Content notification: racism, psychiatric violence
Let me tell you a story.
It’s a story about mental illness.
And it goes something like this:
Once upon a time, people who were tired and sad all the time, nervous, or saw visions, were considered lazy, weird, and crazy (and okay, there was also some stuff about madness as divine or magical, but I’m not going to get into that now).
This story was revised throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the updated version, which persists today, mental illness was caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain-
serotonin dopamine not sure- and could be fixed with the right medication, a positive outlook on life, and self-care activities like meditation and yoga. If you ignore the forced incarceration and electroshock therapy, the experimental brain surgery and abuse in psychiatric institutions, this story at least shifts the blame off bad people and onto bad biology. (But we’re still bad).
Of course, for the thousands of people for whom medication and mindfulness don’t work, and for everyone who doesn’t have access to drugs or self-care, we’re back to the first version. Now we have Good mentally ill citizens who follow their doctor’s orders and overcome trauma, disability, and grief, and the Bad people who just don’t want to get better.
Counterstories to this dominant narrative have been emerging, however, written and repeated by groups like Mad Pride, an anti psychiatry group and movement that was founded by psychiatric survivors. Mad Pride members celebrate what makes their minds and feelings different, protest human rights abuses, and critique those other stories that keep telling us we’re no good. Mad Pride- and other activists- also remind us that bodies don’t exist in isolation. Biology is not separate from culture. And our society, with it’s narrative of curing and overcoming madness, continues to make life harder for people living with mental illness- even as sexism, racism, colonialism, and neoliberalism produce and/or exacerbate mental illness.
January 31st was Bell Let’s Talk Day. Bell Let’s Talk is an annual mental health awareness campaign run by Bell Communications Company. It is also a well-developed multi-platform advertising campaign: for each tweet that uses the hashtag #bellletstalk, for every Bell Let’s Talk video watched on Instagram or Facebook, for every text sent on a Bell Canada phone (“turn off imessage!”), Bell will donate 5 cents to “mental health initiatives.” Bell has developed Instagram filters and Facebook profile picture frames. Through the guise of caring about mental health, Bell has ensured free advertising on numerous social media platforms.
Unlike Mad Pride, Bell Let’s Talk relies on story #2, a narrative of neoliberal individual responsibility, a celebration of overcoming and cure, and the continued marginalization of Mad bodies- particularly Mad Black and Indigenous people of colour. One of the spokespeople, a Black woman, is a trauma survivor, which lead to addiction, which lead to an arrest (racial profiling is not mentioned). In this story, she is rescued by a caring Judge who sends her to an addiction recovery program which helped her get “back on her feet” and taught her to “make the right choices.” Through hard work, she is able to take control of her life and integrate into society as an acceptable citizen. This story is horrifying for a number of reasons: it’s insistence on overcoming trauma, it’s refusal to acknowledge the violences that women of colour face in Canada that can be traumatic, and it’s celebration of a deeply racist, sexist, and violent criminal justice system. This story reproduces the white saviour trope, in which benevolent police officers, judges, and psychiatrists “save” Black women.
Her story is not unique. Of the 46 stories, many of which feature immigrants and people of colour, 23 (50%) include a positive experience with the psy-medical complex, citing the value of therapy, medication, hospitalization, psychiatry, psychology, or a combination of these treatments. I also read 13 (28%) of these testimonials as “overcoming” narratives. 9 testimonials (19%) feature celebrities, and list the awards and successes of the individuals with little or no reference to mental illness. We could read these testimonials as implied overcoming narratives, bringing the total from 28% to 48%. Two narratives also celebrate policing and the intervention of the criminal justice system.
While many of the stories discuss trauma, loss, and isolation, as well as harassment, discrimination and bullying (particularly people of colour and queer people), these narratives turn away from a cultural critique, instead venerating individuals for their “ironclad discipline,” and “inner strength,” for “taking responsibility” and “being an active participant in managing [their] mental health.” None of the testimonials critique the psychiatric industry, the criminal justice or police system, or discuss systemic discrimination and violence. We can read this depiction of mental illness as deeply neoliberal and individualistic, detached from the culture that produces, exacerbates, and polices Madness, Mad, queer, and female bodies, and Black and Indigenous people of colour.
If Bell wants us to talk, we need to talk about racial and colonial violence in relation to mental health. We need to talk about the mistreatment of patients. We need to talk about the failure of the medical industry to take social and cultural contexts into consideration. We need to talk about how Bell benefits from the stories of mentally ill Black women. And we need to remember that the stories we tell have very real consequences on Mad bodies.
I identified a story as “overcoming” if it 1) used a variation of the word “overcome,” 2) concluded with the individual finding peace and feeling significantly better than at the beginning of the narrative, or 3) concluded with the individual winning a scholarship, getting a degree, or some other conventional form of success. Individuals still struggling with relapses or the day-to-day work of managing mental illness were not included in my definition of “overcoming” narratives.