5th ESRC seminar – Stories and narratives in mental health

Just a few notes on the thought provoking contributions to the second York seminar on 3 March 2017.

The starting point for the seminar series was that co-production should involve authentic power-sharing and a fundamental democratising of relationships connected to wider issues of citizenship. We’re all too well aware, of course, that reality stands in stark contrast with this ideal. Professional practices tend to be based on a zero-sum understanding of power that perpetuates the privileging of professional knowledge over expertise by experience.

Seminar 5 focused on considering whether personal testimonies/stories have the potential to contribute to more democratic and humanising practices in mental health. In other words, can co-production through storytelling legitimise expertise by experience so that survivors are reinstated as citizens?

The speakers offered different perspectives.

Tricia Thorpe and Vanessa Findlay – What is a story? What is a narrative?

Tricia emphasise that through exchanging our stories we learn about each other, we become interested in each other, and we find commonalities in our experiences. Stories are powerful and have an important effect on others.

Tricia shared her experiences of mental health services – abused, over-medicated and institutionalised. She identified how it took a long time for her own story to influence her own care plan. One nurse supported her art interests and she was gradually empowered to find her voice. This was integral to her recovery. “We need to prove ourselves”, but sometimes we try to take too much on board leading to failure. Listening is important, but we are losing the ability to listen and talk. Our stories will only enter conversations if people listen attentively and with openness.

Stories often get lost in mental health services as we are too rushed. Relying on form-filling dehumanises people. We need to listen and learn about people. People are known by their diagnosis rather than being recognised as people (with legitimate knowledge and views) who have much to contribute.

Vanessa shared her story and described how thoughts and emotions in childhood affected her. She used self-harm as a way of controlling emotions and releasing them. Bereavements and challenges at home contributed to her distress. However, she kept it from her parents and saw CAMHS without them being aware. She was angry and frustrated. She hated herself so much that she wanted to self-combust. At 18 she wanted to stop and sought a career in mental health nursing, but a year in things become challenging for her. She wanted to end her life and had a series of hospital admissions due to a series of suicide attempts. It has been a long journey for her, but she is working towards recovery.

What is the impact of story-telling for Vanessa?

Vanessa finds it empowering to share her story. Professionals’ notes become quite different from her own story. By telling it, she re-takes ownership of her story. It engages people and enhances connectivity.

Tricia and Vanessa’s stories raised questions regarding the legitimacy of certain types of knowledge and ways of knowing. Professional knowledge excludes personal testimonies, and professionals are not ‘permitted’ to view their own stories as a source of expertise. Professional expertise is defined almost uniquely in terms of formal knowledge, and this means that much is lost. But how do we find the time for stories?

Mick McKeown & Helen Spandler – Truth and Reconciliation in Psychiatry

Before genuine progress ca be made, a process of truth and reconciliation is required which can result in changes in power by enabling democratic and dialogic deliberation. Perhaps we need a truth and reconciliation process before we can do something more authentically co-productive. Healing is required and we cannot assume neutrality. Power imbalances impede genuine coproduction. Acknowledgement of the harm which psychiatry has caused is a necessary precursor to co-production.

There are models of trauma-informed care which recognise that mental health services can re-traumatise people. We need to bear this in mind when considering co-production. Being critically-minded is important.

Public apologies for harm caused by mental health system is required, but perhaps unlikely to happen. However, in the US a process of truth and reconciliation is happening. They started with the idea of healing circles which brought together survivors and workers. They told their stories, without interruption or judgement. It was about acknowledging their experiences. It brought together people who felt damaged and those who felt helped by psychiatry. This process enabled these people to have a dialogue.

Will truth and reconciliation work when ‘psychiatry is God’? The power of psychiatry within the mental health system still needs to be challenged, but a truth and reconciliation process could help to empower people. Revolutionary change in services will not happen overnight – it is a long process towards change. Listening to individual stories is integral to the process.

Brendan Stone & Shirin Teifouri – The Impossibility of Co-Production

The word “narrative” goes back to the ancient Sanskrit “gna,” a term that means “know”. Stories are a way of knowing the world. Brendan describes himself as a ‘narrative sceptic’ – stories are a way of telling the truth (for today), but the story may change tomorrow. So what’s authentic today may no longer be relevant tomorrow.

Stories can be oppressive. It is possible to forget all the other aspects of yourself if your narrative/story is all about distress. Emphasising the suffering can exclude or occlude other aspects of your humanity. This needs to be considered when thinking about story. Not everybody thinks about their lives in narrative or linear terms as one continuous story. Brendan sees himself as an ‘episodic’ who sees his sense of self as discontinuous over time. Episodics do not regard their present self as the same self which existed in the past or will exist in the future.

Ultimately, we can only get close to what it is to be human by using language which is poetic. Often fragments of conversation are the important ones.

Imbalance of power in mental health services stands in the way of genuine co-production. Power relations are implicated in the construction of mental distress and limits the stories that can be told. Narratives of risk and harm are imposed on people. Perhaps we should start by co-writing narratives about risk or harm and policies.

Co-production is both possible and impossible. Perhaps we need to think in terms of co-presence: that is full, active, transformative participation>

Mental health discourse in the UK is not inclusive or culturally-sensitive. Everyone has a voice, but not everyone is heard. Being a member of a minority is akin to being ‘stateless’ – a non-citizen, and therefore powerless. Can co-production be possible where there is a fundamental asymmetry of power and one partner is ‘stateless’? Co-production requires that everyone questions their own values and assumptions – it requires an openness which is very hard to achieve, especially for those with power… We have to ask ourselves “How willing am I to be changed?” Unless we are all open to being changed, then co-production is not possible. We must consider which ways of knowing are permissible in the co-production space.

Co-production is an aspiration (a process rather than a destination), but we need to have a vision in order to enable us to keep on walking in the right direction. Co-production is ultimately a utopia but one that can inspire and energise us to keep walking in the right direction.

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