1.2.2 Boundaries of difference
One of the things that language does is define and give a name to differences between people – to delineate the boundaries that separate them. In the mental health field, the ‘mad’ are at one end of the social divide that separates the ‘normal’ from the ‘abnormal’. They are ‘the other’, a point made in the article by Perkins (above): ‘To be mad is to be defined as “other”’.
This is a recurring theme in the mental health field. In the following passage Abina Parshad-Griffin, Chair of the Mental Health Action Group for the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), reflects on ‘otherness’ and what it means to be ‘the other’:
I could use different aspects of who I am that make the whole of me, as a kind of through-the-looking-glass. And I can give an example: being mixed race, if I had to fill in different forms in various countries, I'd have to tick different boxes. So in South Africa, I would have been ‘coloured’. In America, I would be ‘black’ because one drop of Black blood makes you ‘black’, and excluded. In South America, I could possibly be ‘mixed race’, or I could even pass for ‘white’ when you have the hierarchy of colour coding. But guess what I'm called in England or the UK? ‘Other’. And it's that otherness that is part of my identity, and I believe that mental health discrimination is that otherness which is sometimes indefinable. But you pick it up – this overt and covert discrimination. I call it ‘psychophobia’: fear of mental illness. And there are certain conditions. Like somebody asks me, ‘What do you do?’ And I say, ‘Schizophrenia.’ You know that's going to be a conversation-stopper and you will also know that it's going to be associated with violence, with antisocial behaviour, which is not at all the case. That's rare.
(Disability Rights Commission, taped conversation, n.d.)
To be ‘other’, in many instances, is to be on the wrong side of the boundary. The fact that Parshad-Griffin is mixed race gives her an officially designated category of ‘other’ in the UK. In addition, of course, her experience of mental distress reinforces her ‘otherness’. To be regarded as ‘other’ is to be treated differently, which often means prejudice and discrimination. ‘Otherness’ comes into play at all levels, but especially, it seems, when mental distress triggers ‘psychophobia’ in the people around. Although Parshad-Griffin's situation also features ‘double discrimination’ (Baxter et al., 1990) because of her mixed race designation, in many ways it is typical of the experiences of people who have periods of mental distress. Psychophobia leads to prejudice and discrimination. This may be something you have experienced yourself or have witnessed in others.
The point of creating ‘others’ or a ‘them’, according to Harper (2002a, p. 8), is that it projects problems on to other people so that we ‘get to see ourselves as normal’. May (2000) suggests that the ‘us’ and ‘them’ ideas that are prevalent in the mental health services should be challenged: ‘Such ideas assume that there are “ill” people and there are “well” people, and an uncrossable void exists between them’ (p. 25).
Being seen as someone with mental health problems may result in discrimination, often of a severe kind, as many people have found to their cost. The experience of being on the ‘other’ side of the mental health/distress boundary may be accompanied by unemployment, breakdown of relationships, low income and poor housing.
Activity 2: A quiet night on Roundhay Wing
You should now watch the three video sequences below, ‘A quiet night on Roundhay Wing’. This is a story of people who have been designated as ‘other’ and confined to the psychiatric wing of St James's Hospital in Leeds.
The film was scripted and acted by mental health service users/survivors. It is hard-hitting, especially in its references to the people and practices that have dominated – and defined – their lives, often over many years. It is a true story in the sense that it is grounded in and reflects people's real experiences, but the events portrayed did not actually take place.
Watch the video clips now. When you write your notes afterwards, you may find it helpful to divide them into:
your reactions to what you saw and heard; in other words, what you felt as you watched it;
your reflections on the key messages: what you thought after the film had ended.
Click below to view video clip 1. ( Part 1: 10 minutes)
Transcript: Clip 1
Click below to view video clip 2. (Part 2: 4 minutes)
Transcript: Clip 2
Click below to view video clip 3. (Part 3: 10 minutes)
Transcript: Clip 3
This a thought-provoking play. It aroused a mixture of reactions in the course team when we watched it together. It is easy to identify with the people who are the ‘others’ in society's terms, but it may be harder to accept their views of those they regard as their oppressors and gaolers. Doctors, nurses, hospitals, day centres and drug companies all come in for criticism. Whatever your views, record them fully now.
This is your ‘benchmark’, a record of where you stand.