My experience of mental illness is a long time ago now. It’s ten years since I was discharged from the mental health system. But between 1997 and 2008, I was a ‘care-in-the-community client’, or ‘severe and enduringly ill patient’, a ‘service user’, and so on. I got a lot of labels… quite a few diagnoses. That’s what being in the mental health system gets you.
By 2008 I was already mentally well – although it seemed then that no one around me noticed. When you have labels such as ‘personality disorder’ and ‘psychosis’ attached to your notes and life, despite protestations of your recovery – society, systems and people have been led to believe that you cannot change.
The received narrative is that once labelled as ‘other’ you can’t find ways to make sense of adversity and unusual experiences or to flourish. The media bleat on about it constantly – depression is a ‘life-long condition’ – only medication works – once diagnosed always mad, bad or sad.
A few years ago I discovered this quote on Wikipedia:
“Labeling theory is about how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms.”
For years I’ve been increasingly outraged by traditional psychiatric diagnosis. I’ve read about its history – how the dominant framework, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), has been constructed and influenced by insurance actuaries, the power of Big Pharma and the medical profession. Anyone like me who has cracked up due to overwork, historical abuse, trauma or stress doesn’t stand a chance. We are to be labelled – ‘difficult’, ‘disordered’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘different’.
So when I read this definition I felt joy. This labelling was a THING…!
Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote about it a few years ago:
On day 326 I’m at the Day Centre Barbecue – with more friends!
We’re rebellious or conventional,
Old or young, rich or poor.
We’re frightened. We need help
We need each other, we need a laugh
We need a barbecue, and the pub on Friday afternoons
We need Steve standing on his chair reciting a poem
We’ve all had sad, bad or traumatic times and yet the world calls us:
Certifiable, deranged, sick in the head, nutty as a fruitcake…
Daft, dotty and mad
Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder
Disorder, Disorder, Disorder
Us, mad? Us disordered?
Get away with you now, look at the world!
What’s that in your eye?
My short spell as ‘service user rep’ in the mental health system made me realise that art was the only way I could process my indignation at being labelled. Art saved me. And I got better, eventually, and escaped the mental health system for good in 2008.
Great & Tiny War – my show in Newcastle – is going great guns. We are all thrilled with how many people are coming, the variety of ways they are responding and by all the new people we are meeting and working with.
The show reflects on the war, on feminism and on women’s domestic roles in war – but especially considers what happened after wars. The impact of combat on the mental health of soldiers, now described as PTSD, has recently become widely acknowledged. Another label but well-meant this time I suppose? It seems timely to reflect on the cost of WW1 on life in the home, and to consider its legacy within families and think about transgenerational trauma.
But this labelling business keeps bugging me the more I reflect on it. The psych profession would describe this as being hypersensitive… I call it just plain sensible to be wary and on the lookout for people who want to categorise or box up your work so as to diminish what you believe in or make.
Earlier this year, searching through past reviews of my work for good quotes to put in the press release I noticed the same words popped out again and again – here’s some examples taken from loads of similar ones:
“daft sweetness” Boston Globe 1989
“endearingly dotty” Elle Magazine 1991
“Kitchen Show is one of the wackier offerings of this year’s festival” Daily Telegraph 1991
And an example from one of Lyn Gardner’s reviews in The Guardian of my work always interspersed with words like this: “quirky … whimsy… batty persona…” about How To Shop in 1993.
Dotty, batty, daft, sweet, quirky, whimsy, wacky – bet they wouldn’t dare use that about subversive feminist artwork these days… or would they? It’s as hard to escape being labelled in the art world as anywhere else, it seems.
Here’s a great quote from Marc Steene at the recent Unlimited Conference:
“As a society we consciously seek to apply labels to everything, we do not like ambiguity, but as we can see from recent history, labels are incredibly powerful and can be used to maintain a hierarchy in which people are subordinated to lesser positions in our society. We need only to look at the ongoing and important debate around the medical and social model definitions of disability. Put simply, the social model argument states that it is society that disables people, not their impairments. The medical and wider society still seeks to label and define people by their disability, missing the important moral and fundamental issue that we are all people first and foremost no matter what health or other life circumstance we face.”
When I searched through the box of press cuttings I found one from when I toured Drawing on a Mother’s Experience in Australia in 1992. The subheading is:
“Is Australia ready for the human Swiss Roll?”
It really cheered me up – much more my cup of tea and here’s a slice of my sort of cake (pictured) to go with it.