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In other words: a review of Searching for a rose garden

30 August 2016

Nicky Hayward is a straight-talking conversational-style writer, mental health commentator, blogger and activist.  A survivor of serious emotional disorientation in her own right, a family shattered by 'mental health' challenges, her brother's suicide and years of interaction with the statutory services, she is able to draw on multiple perspectives.  She regularly contributes articles NSUN Members' Blogs page and writes a column for the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Blogzone: Carry On Caring  in whichshe explains it's her concern for the proverbial next person that motivates her to join the movement to help effect real and lasting change where mental health care in our society is concerned. She is an active campaigner on Twitter under the alias:  @NickyHay4Blog

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In Other Words.  A review of Searching for a rose garden(PCCS, 2016)

I discovered the PCCS publishing company in 2004, when a chance encounter with Dr Terry Lynch's Beyond Prozac - Healing Mental Distress gave me a leg up out of a very dark hole. Terry's book touched a chord deep within me and filled me with not only hope but also a sense of empowerment where there had been only despair, and a sense of belonging once again where I had felt tossed aside and totally adrift. Ten years later Lucy Johnstone's  A Straight Talking Introduction To Psychiatric Diagnosis (PCCS, 2014) provided the detailed analysis I needed to move my survivor worldview along, just at the right time. Now Searching For A Rose Garden has, in turn, opened my eyes to the scope, sensitivity, keen intelligence and impressive humility of the international mental health service user and survivor* movement.  It is described as an "incisive critique of all that is unhelpful about sanestream understandings of, and responses to, mental distress", and an introduction to the emerging field of 'Mad Studies', and is being offered at a 50% discount for £11.50 if you are unwaged or on an insecure wage *Explanatory notes about the impossibility of using language that is acceptable to everybody pepper the volume. For the purposes of this article, I decided to use the single term 'survivor'. 

I can't attempt to do justice to the each of the 28 contributors - their starting points and perspectives are so diverse, their fields so distinct and insights so uniquely edifying and nuanced; yet they are unified in the respect they express for other individuals.  The writers' collective humility brought me up short as I realised that, sometimes, the ground-shaking sense of inner release I've felt upon witnessing the crumbling of layers of lies and disingenuous constructs that held me, myself, in thrall for so many long years has overpowered a personal sensitivity to where others might be standing at that moment. 

Renuka Bhakta addresses this issue in her chapter about setting up the Kindred Minds initiative. She reflects:

"The challenge was that some of us had very strong views, particularly around psychotropic drugs, but found that these were not always shared by our members. We had to learn to accept this and respect survivors' rights to their own views, to hold back the passion we felt and make a conscious decision as to whether to provide information, challenge or keep silent about contentious issues.".

Many of the writers refer to the fact that those who have been through the psychiatric system, or indeed have suffered mental distress independently of it, are not, of course, a homogeneous group with similar backgrounds, experiences, stances or belief systems, and the book focuses realistically on the challenges of the struggle to maintain an identity as a political movement (and also as viable individual groups and projects working towards personal and social transformation) while honouring and making space for individuals' otherness, different perceptual positions and so on.

One thing that does unify us all, though, is an understanding that we've been sold short.  We've had our language corrupted and our concepts (such as 'recovery' and 'self-help') co-opted; our voices have been silenced and our stories discounted.

Yet, Jasna Russo points out:

" can take ... decisive roles in each other's lives once we do away with a psychiatric understanding of 'help'",

going on to suggest:

"The incredibly transformative and far-reaching potential of our collective knowledge is no doubt one of the reasons why we continue to  be denied spaces and resources for working and theorising on our own".

The crucial significance of storytelling, telling our own stories in our own way, and the slipperiness, imprecision and frequent colonisation of language are central themes that run through the book's exploration of the way that 'medical'/'scientific' spin has wrested dignity, self-belief and personal power both from each of us individually and also from us collectively.  I love the phrase 'first person plural' used in several different chapters to denote collective expression that is yet uniquely personal.  I've never seen it before, and wonder whether it is an example of language coined by survivors in the quest to express truths that have traditionally been suppressed.  I was so impressed by the overall depth of perception, and the articulacy and standard of enquiry and discussion in this volume is so strikingly high, that I am only able to pull quotes out almost at random in order to illustrate its breadth and offer you a taster, hoping to pique your interest.

For example, amongst many discussions about whether only projects undertaken by survivors alone have ultimate validity and authenticity in representing our voice, and the related exploration of what constitutes a genuine 'ally' in the workplace and our wider struggle, Dolly Sen writes:

"How can you arrive at truth when there is such an imbalance of power, where there is censorship by omission or invalidation, where our words are seen as sickness?  Who gets to speak in history, and who is listened to?"

As one of four survivors whose candid narratives were documented by Anna Sexton, a professional archivist 'with an interest in disrupting the power relations that can sit within and around archives', Dolly goes on to muse:

"What was valuable about the experience was the telling of my story ... Mental health services read their script, I read my script, and nothing of any deep meaning is ever exchanged.  Professionals ... record observed data on an unobservable world.  They objectify subjective experience and then wonder why there is a clash of mental and emotional cultures.  Psychiatry has to rewrite itself.  Its story has hurt too many people".

Dolly and Anna go on to explain that, in this instance of collaboration, it did prove possible to achieve a result that felt valid, although they openly explore what they learned and would strive to improve on another time. You can tell from this perceptive reflection of Anna's that she was uncomfortably aware of the rigid, forbidding, establishment-backed context in which we all strive to make waves:

"I believe we pushed some boundaries, but we didn't fully disrupt ingrained power relations.  Part of this felt beyond our control - constraints pushing in on us shaped what we could do, and we faced unequal starting positions ingrained within broader societal systems".

Angela Sweeney expands:

"... survivor research, based on experiential knowledge, centralises our experiences, priorities, perspectives and beliefs about what heals and harms ... in sharp contrast to clinical and academic knowledge, which typically denigrates the knowledge of survivors as anecdotal, subjective and unscientific",

while

Peter Beresford, considering The role of survivor knowledge in creating alternatives to psychiatry, observes that it feels counterintuitive to reflect that:

"Experiential knowledge has been devalued in research ... Yet we know in ordinary life we actually place a particular value on firsthand knowledge".

Consequently, he explains,

"One assumption that particularly needs to be re-examined is that the greater the distance there is between direct experience and its interpretation (as for example can be offered by user involvement in research and particularly user-controlled research), then the less distorted, inaccurate and damaging the resulting knowledge is likely to be".

Questions of identity are shown to be crucially implicated where power struggles are concerned, and Colin King re-introduces the fascinating theatrical metaphor explored in Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) which argues:

Our identity is not a stable, psychological state of being: we constantly recreate who we are through our interactions with others, ...(as in) the performances of actors on a stage.

He points out that:

"Scientific knowledge has failed to address ...tension between different cultural perceptions of truth"

and, he says, having confidence in the truth of one's own experience is central to challenging the power of officialdom.

Alison Faulkner chose to focus her piece on Dilemmas of identity and power.  She observes that while each of us assume varying identities in different roles in our lives, others make assumptions about us as a result of the roles they encounter us in, and reflects:

An awareness of different world views, perspectives and inherent power differentials is vital

when attempting to engage in partnership working. 

Mary O'Hagan, in Responses to a legacy of harm, dares to end on a hopeful note, insisting:

"We need to imagine and create a world where mental distress is viewed primarily through the eyes of the people who experience it - as a legitimate though challenging experience from which value and meaning can be derived ..."

and concluding:

"I am waiting for the day when the ideas and initiatives reported (in this book) no longer need to be called alternatives because they have become an integral part of a radically transformed, humane, peer-led mental health system".

The volume as a whole is something to cherish and keep to hand for inspiration and reference purposes.

Together with Brenda A LeFrancois, who wrote these words in the Forward:

"... sometimes I could feel the words resonating in my bones; sometimes I found myself cheering as the words on the page dared to say out loud what others will not - the simple yet complex truths that others do not have the courage or honesty to speak".

Above all I was moved by the integrity of the project and this is nowhere more apparent than in the final chapter, The search goes on.  The editors explain:

"Summing up or making any concluding remarks ... didn't seem appropriate.  As the ones privileged to accompany the birth of these texts, we thought that ending with questions would be more valuable than trying to identify answers from what the authors are saying".

So, as a final treat, we are offered six pages of summarizing reflections and open-ended questions from each of the authors in turn.

Terry Simpson links the book's title to T.S. Eliot's rose garden in Four Quartets and I think  Eliot himself (who was fascinated by thoughts of how life might have shaped up had we made different decisions, or circumstances had unfolded otherwise) would have admired the non-linear trajectory of this volume which, in my opinion, succeeds brilliantly in presenting a melting pot of ideas and knowledge, freely and generously shared.

Searching For A Rose Garden is brave, innovative and visionary, leaving the reader far better informed and at the same time considering a wealth of profound and interesting questions.  For me, reading it proved to be a rite of passage:  having formerly described myself as 'radicalised', it took me to the next level of politicisation.  Without doubt, this collection goes on my list of essential mental health re-education titles, and it promises to yield ever more riches upon successive readings.

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