In Our Own Voice: African American Psychiatric History by Vanessa Jackson

“In Our Own Voice is a revolutionary act of self-love and a demand for visibility for African-American psychiatric survivors.”

This presentation from Vanessa Jackson provokes questions about the role of psychology and psychiatry in the oppression of African American people. At the same time, it describes a hopeful oral history project reclaiming the knowledge and stories of African American people who have endured mental health struggles. How can oral histories be used to honour our past, celebrate our present and protect our future? What stories and histories remain untold in our local contexts? How can the fields of oral history and narrative practice contribute to each other? And what sort of projects could Vanessa’s work inspire in your part of the world? After watching this presentation and reading Vanessa’s ground-breaking paper, we will welcome your participation in the on-line forum discussion.

In this initial on-line series of Friday Afternoons, we are delighted to be able to include this presentation which highlights the interface of the personal, political and professional:

“Therapy has been a poor attempt at giving people the space to put their lives in context and the power to bold or underline the events and people that we feel are important to us. In Our Own Voice challenges each of us to take responsibility, if only by sharing our own story of survival and recovery, of creating a history that truly speaks in our own voice.”


Further reading:

Here is an earlier paper by Vanessa Jackson describing this project in more detail

In Our Own Voice: African American stories of oppression survival and recovery in mental health systems, by Vanessa Jackson

Published on January 24, 2013

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Wayne Pounds

    Hi Vanessa. I appreciated your essay that discussed the Taft asylum near Boley Oklahoma. I’m looking for a black lawyer named William S. Peters said to have died in that asylum in 1936 of gunshot wounds. The superintendent was his friend and supplied him with a bed and care. Can you help me with this, or do you know someone who can? Many thanks, Wayne Pounds, Professor Emeritus, Aoyama Gakuin U., Tokyo.

  2. Janey Archey

    Dear Vanessa
    I just listened to your deeply personal and powerful journey of self discovery and the power of others stories in this incredible work your doing!
    We are ALL better in this world knowing where we come from, our places in the world and our potential, and through this beautiful narrative therapy approach others are finally listened to and believed!
    Thanks for ALWAYS doing what you do with deep love of others

  3. Ruth Thorne

    Hi Vanessa, Thank you for giving us a glimpse of your journey, both research and personal. I was struck by the courage you are demonstrating in researching in areas that many in our society prefer to keep hidden, both at the personal and societal levels. Truth and transparency can be a powerful challenge to oppression.

    You described how the courage of one telling their story inspired the next. The process seems to be contagious, drawing many out to tell their stories. I have seen this effect around other historical “shameful” episodes in Australia – the “stolen generation” stories, the stories of institutional abuse, the history of mental asylums is Australia, and the treatment of the first people’s of this land – the Aboriginal people.

    This reminds me of the narrative practice of “outsider witness” reflections, and it’s effectiveness in shoring up the alternative stories of triumph and resourcefulness in the face of oppression, and replacing the more “normalised” stories of victimisation.

    I wish you well in your work and journey.

  4. Susan Lord

    Hi Vanessa,

    Thank you so much for your video presentation! Thanks also Cheryl and David D. at Dulwich for setting up.

    I feel for your experiences with mental health facilities. Experiences of these places, and hospitals in general, are indeed “humbling and equalizing” and provide much food for thought, provoking ideas that very often fall on deaf ears, or powers, that are beyond the individual or family or even mental health workers to manage in a positive way.

    I appreciate your mention of the importance not to get isolated; and your own appreciation of the generosity of the “Consumer Survivor Group”

    This is indeed a very difficult task for one group of extremely isolated people in the community –those struggling with anorexia nervosa. Because of the nature of the illness, it is a very isolating condition in which help often is not sought, but even refused vigorously when in the depths of the illness.

    Also the nature of the illness can lead victims to other forms of absolute power as a source of community, and ‘strength’, which in the long run may be very unhelpful in disallowing the individual voice to grasp their own responses and strengths for healing.

    Each person indeed has their own history of the illness; their individual effects and their own ways for healing.Community survivor communities may also be rejected.

    So this and all mental illness is a very real place of oppression in modern culture.

    I would like to ask the narrative community here how they have got through?

    Does anyone have ideas as to how powerlessness can be turned towards more power for such victims.

    What sort of healthy communities could support and value such victims without inflicting further forms of power or subtle dependence.

    Narrative therapy certainly is a viable choice and collective documentation may be a key to developing community.

    Thankyou Vanessa for those three questions.

    -What happened to you?

    -How does what happened to you effect you now?

    -What do you need to heal?

    Testimony therapy –How did you triumph?

    What were the gifts you received from this experience?

    What new knowledge have you got to share with your community?

    All these are wonderful. We just need the right time, place and person or company to enable asking of these questions. For some this may not be available.

    How do we encourage availability of these conditions?

    Thank you Vanessa and thank you for the website.


  5. Anne Clilverd

    Hi Vanessa,
    Thank you for sharing your account and stories of the work you are currently involved in. Your talk reminded me of my narrative journey that in some way started at conference in Atlanta. I was also prompted to reread your journal paper. I guess I was drawn to a number of things as I am reveiwing my work after about 35 years in the psychiatric system and getting ready for retirement. I would like to comment on two that particularly resonated for me one was the idea of the history of our work being obscured and thanks for the quote ‘before you lock us up, you need to look at those who brung us’ intend to find that book. You have given me strength and inspiration to document the history of my story as a mental health nurse, before all the sparkling moments and achievements of the time get lost in ‘valuing what is measureable’ and think about those simple questions of how did you triumph or what were the gifts from that experience. My memory is now full of all the people I have met within the system who taught me the importance of connection and being witness to story and how priviliged I am to have known them. The other expression that touched me was the perfect storm of anger and depression, this seemed to so richly describe the energy that can become generated in a crisis and how that may be harnessed and the peace that may come after the storm. Thank you for introducing me to that metaphor.
    I wish you well with your project and the work you do.
    Best wishes Anne

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