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Madness and distress: From individual to collective narratives

Brendan Stone, University of Sheffield
Co-author(s): Anne Wilson, Peter Beresford


The presentations in this symposium will consider the development of 'collective' narratives of madness and distress. The presenters all have personal experience of using/receiving mental health services, and of acquiescing to, then resisting, expectations that they would 'come to terms' with the dominant discourses of 'mental illness' which serve to shape mental health service users/survivors' constructions of selfhood.

We will discuss starting points for the development of our own individual ways of thinking about our experiences of madness and distress, and our framing of narratives with which to counter dominant psychiatric discourses. These will include reference to the influence of the social model of disability, critical psychiatry, and trauma theory. We will also consider barriers to the development of such individualised narratives, and reflect on ways in which these barriers might be dismantled or challenged.

Having briefly explored our individual narratives, we will go on to discuss further ways in which alternative narratives outwith dominant discourses of 'mental illness' might be constructed, as a means for service-users/survivors to share negotiated understandings of madness and distress.

Drawing upon theoretical perspectives from a range of disciplines including cultural theory, sociology, feminist epistemologies, social policy, and survivor and other service user discourses, we will tentatively begin a process of theorising our experiences, narratives, and understandings of mental and emotional distress from our own perspectives as mental health service users/survivors.

Our discussion will also consider, and attempt to counter, possible critiques of such a strategy. Any attempted rewriting of the orthodoxies of psychiatry is likely to encounter a measure of resistance; but so too a more nuanced and critical engagement with, for instance, critical/anti-psychiatry, might be interpreted as a capitulation. In addition, some academic disciplines, while ostensibly adopting a progressive stance, may effectively construct a canon of acceptable discourses, marginalising those who differ or resist.

In particular, we will speak against academic work (controlled and voiced from the non-survivor mainstream) which ingests the experiences and lives of survivors, remaking these as texts which can be used to bolster oppressive practices, and to enforce conformities of understanding, both for survivors and the communities in which they live.

We do not wish to speak for other mental health service users/survivors, and want to encourage discussion in which diverse views can be aired and respected. We also hope that shared/negotiated understandings of madness and distress may begin to emerge from the discussions facilitated during this symposium.

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