Beginning to Deconstruct Discourses of Mental Health and Eating Issues

Wow, you’ve made it to Chapter 7! In this chapter we will begin questioning dominant discourses of ‘mental illness’ and eating issues (often described as ‘disorders’). We will start deconstructing the ways that these discourses shape and are shaped by forces such as gender, race, culture, class, colonisation and ableism. And we will consider implications for practice: In our work, how might we bring forth accounts of agency and of local knowledges about experiences known as ‘mental illness’? How might we bring in conversations about the effects of broader contexts of suffering? What role might we play in reinforcing or resisting dominant narratives around mental illness and eating issues? This chapter is merely the beginning of (or continuing of) a conversation and barely scrapes the surface of realms that are multi-layered and emergent. It will be up to you where you take it next!

Introducing Tiffany Sostar (they/them)Tiffany loves collective narrative practice, particularly collective documentation work. Mainly because things are hard, and finding ways to be in community can make it a bit easier to keep going. They write creative non-fiction, facilitate online courses in narrative practice and speculative fiction, work with community members in alternative practice and group facilitation, and spend a lot of time thinking about new projects (and not always getting anywhere beyond the thinking). Tiffany is bisexual, non-binary, and chronic pain-enhanced, and living as a white settler on Treaty 7 land in Calgary, Alberta.

Vanessa Jackson shares about her oral history project about African American experiences of the psychiatric system against the backdrop of slavery and white supremacy. She articulates the ways that powerlessness can be transformed into power through testimony and stories told ‘in our own voice’.

In our own voice: African American psychiatric history by Vanessa Jackson (she/her)

If you’re interested in learning more about Vanessa’s work, check out her article ‘In our own voice: African-American stories of oppression, survival and recovery in mental health systems’ 

‘It has been important for us to experience our work to reclaim our lives from the troublesome voices and visions as a struggle against injustice’. This next paper by Brigitte, Sue, Mem and Veronika describes the influential work of the Power to Our Journeys group in the 1990s in Adelaide. Through their collaborations, they were able to expose the ‘dirty tricks’ and patterns of patriarchal voices they were hearing; to bring forward the collective knowledges and expertise they had in dealing with these voices when they were causing harm; and to elevate friendly, supportive and non-patriarchal voices.

Power to Our Journeys by Brigitte, Sue, Mem, and Veronika 

Sharon De Valda from Manchester shares her lived experience of hearing voices from the age of 13. These voices were shaped by trauma and the intersection of racism and sexism. You’ll hear about the hard-won practices and knowledges that have allowed her to reclaim parts of her life and identity from the effects of these forces, including helping others in the National Hearing Voices Network.

Glimpses of peace by Sharon de Valda (she/her) 

Kristina Lainson from Aoteoroa New Zealand describes practices of ‘keeping it small and close’, ‘moving between the we and the I’, ‘naming political action’, and ‘noticing agency’, which she draws on to disrupt the individualising pathologies often experienced by women with eating challenges.

From ‘disorder’ to political action: Conversations that invite collective considerations to individual experiences of women who express concerns about eating and their bodies by Kristina Lainson (she/her) [26:14]

If you would like to dive deeper into insider and practitioner accounts of co-research about surviving the influence of anorexia and bulimia, check out the Anti-Anorexia/Anti-Bulimia Archive of resistance.

Little Lit Siu-Wai shares how she adapted the ‘journey of life’ (which we were introduced to in Chapter 4) metaphor in group work with young women experiencing mental illness in Hong Kong.

Reconstructing life Journeys: Group work with young women who experience mental illness by Little Lit Siu-Wai

What are the ways dominant discourses of depression obscure or reveal broader contexts such as the interacting forces of patriarchal dominance, gendered violence, colonisation, racism and heterosexism? Catrina Brown explores some of the ways that pathologies of depression strip women of agency and locate blame and responsibility within individuals.

Speaking of women’s depression and the politics of emotion by Catrina Brown (she/her)

In this interview, Adelite Mukamana reflects on the profound challenges the Ibuka counselling team faced in learning how to support survivors of genocide in Kigali, Rwanda. They worked to let go of inappropriate frameworks of psychology and checklists of pathologies and found creative and culturally resonant ways to witness suffering and re-tell stories of survival and resistance.

Survivors supporting survivors: Recalling the history of the Ibuka counselling team – an interview with Adelite Mukamana (she/her) 

Kay and Osden, founding members of the BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) Superpowers group, discuss some of their experiences with discourses of mental health and mental illness, narrative practice, the intersection of capitalism and white supremacy with pathologizing practices, and how they have navigated issues of identifying labels (particularly but not only BPD).

It’s in our hands to complicate these labels: Tiffany Sostar (they/them) in conversation with Kay (they/them) and Osden (they/them) from the BPD Superpowers group

The BPD Superpowers group formed to create collective narrative projects that would stand against the stigma and pathologizing of BPD and would honour and make visible the insider knowledges and skills of folks who identify with BPD either as a received or claimed label. To learn more about the work of the BPD Superpowers group, check out this collective document created by Tiffany Sostar (they/them), the extended version of this conversation and links to other work done by the group.

Another optional additional resource for those interested in taking a deeper look is Rebecca J Lester’s article ‘Lessons from the borderline: Anthropology, psychiatry, and the risks of being human’ 

Reflection questions

  • What are the dominant cultural ideas about mental illness and eating issues in your context? How long have these ideas been around? What is their history? Did they originate in the place you are from, or have they been imported or imposed from another culture or system of knowledge?
  • What are the ways that these discourses operate differently for women, men, trans, and nonbinary folk? Do they operate the same or differently for all women, trans and nonbinary folk? Or are there differences depending on factors like class, caste, race, gender conformity and disability?
  • What are the ways that you and those you work with resist, complicate, subvert or defy these dominant stories of mental illness and eating issues?
  • In Do you want to hear a story: Adventures in collective narrative practice, David Denborough describes enabling people to make connections with people/groups experiencing related hardships by inviting them to ‘speak through us, not just to us’. In your work, how might you link the experiences of people who contend with mental illness or eating issues?

Optional extra activity

  • Write a letter to:

o   Brigitte, Sue, Mem and Veronika from Power to Our Journeys

o   Sharon De Valda

o   Little Lit Siu-Wai and the women of the ‘Reconstructing Life Journeys’ group

o   Kay, Osden and the BPD Superpowers group.

  • Let them know:

o   what it was that captured your attention from their stories or words

o   what is it about your life or practice that had you paying particular attention to that word, phrase, idea or story

o   where this will take you

o   what you will do differently in your life or work as a result of their shared knowledges.

Feel free to share in the reflection section!

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