Humour in the Armour of Protest


In the first of Dolly Sen’s opinion pieces as DAO’s Guest Editor, the artist describes her art: challenging psychiatric wisdom by bringing light and humour into the world, with the help of a few mad angels.

Help the Normals' sticker on a charity collecting tin

Dolly Sen ‘Help the Normals’

What power does anything have if you laugh at it? I have always said that being human is an absurd and ridiculous career. It is very hard to take it seriously when the human condition seems to be irony’s ultimate plaything.

Mel Brooks said, “Humor is just another defense against the universe” and I agree with that. Humor has certainly helped me more than psychiatry. What psychiatric drug can equal laughter? Humor has also helped me campaign against the intrinsic problems of psychiatry, and to hold a mirror up to its hypocrisy.

If you are brutalized or abused by the mental health system and want to challenge and resist that, what can you do without it being pathologized as part of your condition? Anger is seen part of your madness; complaints will be ignored and invalidated because any criticism on our part is a feature of our delusion.

I have found humor and art the best way to connect with people who have no idea about psychiatry. It bypasses the conditioning the public has on all things about madness and psychiatry.  When you poke fun at something, unique ideas about it really open up for people. You are connecting human being to human being.

I have spent over 10 years being a mental health campaigner. I’ve done the committee thing, the media thing, the speaking to politician thing, the anti-stigma campaign thing, and what I have noticed is that I was preaching to the converted. It was only when I began using art and humour together that I was relating to more people.

People got what I was trying to get across. People were laughing at psychiatry with me. And I noticed psychiatry didn’t know what to do with the laughter directed at it. They know creating a disorder around laughter and satire will open them up for more and they are ill-equipped to fight back.

Madness can be joyous, celebratory, or it can be a label put upon someone for being different and refusing to play the game. Doing my activism this way means I have made some steps out of their game and am playing my own, putting psychiatry on the back foot.

But madness can also be deep, deep pain, and the only way I can cope with it is to find humor in it. Sometimes it is dark and defensive, sometimes it is healing. Healing in the way that laughing at something is seeing the humanness of my life and that I should give myself a break, that I am not as bad as psychiatry makes me out to be.

There is an alchemy that turns agony into something lighter in weight and easier to carry. It’s no accident that many comedians have had horrific childhoods. Richard Pryor grew up in a brothel, for instance. Life is an absurd career with arrogant sanity in charge. I put that sanity over my lap and slap its naughty arse. It’s fun too. I’m having the time of my life. If only you knew much of my work is made in pure laughter, and it’s utterly appropriate because psychiatry has so many pathetic elements to snicker at.

Sometime last year, a few people said to me that I should put all my creative anti-psychiatry work in one book. So I did. I called it ‘DSM 69’ as a send-up of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) but also showing by subverting or parodying the form you can then change the position of power to show how disturbing and fundamentally flawed psychiatric authority can be.

Satire is ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.’ I use it to make fools of people and systems that need making fools of. Time to return the favour after a couple of centuries of psychiatry doing that to us.

DSM 69 front cover

Dolly Sen’s DSM 69 front cover

The book has both serious and satirical texts, it has cartoons, art, poetry, even recipes (just in case you want to offer your psychiatrist a milk shake drink when he or she insists that meds don’t make you lactate).

For example, the prevalence and privileging of risk assessments and compliance in mental health needed addressing in a way that didn’t necessitate a denigration within my own risk assessment. Therefore, I created T.I.A.R.A. or The Institution Attendance Risk Assessment, or what can happen to you if you comply.

None of these sections below can be argued as things that don’t exist – anecdotal and academic evidence show that they do. Formed in this context, the act of non-compliance is a reasonable, understandable behavior. The act of non-compliance makes absolute sense.

When I present this to some professionals, a light switch goes on. They comprehend where I – and so many others – are coming from. A few might get defensive, but against the onslaught of satire, they don’t have a better, more coherent response.

When I show this kind of work to those who don’t work in psychiatry, they see why I am so angry, and their view of psychiatry as being a benevolent, caring establishment has gone forever.

Attendance risk assessment I had a brutalising experience in one the world’s most well-known psychiatric hospital years ago. I could have easily stood outside the hospital with a placard protesting, but the police would have moved me on, arrested me, and passers-by could dismiss me as ‘just another loony’.

I could have made a complaint and watch it go nowhere. I could have set up a petition but the lack of signatures on it would have made the Maudsley laugh.

However, writing a Trip Advisor review of my stay has a stronger, harder to ignore impact. Through humour and satire, I have made the staff there look uncaring and punitive, which they were. The more I laugh at psychiatry, the stronger my armour becomes.

Trip adviser review of the Maudsley hospital

As is expected, it was eventually taken down. After all, it wasn’t a holiday destination but I use it in training and stand-up to cut through any illusions that my hospital stay was for my own good.

I have also written some mental health guides, such as ‘how to avoid the diagnosis of schizophrenia’ or ‘how to make milkshakes from medication-induced lactation’. The one below is how to look after your arse when you are surrounded by arseholes.

Screenshot of a Dolly Sen mental health guide

These leaflets have little practical application; they are more to show people who have to go through this humiliation that they are not alone, and that we ensure people who humiliate them are made a laughing stock and ridiculed, and the power is in you for not being like them. It is irreverently sticking two fingers up at them. At the time of writing, psychiatry still doesn’t know what to do with humour. I will continue laughing at them.

But it doesn’t just extend to breaking things down but also to lifting things up. Over 10 years ago, I was part of a mad-run arts organisation ‘Creative Routes’. We wanted to do something for mental health day that was accessible to the community.

The local psychiatric hospital offered some of their display tables at an event, but they told us we couldn’t use words like ‘mad’ or critique local services. We told them to go forth and multiply.

Screwing a light bulb into the Sky'

Dolly Sen ‘Screwing a light bulb into the Sky’ © SLP

After a bit of fundraising, we put together the now legendary Bonkersfest at Camberwell Green in London in 2006. It was a free festival of music, art, creativity, film, poetry and fun. We showed our local community we were part of the landscape too. We weren’t people to be scared of. In the end, we had thousands of people attend and enjoy it. The display table at the hospital event had less than 15 people attend. Result!

When we needed community support to fight for important services, thanks to Bonkersfest, we had it. Apart from being one of the organisers, I performed a piece of live art. I walked around the park, with a step ladder under my arm and a lightbulb in my hand.

At certain points, I would climb the ladder to screw the lightbulb into the sky, proclaiming the world needs more light. One of the times I did this, a group of young boys stopped and asked me what I was doing. I told them I was screwing a lightbulb into the sky because the world needed more light. One of them said to me, “Go on then! Do it!”

I climbed a few steps up, and took a deep breath. I don’t know if it was luck, synchronicity, or mad angels on my side, but as I pretended to screw a lightbulb into the sky, the clouds parted and sun flooded the park. The kids stood there, flabbergasted and mouthed, “Wow.”

Humour brings light, does it not?

You can purchase ‘DSM 69’ from Amazon or from Eleusinian Press