Asylum and mental health in the COVID-19 lockdown

Ian Parker has the latest special issue of Asylum: Radical Mental Health Magazine.

This pandemic, a function of ecological destruction under capitalism, intensifies every existing form of oppression and misery. This includes, of course, those already shunted to the margins of society because they are economically unproductive, their ‘illness’ often arising from different forms of abuse and stress that psychiatrists too-often then attempt to straighten out with drugs and other physical treatments.

Asylum Magazine, founded in 1986 as a hospital ward newsletter, described itself for many years as a magazine for ‘democratic psychiatry’. This was a reference to the attempt by the far-left Psichiatria Democratica movement in Italy to close down the old mental hospitals, one that had partial success in Trieste in the northeast of the country.

Perhaps psychiatry can be ‘democratised’ or perhaps a full-flowering of democratic self-management of our lives will enable us to dispense with psychiatry altogether, who knows. What is certain is that the medical model for the forms of distress we experience in this wretched unequal society often makes things worse, and we need much more radical approaches to ‘mental health’. The latest special issue of Asylum Magazine was assembled fast to examine the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, and the diverse responses to it from users of mental health services. It includes articles and images and resources that are indispensable for a more humane world.

Mad resources

Among the resources highlighted in this issue of Asylum are those produced by MadCovid, which includes crowd-funded small grants to help mentally ill and neurodiverse people, and ‘Quaranzine’ which explores isolation at home as well as detention in hospital. The MadCovid Diaries bring together different perspectives on the crisis; this not only to draw attention to isolation and to break that isolation with zine and quiz initiatives, but also exploration of ways in which the lockdown also gives unexpected space to people who are otherwise subject to pressure to adapt to a hurried uncaring world. One of the accounts of lockdown by Frieda B, excerpted from her longer more detailed blog shows how ‘social distancing’ repeated experiences of restraint and humiliation in hospital after initial euphoria at being safe at home, no longer driven out to live a so-called ‘normal’ life.

Long involved in Asylum has been the Hearing Voices Network that brings together those who have been given a psychiatric label for their experience, and the Paranoia Network. The report on the recent Paranoia Network lockdown support initiatives includes noting that few people in these strange times are being seen by professionals – not necessarily a bad thing – and the way ‘the real horrors of the pandemic are similar to the unreal horrors of paranoid thoughts’.

The special issue also explores longer-standing debates about medical and non-medical approaches to mental health under these new conditions, including, among other things, a reflection on the recent controversial decision of the magazine to include a contribution by a mainstream psychiatrist. This reflection by a member of the Asylum Editorial Group is also included as an open-access sample article on the magazine website. There is a sharp letter complaining about that decision and a response by the editor, pointing out that the magazine does not shut down debate around mental health, including over medical models that many users of services still look to for support.

Medical models

Also in this issue and available on the website is a service-user manifesto – one of many such that the magazine has published over the years – and a Rosenhan experiment book review; volunteers were sent to mental hospitals in the early 1970s in the US as ‘pseudo-patients’ to demonstrate how easy it was to be admitted and how difficult it was to get out of the psychiatric system. It turns out that it is likely that Rosenhan may have fabricated some of the research, and this opens a question as to the value of the story as a powerful anecdote wielded over the years against medical psychiatry.

There are other book reviews, one on the way that the Rorschach blot test was used to pathologise gay people, but also brought in as evidence in the campaign to de-pathologise homosexuality (which was removed from the main medical psychiatric classification system in the US in 1973). Another is a review of a book on what is sometimes called ‘outsider art’, and this is complemented by art by Bryan Charnley, and some other fabulous images in the magazine. There is also plenty of poetry, as usual.

This special issue makes it clear that psychiatric survivor and Mad liberation movements must be part of any serious attempt to change the world. They turn their ‘illness’ into a weapon against the psychiatric system and are part of a broader movement to understand how it is that political problems are too-often and too-conveniently reduced to biological imbalances and chemical deficits.

Previous issues of the magazine on the back issues section of the Asylum website include ones devoted to racism and sexism. There is also a detailed list of resources and campaigns on the website. These forms of oppression, whether on grounds of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or psychiatric diagnosis, are symptoms of a sick society, and Asylum Magazine shows us that treating individuals who resist oppression as sick is part of the problem, an issue that should be on the agenda of socialists everywhere.

 

You can read and comment on this article here

 

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

 

 

 

 

Asylum Action and Reaction and Action

Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry has been going for over thirty years. It has had special issues on anti-capitalism, on disability, on queer and feminist and Black politics. It is an essential resource for linking different kinds of social movement. It celebrates its years of activity bringing together mental health system survivors, professionals willing to practice in a different way and academics who teach and carry out critical research. We celebrate and discuss on Wednesday 28 June 2017 in an International Conference that will bring together well over 100 activists from around the world.

The conference is in the Roscoe Building at the University of Manchester, with registration beginning at 9.30. We will gather together to hear about radical alternatives to medical psychiatry, and we will take stock of some of the debates that have been aired in the pages of our magazine over the last three decades. We have a big party on the evening of the 28 June, which we are inviting all those attending during the day to stay over for, along with activists from Manchester who will have chance to eat and drink and discuss and take forward the different initiatives that the magazine supports.

The theme of this special anniversary conference is ‘Action and Reaction’, and around that theme we will be bringing together debates over the different ways in which Asylum and its supporters and its friends in other radical mental health movements have been involved in action and what the consequences of some of the reactions to these initiatives have been.

The programme for the day is packed. The morning chaired by Helen Spandler and China Mills is organised around contributions on the questions of ‘Survivor-led Research’ (with Diana Rose), ‘Creative Responses (with Rufus May), ‘Therapeutic Support’ (with Yasmin Dewan), ‘Critical Psychiatry’ (with Joanna Moncrieff), ‘Anti-Psychiatry’ (with Roy Bard) and ‘Neoliberalism’ (with Mick McKeown).

We follow up these interventions with afternoon break-out sessions facilitated by special guests, and including contributions from Anne Plumb, Lili Fullerton, Jen Kilyon, ActivaMent, David Morgan, Nancy Leaver, Suman Fernando, Alex Dunedin, Phil Thomas, Rich Moth, Conor McCormack and David Branson. These contributions include discussion on the Soteria House movement, support for Whistleblowers and the Heidelberg Socialist Patients Collective. Alongside these afternoon break-out sessions we have workshops on ‘Psychosis and Trauma’ (with John Read and Bob Johson), ‘Can Clinical Psychology be Radical?’ (with Craig Newnes) and ‘Mad Love: Redesigning the Asylum’ (with Hannah Hull).

We have fantastic papers in the afternoon with Sam Warner and Clare Shaw, Chris Wood, Rowland Urey, Karlijn Roex, Wilson Franco and Paulo Beer and Dolly Sen. Our contributors come from across the UK, and we also have visitors from Brazil, Catalunya and Germany.

We round off the day with a plenary session with the editor and managing editor of Asylum Magazine (Phil Virden and Helen Spandler) to discuss future special issues and other possible events around the country that Alex Dunedin is already beginning to coordinate. Alex, of the Ragged University, will be collecting together digital versions of the posters and hosting them on the Ragged University Mad World Archive. We welcome more posters and stalls from different groups, please contact us about this on asylumconference2017@gmail.com

That is just the daytime! We finish the day event at 5pm, and then Alex has organised an evening event which will begin at 6pm and go on until late at Gullivers in Manchester City Centre. It is a large venue and there will be free food and drink and music and lots of chance to talk. Join us on the day, and the evening, and support us through crowd-funding for the event. If you are looking for accommodation, your best bet is to use www.booking.com, looking for somewhere near the Manchester University campus, for which the postcode is M13 9PL.

Links for 28 June Asylum Action and Reaction event:

Registration is still open at this link.

The programme for the day is here at this link

The crowd-funding link is here

The Asylum Magazine website is here

https://www.facebook.com/events/117183712033425/

You can contact us about the day at asylumconference2017@gmail.com

 

Post-Truth and Paranoia: Action, Reaction and Asylum

The last time round that the world was on the brink of self-destruction, the Marxist psychoanalyst Joel Kovel (and one-time candidate for the US Green Party presidential race) wrote a classic book on collective fear called ‘Against the State of Nuclear Terror’. The book was first published in the UK in 1984 linked to a Channel Four programme in the ‘Science in Society’ series (led by psychoanalytic Marxist Robert M Young) and then revised and republished in the US in 1999. Kovel’s analysis is still a useful starting point for thinking about what we are going through today with Trump as US President, but there are some nastier twists and turns in the last years that have made Kovel’s diagnosis of ‘paranoia’ even more relevant and even more dangerous to the left.

Kovel’s argument was that what seemed like the imminent destruction of the world through the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union induced a sense of helplessness and ‘paranoia’. This paranoia is very like the state of mind that psychiatrists think they can diagnose inside individuals – their sense that they are under threat and an attempt to identify enemies – but the difference is that the ‘state of nuclear terror’ was primarily a social process and it was then experienced by individuals who then shut themselves off from others in order to cope with that unbearable threat. Kovel, who was trained first as a medical psychiatrist before turning to psychoanalysis (something he then abandoned when he became a full-time political activist), thus turned psychiatry on its head. The problem did not lie inside individuals or their bad brain chemistry, but in political organisation.

Destructive political organisation, as in the times of the state of nuclear terror, led people to protect themselves and become more ‘individual’ than they had ever been before, and that ‘solution’ to distress was, of course, part of the problem. Kovel argued that the left needed to rethink its hierarchical forms of organisation and so find a way out of this individualist terrorised frame of mind. He argued for ‘affinity groups’ in which people could share their fear and work through it together, in the process discovering for themselves what the truth was about the world, about themselves and about forms of collective resistance. In this way they could understand the world through changing it.

This political analysis, and the options Kovel laid out as alternatives, relied on us taking a step back from the lies told by the United States military and the Soviet leadership. The arms race as a form of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) could only be tackled by declaring a plague on the houses of both sides, or, what was crucial, a plague on the masters of those houses. Truth would be something that would be discovered or constructed in the process of political mobilisation from the grassroots, and only this process would enable people to bit by bit trust each other as they started to trust their own responses to threat, to see those responses as clues to what was being done to them rather than as ‘symptoms’ of something wrong about them that could be patched up by a psychiatrist.

Now, in times of ‘post-truth’, 2016’s word of the year in the UK – a pernicious corrosion of trust in accounts of the world that then works its way into individuals so that they distrust others and distrust themselves – we are in a much more dangerous political situation. Trump is the symptom of that. Trump is the symptom not because he is a narcissistic or paranoid or bi-polar basket case – that way of approaching the problem will land us in a worse mess than we are in at the moment – but he functions as a symptom of ‘post-truth’ as a paranoid twisted universe of meaning that drives people into themselves away from politics, and then drives people mad as they lose any compass for finding their way around the world.

The attempt to ‘diagnose’ Trump using psychiatric categories is a dead-end, not only because we cannot possibly know what is going on inside his head – even a clinician working with him full-time over a long period of time would find that difficult – but also because the psychiatric categories we might grab hold of to reassure ourselves that we know why the real bad guy is really bad are themselves suspect and use of them will rebound and cut against us. Playing the diagnosis game de-politicises what is going on, and it reinforces the power of those, the psychiatrists, who deliberately or unwittingly (who knows, some psychiatrists do what they do with the best of intentions perhaps) divide us from each other and drug us and shock us to bring us into line with reality again, adapts us to bad reality, the reality that says there is no way of resisting, no way of changing the world.

To understand how potent ‘post-truth’ is to the Trump effect, and to the forms of paranoia it provokes across the political symbolic field, we need to understand where we are in historical-political context. The fall of the Soviet Union disoriented a generation of leftists, not only those who thought that Stalin, Brezhnev and Co. were the bees knees and that socialism was being built there, but also many leftists who had refused to accept that the Soviet Union had anything to do with socialism and that there needed to be a ‘political revolution’ to overthrow the bureaucracy that would be as far-reaching as a revolution in the West. The new regime in Russia under Putin has played on this disorientation, and in a very canny way, not by instituting a new regime of truth – not by the old fixed coordinates which would replace one symbolic reality of old socialism with a new one geared to the capitalist empire that now exists in Russia – but by corroding the ability of people to distinguish between truth and lies.

Putin has relied on a series of advisors to do this, and has succeeded in dissolving the difference between truth and reality by feeding into the public media, which is controlled by Putin, a variety of contradictory accounts of what is going on. The point of this, or at least let’s say the effect of this, is that ‘information’ as such becomes inseparable from propaganda, and people at some level know this. This is what we could call ‘the state of information terror’ in which the only reasonable response is paranoia. Now, leaving aside whether Putin interfered or not with Trump’s election as US President, this approach to ‘truth’ – that is, contempt for truth as a value as such – is something that Trump has made use of. Putin’s misogyny also chimes with Trump’s, as can be seen in the Duma motion to decriminalise domestic violence. It bears fruit first in the so-called ‘alt-right’ and then in Trump’s world of ‘alternative facts’. This a dangerous political process in which many of the left are so desperate for an alternative, for truth, that, even though they might even have come from political traditions that were once critical of the Soviet Union when it claimed to be socialist, they now unbelievably side with one ‘camp’ – the enemy of their enemy and then swallow whole all that the state propaganda machine in Moscow spews out. There is a twist here not only on Kovel’s ‘State of Nuclear Terror’ but also on neoliberalism as an individualising ideology that was beginning to take form back in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism rests on three elements that lock us into capitalism and then leaving us, it often seems and feels, with nowhere to hide. The shift to individual responsibility, first element, runs alongside the destruction of the welfare state, as the second element, and the imposition of a strong state, a third key element which is sometimes neglected in cultural analyses of neoliberalism. You have a check-list here of what Putin has done in Russia, and what Trump is doing in the US now. And that also means not only that many ‘alternative’ sites of information, the string of news outlets controlled by the Kremlin as a case in point, are devoted to misinformation, but also that we are each being driven into our individual selves, little mini-states, little prisons of the self; the uncertainty and misery becomes internalised, and the drive to internalise all that stuff is precisely part of the trap.

Kovel’s alternatives in the 1980s and 1990s relied on therapeutic work that would make the ‘affinity groups’ into places where the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ would be linked together again, the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ parts of our lives that are torn apart by our life under capitalism, and that are often, unfortunately torn apart by many left groups who don’t understand that capitalism is both a political-economic system and a ‘state of mind’ in which we are alienated from each other and alienated from ourselves. Today, with the destruction of mental health welfare services and the use of therapy by the state to force people back to work, it is all the more important to connect personal and collective distress through forms of self-organisation. It is not as if these attempts do not exist. The pity is that these alternatives are often ignored by the left. We can learn about these attempts to link the personal and the political from feminism, and also from radical mental health practice. There are hundreds of ‘Hearing Voices Groups’ in the UK, for example, that enable people to find alternatives to the pathologising victimising work of medical psychiatry. There are networks of activists, and ex-activists, for example, who participated in the formation of a ‘Paranoia Network’ which refuses medical diagnosis of what is, at root, a political problem. And there are many local groups operating as ‘mad women’ or ‘mad pride’ who reclaim their anger and channel it into protest. They do what the Socialist Patients Collective argued in Heidelberg many years ago, that we should ‘turn illness into a weapon’.

There are networks of the networks that the left needs to engage with, needs to participate in, such as the Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry which began as a news-sheet for psychiatric users and has, over the years, been central to the formation of the Hearing Voices Network in the late 1980s, to the Paranoia Network at a first national conference it facilitated in Manchester in 2004. Asylum, which was inspired by the movement Psichiatria Democratica in Italy in the 1980s, a movement which closed the medical mental hospitals, has organised many conferences in Manchester, the latest of which will be the 30-year celebration of the magazine in the ‘Asylum: Action and Reaction’ conference on 28 June 2017. Asylum over the years has consistently argued and mobilised against ‘the state of psychiatric terror’ that makes many people who want to speak out against the political manipulation that they experience keep quiet for fear of being medicated or locked up. There is truth in these experiences, not always direct and immediate, but, as is the case for all of our struggles against alienation, exploitation and oppression under capitalism, that truth can only be discovered, rebuilt through collective organisation.

This is a task for the left, a task that necessarily entails working with Asylum and with a range of other alternative mental health activist organisations. Being part of the June Asylum conference would take a step forward to building truth again against a paranoiac post-truth world.

 

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