Mental health and the medical model: reclaiming the languages of lunacy


On 24 and 25 April as part of a residency at The Art House in Wakefield, writer and performance artist gobscure invited applications from artists with lived experience of mental distress to join him for an ‘unreliable narrator’ tour as part of his ‘reclaiming the languages of lunacy’ residency. Colin Hambrook reflects on the themes the day brought up.

gobscure on stage at the Arthouse

gobscure performing ‘with added nuts’. Photograph © Axisweb

I had been searching for a spark to light up the creative juices to help me kickstart some Fools’ Gold writing onto the page. Fools’ Gold is a self-propelled project set to raise questions around writing and art that is informed by mental health issues.

Why is it that no matter how much trouble you go to, to contextualise your words and images, all roads lead to a medical model of madness? Why is the medicalisation of madness so deeply ingrained within the narrative around mental health, that even when neuroleptic drugs like Olanzapine profess unashamedly that they can cause ’sudden death’ then still we believe they exist for our benefit. How can ‘sudden death’ be good for you?

I’ve followed gobscure’s work over many years and knew he’d be an artist with a pertinent few things to say on art and mental health, and the subject of his residency was perfect for the concerns of my research − and the writing for performance I was hoping to achieve as a result.

Our introduction to the residency began with a low-tech evening performance of gobscure’s with added nuts − mixing personal storytelling, comedy and live art: a show that he has been touring to venues around the UK. gobscure has a rare talent for presenting heavy and difficult subjects with a light and engaging touch. His gift is to pick on the absurdity of the iniquities committed in the name of authority and to play with mad words and mad concepts: all our madnesses.

Possibly the most extreme ‘diagnosis’ he recalled from a flit through the history of Psychiatry was drapetomania – a mental disorder instituted within psychiatric practice in 1851 by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright for Black slaves who deemed to break their shackles and flee captivity. Cartwright’s ‘cure’ was to break the individual’s big toes, so he could still work, but could no longer run.

are we mad - or are we made - drawn on a t-shirt and printed white on black

are we mad – or are we made – drawn on a t-shirt

A theme that ran through both the performance and the following day’s tour of Wakefield was held within one of gobscure’s characteristic play on words: ‘are we mad? or are we mad/e?’ That short sentence holds within it several hundred years of conjecture around whether mental ill-health is created by chemical imbalances within the brain or by environmental conditions and the circumstances we are subject to as human beings. It also implies a question about whether madness is within or without.

To press his point further, gobscure took us firstly to a commercial development close by The Art House − bringing to our attention the huge number of signs screaming from every corner. If you look you will find the urban environment is full to the brim of ‘truths’ and ‘demands’ that seem to present the cold light of reality. But are these instructions as benign and dispassionate as we are meant to believe? Our streets are awash with signs telling us the ‘truth’ − but from whose perspective? Merchant Gate is the site of “convenience in a thriving community”. It is “your brand” “bringing life back to the city”.

A series of signs stood out competing between PIP Consultation Centre, Professional Services Centre and the Probation service with a plethora of maps and instructions telling you which door was which. Ordinarily you would evacuate such a brutal and utilitarian environment but it was fascinating to look and consider more closely. The signs are all backed up by several CCTV cameras (the UK holds the world record with one camera for every 12 people) ensuring you take note. The best instruction said simply ‘please do not’ − says it all, really.

And although Theresa May might tell us that “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” from CCTV, that takes no account of what surveillance does on a psychological level in undermining any feeling we might lay claim to of a right to be in the world. It comes back to mental health, and the staggering ways in which we needlessly and thoughtlessly do harm to each other, to society. Developments like Merchant Gate are for no-one and for everyone, places without any real meaning or purpose.

a new, less intimidating instruction to remind people they are being watched by cctv, reads 'smile on, system opera by'

a new, less intimidating instruction to remind people they are being watched by cctv.

gobscure’s observations and plays on the environment − he places an image of a sign with a flower exhorting readers to ‘smile on’ across the cynical sign ‘smile you’re on CCTV’ − as a reminder of how far we’ve come in reducing our lived environment to robot dreams.

It has been a development of the last 50 years, ever since the decision was made (again by who?) to steal the streets from our children and give them over to ugly, lethal metal boxes that pollute our atmosphere, spewing out cancer fumes and making it impossible for many plant forms, animal and bird life to prosper. As a species we are determined to murder the planet, but of course, there’s nothing ‘mad’ about that, is there?

Reclaiming our streets, our environment, our mental hospitals is maybe not so easy. All is tied up in capital. We’re told it’s to our advantage but when do the men who make the decisions and make the bucks ever visit these spaces? However, evoking Patti Smith the one thing we can do, that gobscure advocates is to learn to use language as a weapon in the war that is being waged.

The narrative has been continually stolen and reappropriated (gobscure told a story of having been prosecuted for theft for taking his hospital records and spilling them like leaves in the Thames river), but we can tell better stories, change the narrative around mental health.

artist, gobscure takes a group of participants to Merchant Gate as part of his tour of Wakefield

gobscure delivering his tour. Photograph © Axisweb

gobscure is told he is an ‘unreliable narrator’ when it comes to his telling of the story of his life. We celebrate his ‘unreliability’ because therein lies a wealth of creative talent and ideas that have infinitely more potency than the broken narrative of the peddler of neuroleptic drugs designed to disable.

The tour ends with a visit to the mental health museum within Fieldhead Hospital. Having taken artefacts, equipment (including a padded cell fitted with improved inspection), clothing, records of assessment and stories of inmates and staff from the old Stanley Royd County Asylum, the museum presents the life and the ideas behind psychiatry through its history from the mid-19th century to the present, with displays of current interpretations of the conundrum that is mental health.

The group of us who have spent the day with gobscure, treated to his unreliable stream of poetry and ideas are given tools and exhorted throughout the day to add our own creative expression for an exhibition to be held at The Art House at the end of the residency on 27 September.

Click on this link to visit The Art House website for more information about gobscure’s ‘reclaiming the languages of lunacy residency, supported by Arts Council England, Change Makers – an Arts Council England funding initiative aiming to increase the diversity of senior leadership in art and culture, providing development opportunities for organisations to work towards reflecting the diversity of contemporary society through their programmes, and across their audiences, workforce and partnerships.