Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and blogger, who alongside journalist Rachel England host the Brain Yapping podcast. Dolly Sen have a listen to the first in new series being released on the Cosmic Shambles website
The Brain Yapping podcast has been going for a while and offers a populist approach to brain science. Previous episodes include light-hearted explorations of phenomena like procrastination and culture shock. I didn’t know about their work but was interested in their latest podcast entitled ‘Trauma within trauma’, talking about experiencing poor mental health during a global pandemic.
The whole world is undergoing a collective trauma because of Covid-19, for some the trauma is worse than for others. Tragically, Dr Burnett lost close family members to Covid and his mental health suffered, partly because grief is the rawest of pain and the most heart-breaking of silences, and partly because friends couldn’t support him in person because of Covid restrictions. “Harrowing” he called it, and absolutely it is. Grief is love emptied and a pain unendurably endured. This country has 100,000 versions of emptied chairs, beds, arms, thanks to the mismanagement by this government. 66,000 of those being disabled people.
But Burnett lost me when he expressed distaste for people who he thought ‘defined’ or ‘identified themselves’ by their ‘suffering’. He showed little or no understanding of disability politics. He seems to imply that talking about oppression is a game of one-upmanship. He said: “when suffering becomes part of who you are… there are lots of comedians who will talk about their mental health problems… as part of their persona; and they can’t then afford to acknowledge someone elses’ worst state.”
He then went on to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and how it has taken over social media and made him feel he couldn’t talk about the grief he was going through. The thing is, he could. I still reach out to people undergoing individual grief, and I support whole sections of people devastated by the unrelenting grief of oppressive cruelty. Burnett did not clarify what he really meant in what he describes as ‘the hierarchy of suffering’ where you are meant to ‘know your place’?
Burnett says he doesn’t want to come across as a privileged straight white man, but by saying that he does, unfortunately. If I didn’t define myself as a disabled person, my place in the world could not be mapped or changed for the better. I think these kinds of podcasts from the ‘worried well’ – who fail to acknowledge the restrictions and loss of liberty experienced for years by disabled people – do not connect with those of us who have lived lives of trauma, within multiples experiences of trauma.
Dr Burnett could have asked what constitutes madness in these times as the goalposts have been planted in shifting sands. What about talking about the inequalities which have made Covid-19 raze some lives like a napalm hit. He is honest about feeling ‘battle damaged’, but imagine if your whole life is a war, and will continue to be, even once Covid-19 becomes a more manageable spectre.
I wasn’t angry at this podcast. There was just a lot missing for me. When people are talking about their first long haul journey of mental pain and loss of freedom, some us are so far down the road and want to shout, “Hurry the fuck up and let’s change the world.”
To tune in to Dr Dean Burnett and Rachel England’s Brain Yapping podcast go to the Cosmic Shambles website for links to multiple platforms where the broadcast is shared.