This is a slightly different blog post about a talk I went to called ‘Gender and mental health: what can history teach us?’ that was part of the brilliant (and free!) Being Human festival of the humanities, now in its second year.
Consisting of a panel of highly intelligent and compassionate academic speakers, the talk’s topics ranged from the gendered environments of the mental asylums of the Victorian period and early twentieth century, to modern constructions of masculinity, mental health and “madness”.
This talk was hosted by publisher Palgrave Macmillan, who are the biggest publishers of humanities books, and the central purpose was to bring the relevance and importance of the humanities (such as history) to wider public awareness.
It focused on the perspectives that history can bring to modern discourse on mental health issues, how related social constructs such as masculinity change over time, and how our current models of mental health and illness are almost certainly inadequate.
I have to say, I haven’t heard anything as mind-blowingly true since university, when I found out I had been a victim of sexism all my life (who knew?!).
The speakers perfectly fused the near-crystal clarity of a historical perspective with far muddier modern discourse on mental health issues. It seems that with regard to Victorian “sanatoriums”, these institutions were presented as almost holiday resorts for the slightly deviant, before eventually morphing into the far darker “aslyums” that were prevalent until the 1980s. You can find out more in a book by Jane Hamlett called At Home in the Institution.
It was fascinating to learn from another speaker, Louise Hide, that sanatoriums attracted former members of the armed forces to work there, due to their regimented structure, and emphasis on the physical burliness needed to restrain patients not under the control of modern psychotropic drugs.
Tim Lomas spoke about the relationship between masculinity, meditation and mental health, which is basically that increased emotional intelligence in men as a result of their practicing meditation techniques, though helpful, can often lead to unexpected social consequences such as peer pressure to return to their old, unhealthy ways of dealing with their emotions. I am sure this research study must be groundbreaking.
The panel, though dazzlingly interesting, was satisfyingly short to keep one wanting more, with most of the evening taken up by an audience Q&A. Psychologist Peter Kinderman was a fantastic chair and speaker, keeping up an exciting flow of conversation that gave lots of people a chance to speak.
All questions were interesting and relevant, testament to the intelligence and compassion bristling in the room. It was particularly delightful to hear from a recently-qualified mental health nurse, who successfully brought the less “academic” world into the discussion by revealing how mental health professionals in the NHS are bound to make diagnoses for people they treat, in order to receive payment for their time.
And of course the entire talk was about why psychiatric labels like “social anxiety disorder” and “depression” are unhelpful at best and potentially dangerous at worst, naturally presenting a huge challenge to any kind of call for change.
But we mustn’t forget the real people who are at the centre of the whole discussion who have actually suffered from a mental health problem, and that’s pretty much everyone. Many people know what it’s like to struggle with their own mental health issues or to support a loved one, and how it can be so hard to fight a system that frequently operates by reducing the variety of human experience to black and white categories.
And of course, it’s so important that new ideas like “the mental health system needs to change” are given a public platform, because inadequacies in our current system harm people every day.
In my opinion, the mental health system is one of the biggest problems in our society today, and Peter Kinderman presented an elegantly simple solution: fight inequality and poverty, and you also combat the causes of mental health problems, in line with all the evidence from research studies. So obvious, and yet so often ignored.
And that’s why it’s brilliant that Palgrave Macmillan were behind this particular talk (in partnership with the Being Human festival). It never occurred to me that such a big publishing house could be an agent of social change – and yet with only subtle branding hints present at the event – but my view has been forever changed.
This talk was a perfect example of a profit-motivated organisation like Palgrave Macmillan wielding its economic power to do some good in the world. They achieved this by teaming up with compassionate and insightful academics, and supporting an exciting, inspiring and forward-thinking cultural festival like Being Human that is promoting some real change in the conversations and thoughts of the public.
Not once did the atmosphere become angry or tense or judgmental, as it was totally inspiring and uplifting. It gave voice to an idea that begins as a quiet suspicion in one’s mind, which then grows to an obvious truth that no one else seems to be speaking – until now. And whether it’s a case of being preached to as the choir, or the joy of being in a room full of people who share your rather unusual (!) opinion, doesn’t really matter.
Another great thing about Being Human festival is that the events programme spans over 250 across the UK, with many taking place in universities, and thus deftly avoiding the tempting trap of focusing only on London.
It must be emphasised that this was a free event, and yet so well-organised with lovely staff too. I am very much looking forward to reading my signed copy of Peter Kinderman’s book A Prescription for Psychiatry and absorbing the amazing common-sense insights it certainly contains, though it must be said I would have bought all the books on sale last night if I could have afforded it.
This talk was free and held at The Stables in King’s Cross on 18th November 2015. Find more free events to go to for the Being Human festival or support its partner Palgrave Macmillan by buying one of their super interesting humanities books.