As I start writing this entry, today, Monday 10 October, is World Mental Health Day, so I thought I’d write an entry to celebrate it.
“Mad Pride” is a movement of people who argue that individuals with mental health issues should be proud of their “mad” identity. According to its Wikipedia entry, the movement started in 1993 in Toronto in response to local prejudice towards people with a psychiatric history, and grew from there. Mad Pride seeks to educate people about mental illness, and also to “reclaim” terms of abuse such as “nutter”. I have mixed feelings about this idea. On the one hand educating people is obviously good, as is identifying and preventing psychiatric abuse. We also need to be wary about what is labelled as “ill” or “mad”. In 1860 Elizabeth Packard was committed by her husband to Jacksonville Insane asylum for three years by her husband because she disagreed with her his religious and political beliefs and with the way he treated her. Most people have heard of the misuse of psychiatry in the USSR, with the hospitalisation and enforced treatment of people with anti-state and anti-communist views, a “disorder” that was charmingly called “delusion of reformism”. There was also Walter Freeman’s use of lobotomy, performing several thousand lobotomies across the USA spanning decades, including one on a child of just four. Virtually everyone would agree that these sorts of things are wrong, but on the other hand, being anxious or depressed is utterly miserable. Would anyone say they’re glad to have cancer? I doubt it very much. We can have pride in coping, pride in surviving, definitely, but pride and joy in being mad?
Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the idea of the movement. Of course some mental health conditions have positives as well as negatives, such as the bursts of energy and creativity that go with bipolar disorder, but whether people think the ups are worth the downs is highly debatable, and the suicide rate in this group suggests many don’t. I don’t also mind – indeed I quite enjoy – being neurodivergent. There is nothing “wrong” with me just because I’m very introverted, and don’t much care for social activity, or am “on the spectrum”, but these things don’t cause me suffering, apart from when other people tell me I shouldn’t be this way, and in that respect I am right behind “difference pride” movement. There is also some vagueness associated with the term “mad”; people say so-and-so is mad because of their unusual behaviour, but they don’t really mean that person is suffering from a mental illness. The key word here is “suffering”: the suffering mental illness can cause is horrible, and definitely not to be celebrated.
It is extremely important to be able to say that you have mental health difficulties without feeling shame or with there being any stigma attached. The situation used to be much worse, and still many people feel embarrassed about being mentally unwell. They shouldn’t. To take my favourite analogy, people don’t feel stigmatised and ashamed because they have cancer (although admittedly once there was some stigma attached to it, because it was so poorly understood and usually a death sentence; my mother would never refer to it by name, simply calling it “tthe c-word”””, which was often confusing for the young me just learning a few swear words). The brain is an organ like any others, and mental illness is a brain disorder (albeit a complex one, involving genes and upbringing). You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to say you had a pancreatic disorder; so why should you feel shame about your brain going wrong? My mother, yet again, though often very ill with depression and OCD, would refuse to do anything about it, because, she thought, she should be able to control it; if only she were strong enough the depression would go. I am not saying that attitude and taking some responsibility aren’t important, simply that we should accept mental illness has some physical basis and that we should not feel shame because we are ill. Neither am I saying that there are not psychological influences on physical health and illness, when there clearly are, but there are limits to what we can do.
If I could excise mental illness from my health, would I? It is so difficult to imagine life with just the bad bits cut out, and the bad bits influence the good too. Would I be able to write and be a scientist without any OCD, for example? It makes me think of that episode of Dr Who, The genesis of the Daleks, when the Doctor decides against killing all the Daleks at their inception because he concludes they have done more good in uniting the universe than they did harm. I wouldn’t be me without my mental health problems. It has shaped my personality, and given me a degree of resilience I probably wouldn’t otherwise have. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, as Nietzsche said in his Twilight of the Idols.
Finally some explanation. I let my subscription to WordPress lapse because it costs money and like most others I am trying to cut back. I tried hosting this blog on my website, but it’s clear that many people prefer this way of reading the material, and I can see why, so I have renewed my subscription. Please do check out my website though because there is a lot of material there:
Anyway, stay healthy, stay proud, don’t feel shame or embarrassment about mental health, and seek help if you need it. There is no point in suffering in silence. And the best of luck to Mad Pride; the only way we will overcome stigma about mental health issues is by being honest.