Monday, 26 March 2018

What we're all up against (part 2)

The Critical Psychiatry Network always surprises me for the firepower it has, and yet how it always seems to be in curmudgeonly despair about the state of mental health services, and the way the world has inevitably made it like that. And this conference did much the same – an extremely lucid and persuasive set of arguments from five speakers all of whom came from different angles on the same central proposition: we’re going to hell in a handcart. And the only thing we can do about it is to argue p-values, point out loopholes in pharmaceutical regulation, or bask in the comfort of seeing how Foucault said it all years ago. No, I’m sorry, that’s a cheap jibe – these were serious academic contributions to a major modern critique of our current system.

Maybe what I’m fed up with is how little impact ‘serious academic contributions’ have in the world’s current – deplorable and frightening – state of epistemology and ontology. I read about it from ‘real intellectuals’ in the London Review of Books, I hear it from our group members’ fight to have their profound disabilities recognised by the ‘welfare state’, I learn all about it from my wife in how her job, managing the operating theatres in a large teaching hospital trust, attempts at humanity are constantly undermined by ‘the machine’, I see it in the mechanistic way young doctors are now taught their skills and knowledge, and I feel it impinging everywhere around us. And others describe far better than I how the two major political events of the west, in 2016, are now playing it out…

But here’s a quick roundup of what I was excited by at the annual gathering of the Critical Psychiatry Network:
  •  Phil Thomas opened the batting by making us all feel we were in it together – and it’s pretty obvious what we’re really up against (neoliberalisism, loss of meaning, commercialisation of all aspects of life, growing inequality, reducing support for the most needy). Particularly pithy pints included the phrase ‘malignant individualism’ and how ‘the government are turning unemployment into an individual psychological problem’
    Phil Thomas excoriates happy pappy claptrappery
  • Neil Armstrong followed with a rich and thick ethnography which told the tale of how a man diagnosed bipolar, in a ‘major teaching hospital’ nearby, was treated by the mainstream mental health system. It so well described the system’s power dynamics in how any subtelty of understanding his distress was boxed into computer-friendly progress notes – and how his wife had a much deeper understanding of why he had his difficulties, than the psychiatrist did. The real title of his talk was “why feeding the beast might be more than just a waste of time”.
    Neil Thomas tells it like it is
  • John Crombie descried an anatomy (maybe physiology?) of emotions, and introduced the concepts that underlay the ‘Power, Threat and Meaning Framework’, which was led by Lucy Johnson and has been mentioned here before. Lucy herself was present, although not giving a talk, and by the end of the day it was clear that some collaboration between the critical psychiatrists and the critical psychologists is on the cards. I’m keen to also involve the critical psychotherapists – and will aim to do so before the Totnes Limbus conference in November, which has a very similar anguished plea behind it.
    What makes John Cronbie feel sick
  • Helen Spandler – a properly radical academic from UCLAN who has been the longtime editor of ‘ASYLUMS: the journal of democratic psychiatry’ explained how the current scene has two major groupings: the ‘mad studies’ and the ‘psychopolitics’ people, both of whose founders have committed suicide (…). The former, at their most extreme, want to break all links with mainstream state-funded ‘psy professions’; the latter want to change the direction of travel by degrees. The answer was music to the ears of those of us in ‘relational practice’ work – raise consciousness by talking to each other and to those who ‘don’t get it’ until we get to a shared understanding. Oh, to have been old enough to have enjoyed the sixties!
    Helen Spandler does a great Patti Smith look
  • James Davies took us through some of the detailed venalities of the big beast we have so little chance of taming: the pharmaceutical industry, and how Hayek/Friedman/Thatcher economics have influenced it. But, with modern challenges to over-lenient regulation, at least the ropes might be tied round it to make it obey the rules, now that it has been so clearly identified how they are breaking them. Although obviously very worthy and worthwhile, I could not help picturing Gulliver being pinned down by the Lilliputians – and deciding to get up because he didn’t want to be.
    James Davies tell us of the even more evil empire

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