The Saturday before last some friends and I made a pilgrimage up to Birmingham to a ground
breaking event taking place in a striking venue, appropriately named The Ark.
I knew in an instant that we'd come to a very special place. The fact that others besides us had travelled quite some way to be there ( our 110 mile drive from Bath seemed quite local when we realized people had made their way from Edinburgh, Wales, London, all around the midlands and even Ireland ), confirmed that the current opportunity was not one you come across every day.
The village of Alvechurch is home to organiser Jo Watson who conceived the idea of the event - A disorder for everyone, after reading psychologist Lucy Johnstone's book: A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis.
Jo Watson is a psychotherapist with twenty years of experience in her field. She has become
increasingly concerned about the medicalization of human distress in Western culture and is on a mission to help turn the tide, passionately argueing for a more humane and socially aware approach to mental distress.
The buzz of anticipation and excitement was tangible as we walked in to the light and airy hall and collected our personalised delegate packs, which had been laid out in the colours of the spectrum. Jo's professional card, sporting its brave rainbow flag, neatly attached up front. I reflected, "This woman is a formidable networker, and powerful force for connection and change!"
Indeed, the whole day was stamped with the refreshing hallmark of fertile retreat: it felt as though we were pioneers, set apart, secular truth seekers, weary of the duplicity of our inherited culture. A few curious parishioners had come along to join counsellors, therapists, other professions in the field, survivors of mental distress and family members, and also the vicar's wife (herself a therapist), all of us with a shared desire to delve deeper and try to understand more clearly the predicament of our times concerning concepts of normality.
What's considered normal, we discussed later, varies of course from culture to culture; normality is,a socially defined concept. Once we understand that, we immediately realize that financial and political interests will inevitably play a large part in defining what's considered normal. For me,the day's emotional and intellectual voyage involved a meeting of secular, humanistic and broadly-speaking spiritual enquiry and celebration, as together we explored definitions of humanness and reflected upon life's vicissitudes.
The day's programme, which felt beautifully balanced, began and ended with a recital of poetry.
First up, Jo McFarlane, Scottish survivor poet, treated us to memorised and spontaneous - dramatic renditions of poignant, defiant and tender poetry she and her partner Sally Fox had written, from their book Stigma and Stones
Among my favorites of the day, were the following poems:
Unlabelled - The Trouble with Labels, which contains the reflection:
Our identity is a fragile layering of influence and experience
and depends on validation as to whether it stays tethered to
a shaky foundation.
No Apology in Pathology, which begins:
They never say sorry when they get it wrong even
though you told them all along
That damn label is still stuck to me.
There really is no apology in pathology.
Both poets, arresting, ultimately relatable messages were conveyed viscerally in a winning mixture of dramatic delivery, comedy, razor sharp wit and choice vocabulary.
The audience was also palpably moved by Jo's performance, and I was struck, particularly, the more we learned about what she had been through. Her expression of gratitude for the help she
had received over the years; to honour the decent and sincere staff that had managed to transcend the system's inbuilt restrictions, and not to criticize the existing services across the board. Concerns, were explored in the same matter of fact and unambiguous, measured tone as
was the expression of appreciation and concern for balanced debate.
As I mentioned the event had been designed around the work of Clinical Psychologist Lucy Johnstone. Lucy is a senior member of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the British Psychological Society, author and a seasoned public speaker. An academic as well as a clinician, Lucy presented a scrupulously detailed and reasoned assessment of the contemporary psychiatric categorization system and its history.
After coffee, we were walked through detailed and fascinating slides discussing potential
alternatives to the diagnostic system. Lucy Johnstone, displays a keen social conscience, being ethically driven and is working towards finding better, more human ways of understanding emotional pain.
The days formalities were rounded off with an emotional reading of organiser Jo Watson's poem I'm with her, by local performance artist Jasmine Gardosi. Jo pays tribute to Eleanor Longden one of the leading voices of the Hearing Voices Network. Jo was initially inspired by Eleanor's Tedtalk, in which she declares that the important consideration is not whats wrong with people but what happened to them.
I'll leave the last word on the day to Sue Brotherton, a parishioner, who bravely came along with no idea what to expect, "while the majority of the delegates were clearly therapists of some description, they were all very friendly and I certainly didn't feel out of place." "Being diagnosed, labelled and treated with medication does not in many cases, help or work and can even - and sometimes does - make the problem worse. But telling our story to someone, who will listen with understanding, compassion and advice, so that in time we are able to cope, seems a much better way to me."
Ok, so if this has wet your appetite, the idea is to replicate the event in different cities across the UK and Ireland.
To read Going Against The Tide. A Disorder For Everyone in full take a look here.
Good news for Northerners! The date for the second A disorder for everyone event has already
been set for Friday 10th March 2017 in Edinburgh - event details
Jo Watson recently set up a Facebook group called Drop the disorder?
You can read more about it in The Counsellors Cafe article Get off the sofa!, it's already attracted nearly 1700 members in less than six weeks. Please join us there to access a rich supply of resources and thoughtful, constructive, supportive conversation and debate. Also to find out about upcoming relevant events and ways to better access an online community of like-minded thinkers.
Nicky Hayward is a mental health campaigner and activist, prolific blogger and an all round world changing force of nature. You can follow Nicky on Twitter here
To hear more from Poet Jo McFarlane you can take a look here
If you are interested in helping to bring an event to your own area, you can contact Jo Watson
via email on Jowatson03@aol.com or call on 07769158565