaches to our own mental well-being, as well as solidarity with those in crisis. This was the dual interest of an article we wrote for Shift Magazine, ‘Possessed or Dispossessed’ (Shift Magazine, Issue 9).
Here we asked of the anti-capitalist Left: ‘Where is mental health on your agenda?’ Mental health appears low on the list of priorities of the anticapitalist Left’s activities. We won’t be the first to say that there has been a surprising lull in Leftist activity in the face of the crisis, however challenges to health-care reforms have been one arena in which the Left is currently fairly vocal. Why then is the capitalist ideology that underpins the hugely oppressive institution of the psychiatric and mental health services still mostly unchallenged?
We brought these questions to a workshop at the OKasional Cafe in Manchester, a squatted social centre that aims to bring people together to explore radical ideas and alternatives. There was a huge interest in the workshop, titled ‘Are we OK?’ Discussions ranged from the pressures of activism on our personal and social lives (and a realisation that this is often taken for granted!) to what a re-thinking and re-structuring of mental health services might look like.
Attended largely by activists involved in other social justice issues, and marginalised mental health practitioners (including members of the Asylum team), this time we were left asking, should ‘anti-capitalism’ be more of a focus for the movement toward democratic psychiatry? In our call out we posed these questions, and were overwhelmed by the variety and conviction of the responses.
From mental health practitioners who found Occupy, with its challenge to the 1%, an appropriate platform to begin discussions around tackling Big Pharma and the economising and marketising of mental health services, to the stories of those who work in the field, and the challenges they face and pose to mainstream services.
Of course, capitalism is a global system of oppression, and some of our authors have explored the impacts of poverty and climate change on mental health (‘Decent Food’, ‘Climate Change’). Finally Nikki takes a look at those who find themselves at the borderlands of global inequality: crossing borders to seek refuge from the poverty or conflict imposed by the pursuit of capital overseas and the plundering of local resources and exploitation of trade.
Some are only seeking some of the very wealth which has been generated by this exploitation. Considering our debt to these countries, does the UK provide a safe haven, nourishing the mental health and well-being of those who migrate or seek asylum? There is a lot covered in this issue, and at first glance the problems might appear overwhelming: Where do we start? What can I do? All the authors rally against the way capital tends to individualise and pathologise social, cultural and mental variety.
Maybe one way forward is to find our communities, to begin to celebrate and tolerate their diversity, and to work together to form networks of support and resistance. With friends and comrades we have the strength to keep moving forward; with open minds we have the courage to question and to resist without the constraints of certainties, answers and ‘cures’. As the Zapatistas say: ‘Preguntando caminamos’ Asking we walk. We’ll keep advancing whatever the uncertainties.
Lauren Wroe & Jane Stratton
- Special Issue Anti-capitalism and Mental Health
- Editorial: Lauren Wroe and Jane Stratton
- Politicising the anti-psychiatry movement by Emma Chorlton p.4
- Towards psychological revolt against the machines of subjection by Bertie Russell p.5 -6
- Broken system, not broken people by Michael Richmond p.7 – 8
- Rise up/fight back: selected writings of an antipsychiatry activist by Don Weitz p.8.
- Is ‘mental illness’ a barrier to getting involved? by Rose Stambe, David Fryer, Sahra Dauncey and Stephanie Hicks p.9 – 11
- News: Three-quarters of those in need get no mental health treatment p.11.
- Cartoon strip by Elinor p. 12-13.
- The doctor ignorantia by Bruce Scott p.14 -15.
- News: Association of self-harm with being bullied as a child p.16.
- ‘Illness like any other’: what does that really mean? by Hugh Middleton pp 17-19.
- The politics of psychotherapy by Jean-Francois Jacques p.20 – 21.
- A therapist in secure services by Julia K Horn p.21 22.
- It’s your problem but you need us to help you to fix it: The paradox at the heart of the improving access to psychological therapies agenda by Ewen Speed and Danny Taggart p. 23 -24.
- Blur the boundaries, but get organised (anonymous Community Mental Health Nurse and a UNISON activist) p.24 – 25
- Against superheroes and martyrdom: reflections on burnout by Andi Sidwell p.26 – 27.
- Mental health: the struggle for decent food by Shaun Whittaker p.27 – 28
- The psychological impact of the British asylum and immigration system on female victims of torture by Niki Taylor p.28 – 29
- Climate change: its impact on physical and psychological dislocation and on the incidence of alcohol and drug use disorders: by Argeo Maviglia and Marcello Maviglia p.30-31.