Domesticating The Furies: on hope in mental health
Making a better future in mental health is about more than optimism. Hope is about action to make futures. Without action there can be no hope.
The following is the text of a lecture delivered by Mark Brown at the Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology, Tunbridge Wells on 14th September 2018
This lecture is a lecture about hope, about what hope is and what it is not. It’s also a lecture about mental health and what it means to lose hope and find hope and to carry the flame of hope cupped in your hands when all around appears to be dark and threatening. It’s also a lecture about anger, and loss and about grief and what it means to experience mental health difficulty and what it means to help others who are living within a mind that is hostile which itself sits within a world that is also hostile. It’s a lecture about how we turn The Furies of vengeance into The Kindly Ones of justice. It’s also a lecture about how you keep hope alive when it is seductive to let it ebb away into cynicism and smart-arsed sophistry.
As I’m speaking to you now, almost ten years to the day ago, Lehman Brothers bank collapsed, beginning a global financial crisis worse than any the world had seen. Governments across the globe had feverish rounds of meetings trying to work out how to prevent all of the money in the world disappearing. ““If you can’t buy food or petrol, or medicine for your kids, people will just start breaking the windows and helping themselves … it’ll be anarchy,” worried Prime Minister Gordon Brown in private. For most of us it passed by unnoticed, a distant tiny sound of something breaking that we barely even registered. Like the sound of ice caps melting, or the results of global warming or antibiotic immunity, the change was slow and incremental but it signalled one thing ending and another thing beginning. Through no fault of their own, due to forces they did not control, the lives of people across the world began to change. Before we even realised it, a future was solidifying which would leave many further from hope than they ever had been.
I’m speaking here to a room of fledgling clinical psychologists, ready to take what they have learned out into the world that is angry and hurting and unsure of what the future may hold. We’re told that that the world does not change quickly, that maturity comes from accommodating ourselves to the settled structures of life as it unfolds around us.
We are told that change is gradual, incremental, that nothing changes over night. But that isn’t true. Everything has causes, each moment rooted in moments that come before it, but that does not mean that everything remains predictable and stable. The global financial crisis showed us that. Natural disasters show us that. Brexit and Trump and the rise of the regressive, racist, sexist right shows us that. The vote to real the 8th in Ireland, the removal of section 377 in India decriminalising gay sex shows us that, too. Sometimes things that can change the whole trajectory of a life, a community, a country, happen.
We are widely understood to be facing a mental health crisis. In the thirteen years or so I’ve been doing mental health stuff mental health and its absence has risen slowly up the list of public concerns. More people than ever before are seeking support for their mental health and more people than ever before are experiencing the soul destroying disappointment of finding that what we can currently offer does not even begin to address the challenges they are facing in their lives and relationships.
My time in doing mental health stuff began, ironically, with signing off on a loan to start a national magazine written by people with mental health for people with mental health difficulties just as the banks began to collapse across the world and the public sector entered into the greatest reduction of public spending this country had ever seen, a project that would nearly bankrupt our company and which over the seven years of publication changed me from someone who experiences mental health difficulties into someone who had seen too much of how people are let down and failed to ever just hope for the best. Over that time I’ve seen mental health become a cause in ways I would never have imagined. I’ve seen it become the battleground on which we fight for different ideas of what the future should be.
But I’ve also seen it become an abstraction, too, a rhetorical flourish in the mouth of politicians and change makers, a form of evidence of the effect of something else in way that has often made it impossible for people who live with mental health difficulty to make their own experiences and desires heard over the clamour of dogma and political point scoring. Somehow, somewhere along the way, mental health became something that many people could talk about broadly at the cost of being something that people felt safe enough to have feelings about in detail.
In 2012, I wrote a piece wondering how mental health services either build or destroy hope: “In many senses, people take a risk in hoping that services will be able to help them. In other words, they place their trust in services. So then, hope that you can be helped is an act of trust, the extent to which you receive positive reinforcement of that trust defines how likely you are to remain hopeful. Services often forget that while their job might only begin when someone arrives at their door, it actually represents the end of a journey of hope for the person who has just arrived in front of them. They have turned up precisely because they hope that a service will be able to help them.
“From that point on, the service can either support and nourish the hope that someone feels, or it can take a series of witting or unwitting actions to stunt or completely snuff out that hope. Services can dispel hope in thousands of ways. On rude member of reception staff can undo a week of therapy. A couple of unreturned telephone calls can leave someone feeling ignored. A badly worded letter can give entirely the wrong impression of what might happen. Services that don’t believe things can be better tend to communicate that belief to the people who trust in them to make things better. When individuals raise these issues, the despairing organisation rejects them as criticism rather than recognising them as offers to provide advice about ways in which they can stop destroying hope.”
We talk a lot about prevention in mental health, adopting the language of savings to the public purse and of upstream and downstream costs. We inevitably end up advocating for how we might have shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. We spend our time trying to help people overcome what has happened to them, in a position of optimism that this might change what might happen to them in the future. We ask for people’s trust in our privileged position to help them to to come to terms with what they have been and what they find themselves to be now. We try to give people hope.
But hope cannot be transferred like a credit card balance. We cannot dole out hope like mashed potato and gravy on a school dinner plate. The hope that we feel for someone cannot substitute for the despair and grief and anger and sadness that they feel for themselves. So, to make hope happen we must first understand what it is and secondly understand why it might be absent. To understand its absence we must understand what depletes it, what stunts it, what pours salt upon its roots and what blights it when and if it ever flowers.
In mental health, as in all areas of human endeavour, we can confuse how things are with how they are meant to be, or how we could be. In the industry of improving mental health we have been guilty of ducking our responsibility to make the future better, of losing our fundamental commitment to making a better world in clinging to either an unfair and unfounded optimism or a stoic, layered cynicism.
Mental health in its broadest sense is chronic, always about pasts, presents and futures, always about people and communities as they move through time. Mental health is about people in places as futures unfold. It’s about winning futures for individuals, for families, for communities, where it is possible to live and flourish and be what you might have been, not what you are forced to be. When you chose to work towards the mental health of others, you choose to intervene in the conditions by which futures are created. Mental health is always about building futures. The question is: how?
How is hope made?
In the forward of the third edition of her book Hope in the Dark, journalist and activist Rebecca Solnit discussed where hope comes from in the face of terrible and terrifying events. In many ways her understanding of hope is counter-intuitive. It’s based upon not knowing what might happen next. Hope lies in the embracing of possibility, of the potential for the future to not be as the present is. As she says: “”Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
Solnit has surveyed and been involved with many movements for change over the years, and recognises that hope is the positive version of uncertainty, “an account of complexities and uncertainties.” As she says: “the world often seems divided between false hope and gratuitous despair. Despair demands less of us, it’s more predictable, and in a sad way safer. Authentic hope requires clarity — seeing the troubles in this world — and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.”
Vital for Solnit’s conception of hope is a sense of knowing who and what you think is important and a real living knowledge of how things got to be the way they are now. She writes: ““Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïvete,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked. And Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as to “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”
Solnit stresses that the way in which hope is created is through action: “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” She sees hope as being an act of informed imagination, where knowledge of the past and the present come together with a demand that things must be different.
We are terrible at entertaining the possibility of a future in mental health, in part because we are often ignorant of our own past or unable to face it. When faced with the possibility of dealing with pain or the pain of others about what has passed, we remain rooted to the spot, trapped by a kind of realism that conceives of mental health as a big long now where everything will continue at the same pitch and tone forever. We assume that somehow the world will always be the same, but always also on the point of collapse.
Writing about a painting by his friend Paul Klee, Walter Benjamin talked about the angel of history, wings outspread, being blown into the future while forever facing backwards:
“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Progress and hope go together. For Solnit, erasing the past doesn’t free us from it. To escape from our histories, we have to know what they are and how they came about. New shoots grow from old soil where the remains of previous shoots in turn nourish what comes next.
Writes Solnit: ““Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,” the theologian Walter Brueggeman noted. It’s an extraordinary statement, one that reminds us that though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats and cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope. Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.”
The history of mental health is told very badly if at all. It is told through institutions and treatments and even then it is little more than a sidebar to other stories. Just as we shouldn’t declare someone’s history and experiences off limits when discussing what it means to them, so we should not be ignorant of the both the history of the professions that we work in and the history with those professions that people have. Bad experiences of mental health services are as real as good ones and remain in the mind for as long, if not longer. Simply saying ‘you can trust me I am different from the other professionals’ is not enough. You must actually be different from the other professionals. To declare you include someone in your definition of a ‘we’ is not the same as finding a ‘we’ between you.
Solnit says: “every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a “we” that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency; new possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society reemerges and — at least for a little while — shines. Utopia is sometimes the goal. It’s often embedded in the moment itself, and it’s a hard moment to explain, since it usually involves hardscrabble ways of living, squabbles, and eventually disillusion and factionalism — but also more ethereal things: the discovery of personal and collective power, the realization of dreams, the birth of bigger dreams, a sense of connection that is as emotional as it is political, and lives that change and do not revert to older ways even when the glory subsides.”
The embarrassment of hoping
My own experience of such rupture came in the form of a week long campus occupation at Goldsmiths in the last year of the twentieth century. It was the first year of tuition fees being introduced. We reasoned that fees would only increase. We were right. We took over and occupied, ironically enough for the topic of this lecture, the psychology building that also housed the finance department. In that week I found a version of myself that I had never experienced before. A me that was confident, decisive, able to talk and joke with everyone. A me that was elected to the occupation committee. Outside of that situation, back into a life of student poverty and mental health difficulty I collapsed into ill health, that version of myself taking almost two decades to refind again. It was like I had found a gate of possibility that suddenly slammed shut as the ‘real world’ reasserted itself. I was embarrassed by the version of the future that had seemed possible.
Those of us who were there could never really speak to each other about it. The idea that things might turn out differently seemed silly. Grail Marcus writes about this experience in his essay ‘The Dustbin of History in a World Made Fresh’: “People who had never found their voice before now spoke, acted in ways that would have been inconceivable a month earlier,” it says in 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, a 1988 oral history edited by Ronald Fraser. “So when my own school came out on strike, oh it was so marvelous!” remembered Claire Auzias, then a high school student in Lyons. I went to speak at a general assembly in the school playground. I wasn’t afraid of anything. After May ’68 I’ve never been able to speak at a public meeting. But then I could answer every argument, talk back to anybody. Said Henri Weber, a student at the Sorbonne, “Everything we did immediately belonged to history.”
“No,” says Marcus, “Everything you did was immediately written out of history. Now your words sound childish. Listen to yourself and your fellows: ‘fantastic,” “marvelous, “a dream world” — but even the comrades history denies you already… Today there are dozens upon thousands of people who, only moments ago, lived just this life but who, because this is a story outside of history, thrown out like a rating drunk eighty-sixed from a bar, can barely credit even their own memories, people who are cut off from each other, and isolated even from their own selves, by the shame of the stories they cannot tell and that no one would believe them if they could. And yet, if one reads in certain frame of mind, the leavings of those stories stir with a truly strange power. Suddenly, they are not ephemeral, not extraneous to real history, but plainly, obviously, the true story the events of past years have been straining to toward all along.”
In a way, when we grope towards ideas like coproduction or creating a level playing field between mental health professionals and people who experience mental health difficulties we are trying to create, often without realising it, a kind of rupture in the status quo, a tiny model of what the world might look like if it were arranged differently. Without realising it, we adopt the ideas of inclusion, of outreach and empowerment, when at heart what we’re trying to do is model a world where hope is possible through action. But we are often surprised when this set of actions unleashes not positivity and good cheer but sorrow and anger and grief and despair. Being unwell is not a nice. Living a life where your needs are not met is like a back that is freshly lashed each day, each blow opening the wounds that came the day before, and the day before that. Being marginalised and surviving trauma are horrific experiences, like shrapnel twisting in your chest. To truly make such collaboration possible, whether in individual therapy or in the creation of new structures and movements, there must be space for pain and loss and anger as well as comradeship and exploration.
To find ourselves in situations where real hope is possible is to run the risk of looking like a fool by believing that our actions might change how the future turns out. For people who experience mental health difficulty, that hope can be a destroying angel, a step into the unknown where failure is not just a hiccup on a set path to betterment, but the repossession of an entire future that they had been silly enough to believe they might be able to afford. Hope is delicate and radical. When you feel that the space and security to risk hope has been a luxury that has never been afforded to you, it is like a tiny bird in your hand. It is something to nurture, to feed. But that nurturing instinct, the wish to create a ‘safe space’ without first experiencing the reality of each other and the pain and sadness and anger we carry can make it impossible to ever be authentic with each other. By trying to remove the risk of being together we create conditions where people cannot voice what is important to them.
On anger and fury
When talking about mental health we often seek to diffuse anger and sadness and loss as a defence against it turning inwards into despair, but also because it discomforts us to witness. We tone police; we refuse the charity of extending understanding others anguish when it challenges our optimism. We make care contingent on reasonableness; affability. In so doing we close the door on the possibility of people finding a channel of the pain they feel at where their mental health has left them. Some activists in mental health talk about the way that the desire to convince the general population not to stigmatise mental health difficulty has sanitised the views and experiences that are allowed to be expressed. In the words of Disabled activists, we have created and incentivised the creation of the good crip.
At the start of 2017, I wrote a piece called ‘Society is the enemy that makes life with mental health difficulty unbearable, not us’ trying to locate where the narrative of injustice lies in mental health, in part so I could find things to write about mental health that didn’t always conclude with ‘an society should stop stigmatising people with mental health difficulties and be nicer to us’. It was a purposeful attempt to itemise grief and anger and the feeling of being thwarted by mental health difficulty. In it I wrote:
“I demand an apology for my dead friends and colleagues. I demand an apology for all that I know who are suffering for want of support, encouragement and care. I demand an apology for the all of the years stolen, all of the comforts missed, all of the relationships that never happened and all of the lives that were never what they could be. More than that, I want it to stop happening to generation after generation. Like so much in mental health, this is just a voice wailing in emptiness. If we are even going to make change, we will have to find the forces that defeat us and learn how to defeat them. In mental health we are taught to believe our worst enemy is ourselves. But I think that’s wrong. I think our worst enemy is everyone else.
“In mental health we have yet to go through the political revolution that Disabled people went through in defining exactly how those without physical impairments made life impossible for those that do. We know that many things are wrong. That so much in the world does not work well for us yet we still find it difficult to name our enemy and turn our discomforts into demands. The question is not why we are broken, but why no one cares enough to change the things that break us still. To come to a similar moment we must analyse where we are and then we must identify the enemy that keeps us there. Because there are enemies. If the hopes and dreams of people with mental health difficulties are a force, there is an equal and stronger force that pushes against them.
“People experiencing mental health difficulty find it difficult to identify the things that oppress us. It doesn’t seem obvious or even relevant to many. We are taught to be realistic because we embody a threat to others, a dangerous deviation that might upend the world. We are trained to see our mental health difficulty as what we take from other people, but never trained to see it in terms of what the indifference of others takes from us, our families, our lives and our communities. We feel embarrassed, guilt flushing our faces at our anger, as if hoping that things could have been different is somehow a childish tantrum, like shaking a fist at a thunderstorm or shouting at the sea as it rolls onto the beach. We accept that mental distress is a problem situated within us. We feel that it is adult and mature to make ourselves responsible for our own inability to find our equilibrium. We feel like we must accept the endings, must accept the loss, must accept the never weres and might have beens. But we do not. We should not. If we accept this version of realism we will never conceive of changes big enough to turn into demands; will never conceive of our situation as anything more than personal misfortune. We will actively fight against the possibility of collective change.
As people experiencing mental health difficulty and distress we are socialised to be ashamed of our failures and our malfunctions. We internalise our fuck ups, paint the walls inside of our heads with never-drying persecutory graffiti. We do not need police to to tell us what we should do because those cops are stationed eternally within ourselves. Though some of us won’t escape the police outside ourselves either. With mental health we are trained to formulate the enemy as ourselves. Our beautiful, magnificent, terrifying broken selves. We turn into incarnate apologies; walking talking IOUs to society. Damaged goods, we every day feel our distance from the shining path of productivity and growth.”
It was notable that the response from people who experience mental health difficulties was far more positive than the response from mental health professionals. In capturing the anger and grief of mental health difficulty, I was divisive. In trying to express where the injustice of mental health difficulty might lie, and where it might come from, I was contributing to a narrative of discomfort which did not diffuse itself at the end with an achievable call to action.
Earlier this year I was doing social media at a conference where much of the discussion was about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and the ways in which such things affected brain development. I wrote afterwards: “Each successive speaker adds to a kind of lexicon of how brains can be pushed into uncommon shapes by circumstance, malign intent or just plain bad luck. I am a fifth columnist here. It is not someone else’s brain they are discussing, it is mine.
“To know that you live with a fucked brain is not a comfort. Initially it feels like an explanation but it is one that can, in moments of vulnerability, transform into an accusation. Many of the elements of my self-stigma are varieties of this moment-by-moment self-defined pride at being myself, hard won and contested, flipping into burning excoriating shame at that self-same thing: being myself. I know that this is one of the ways in which my brain is fucked. There are others.
“A childish part of me wants to shout out a protest, to challenge these professionals, to ask what right they have to stand in judgement of the brains of others; to demand they put away their spotters guides and field manuals and to stop reducing people to proteins and synapses and hormones. I cannot get outside of myself to see myself as a powerpoint slide or as a set of tabulated statistics. I bridle that what is filled with detail and pain and joy and sheer narrative weight to me is reduced to something as mechanistic as identifying a discarded engine part found in a box of garage spares. A great emptiness yawns before me; my feet kick at nothingness. If it is so obvious I am impaired how is it that I could not know it with such clarity? I feel faintly disgusted with myself; a hot flush of embarrassment at being caught out.
“The most recent of gifts, the understanding of trauma, trumped all that came before. I had left an abusive situation before I knew that it was abusive and revelation after revelations arrived like waves strong enough to fill my lungs with brine and sand, each one adding to a burden of knowledge heavy enough to snap my back. Suddenly, I could see both how what my life had been had pushed my brain out of shape, that the way I had survived and found a kind of peace had in fact been based upon being a state under occupation by hostile forces, my brain conditioned to be a quisling and a collaborator. I had survived, and finally escaped but now all there was were wounds that may never heal. But beyond that, responsibility. This was my fucked brain and now, naked and free, it was my responsibility to finally make the best of things.”
This piece made people wonder if I was all right, whether I had succumbed to despair. Far from despair, what I was expressing was the anguish and embarrassment and sense of loss that knowledge of your own cognitive limitations brings. I was voicing the unpleasant reality that even a mental health difficulty you can mostly overcome does not mean that you can just be shuffled back into ‘normal society’. There can be no hope that does not acknowledge anger and pain and loss. We force people either into sickly, inauthentic optimism or into toxic self-destructive despair when we cannot build relationships that can survive the hurt of being in the world. There is no such thing as synthetic hope.
In many ways, the idea of recovery in mental health as a kind of belief system is based upon the idea that hope can be industrialised — manufactured, bottled and shipped out in bulk. Recovery was created as an alternative to the idea that mental health difficulty fixed people in place and status, intending to show how it might be possible to grow beyond the experience of distress and become something other than someone who was broken beyond being fixed. I’m in no doubt that its original architects saw it as an exercise in hope and a way of opening up possible futures. Implemented at scale, this hope became enforced optimism, which in turn met the imperative to reduce services and the politic swing against the idea of care and support. It was up to you to make what you could of your life and if you didn’t, you weren’t trying hard enough. Enforced inspiration always attacks people’s sense of who they are because it does not show you what you could do if you wished, in full knowledge of your circumstances and limitations, it tells you who you should be. In the language of battles and warriors and overcoming, others ideas of what should inspire you to better yourself become an assault on your story and history and your ideas. Choosing to try to do what someone else has done is situated in the real world; being implored to be more like someone you know you are not is based in the abstract. It transfers responsibility without transferring power, which in the end only transfers blame.
Domesticating The Furies
The question of how a wish for vengeance or retribution for the past can be transformed into hope for the future is not a new one. It will not have escaped you that we live in angry times. It will also not have escaped you that any time that a movement for change gets even close to being able to create conditions where change is possible, people call ‘it’s all gone too far’. In reality most change requires power and resources to be transferred from those who currently own them to those who do not. With #metoo, the declarations that it had gone too far begin mere seconds after it became clear that change might be happening.
In her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity and Justice American Philosopher Martha Nussbaum tells the story of The Furies in Aeschylus 5th Century BC trilogy Oresteia, primal spirits of anger and how they were incorporated into the city of Athens. A story of how murder leads to revenge which leads to revenge which eventually leads to the goddess Athena setting up a legal system to end the cycle, The Furies are the spirits of anger and vengeance.
Writes Nussbaum: “ At the outset of the trilogy’s third drama, the Furies are repulsive and horrifying. Apollo’s Priestess, catching a glimpse of them, runs in such haste that, an elderly woman, she falls and “runs” on all fours. They are not women but Gorgons, she exclaims. No, not even Gorgons, since these have no wings. They are black, disgusting; their eyes drip a hideous liquid, and they snore a fearsome blast. Their attire is totally unfitting for civilized gatherings. Shortly afterwards, Apollo depicts them as vomiting up clots of blood that they have ingested from their prey. They exist, he says, only for the sake of evil. They belong in some barbarian tyranny where it is customary to kill people arbitrarily, to mutilate and torture them.” When they are called “ they do not speak, but simply moan and whine noises characteristic of dogs. Their only words, as they awaken, are “get him get him get him get him” As one of those seeking vengeance says, “In your dream you pursue your prey, and you bark like a hunting dog hot on the trail of blood.” What Aeschylus has done here is to depict unbridled anger It is obsessive, destructive, existing only to inflict pain and ill… Until quite late in the drama, they are still their doggy selves, threatening to disgorge their venom, blighting the land and producing infertility.”
Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, invites The Furies to join her legal system of courts: ““Lull to repose the bitter force of your black wave of anger,” she tells them. But of course that means a very profound transformation, indeed a virtual change of identity, so bound up are they with anger’s obsessive force. She offers them incentives to join the city: a place of honor beneath the earth, reverence from the citizens. But the condition of this honor is that they abandon their focus on retribution and adopt a new range of sentiments. In particular, they must adopt benevolent sentiments toward the entire city and refrain from stirring up any trouble within it — especially not civil war, but also not premature death or any intoxicating angry passion. Indeed, they are required to invoke blessings upon the land. The deal is that if they do good and have and express kindly sentiments, they will receive good treatment and be honored. Perhaps most fundamentally transformative of all, they must listen to the voice of persuasion.”
Athena offers The Furies a place in the world where their energies can be placed into building rather than wrecking. The transform from The Furies into The Kindly Ones, forces of justice, not revenge. As Nussbaum writes: “Aeschylus suggests that political justice does not just put a cage around anger, it fundamentally transforms it, from something hardly human, obsessive, bloodthirsty, to something human, accepting of reasons, calm, deliberate, and measured. Moreover, justice focuses not on a past that can never be altered but on the creation of future welfare and prosperity. The sense of accountability that inhabits just institutions is, in fact, not a retributive sentiment at all, it is measured judgement in defense of current and future life. The Furies are still needed, because this is an imperfect world and there will always be crimes to deal with. But they are not wanted or needed in their original shape and form. Indeed, they are not their old selves at all: they have become instruments of justice and welfare. The city is liberated from the scourge of vindictive anger, which produces civil strife and premature death. In the place of anger, the city gets political justice.”
The wish for revenge, to wage havoc upon those who have wronged us, is transformed into a positive force for change when it is given a home within the possibility of justice linked to fairness and to the best life for all. The Furies become The Kindly Ones by turning their anger into energy within a set of relationships that make it possible for justice to happen. The Furies, the destructive power of our wish to get even with those who have harmed us, are domesticated by being offered a role and being offered respect.
There cannot be true hope for those who experience mental health difficulty and the injustice of a life never lived; of hardship imposed; of ignorance and fear; and being forced into a tiny, desperate circle of ever increasing desperation without finding a place where these feelings can be respected. The Furies are not bought off, they are found a new role in making sure that everyone can live in peace and plenty. From vengeance they move to justice. Having a mental health difficulty hurts. Having a past full of abuse and trauma hurts. Feeling your own limitations and your own impairments hurts. A real hope, a real possibility of change, means finding a home and a role for what hurts. Never underestimate how powerful the act of bearing witness is; of facing the full force of the pain and terror and hurt someone feels without jumping in to reframe or defuse it. When people feel there is no avenue for their anger it turns inwards, or it is used to cause hurt and pain to those closest to them. For hope to happen, we must through our actions and our organisations make justice possible.
Many people with mental health difficulties would love to become Kindly Ones, using their experiences of pain and hurt and confusion to watch over the city and to make a world where no one else has to experience the same. The Furies within us can become our protectors if only we can find new roles that focus upon the future in social change and social justice.
Hope and justice in the world
If we believe in social change then psychology will have to sit down for lunch with the powerless. Because right now, psychology is as sure as hell sitting down to dinner with the rich and the powerful. One of the largest areas of growth in technology is the use of psychologically informed design to reinforce or reward behaviour. Human centred design plus huge cash incentives for getting it right means that huge amounts of your daily life are created around understandings of how the human brain works that intend to make you behave in certain ways. This ‘persuasive design’ is based on sophisticated implementations of very simple ideas.
Richard Freed is one of 50 psychologists who signed a letter in August 2018 asking the American Psychological Association to take a stance against psychologists helping tech companies to use ‘hidden manipulation techniques’ to maximise children’s usage of technology. It’s not just children, though. As Freed said in an interview with Vox: “The formula is that in order to have behavioral change, you need motivation, ability, and triggers. In the case of social media, the motivation is people’s cravings for social connection; it can also be the fear of social rejection.”
The use of behavioural nudges can be seen everywhere. It is when you find yourself on the margins that such nudges are most painfully obvious from the ‘hostile environment for immigrants which has caused such pain to the children of the windrush generation and countless others to the way that the benefits system is set up to ‘incentivise work’ and arguably reduce claims, all are based on using psychological understandings to non-therapeutic aims. All use psychological understands to serve power, not to distribute it more fairly.
Speaking to Peter Pomerantsev as part of a BBC Radio 4 Analysis documentary, Thomas Borwick, chief technology officer for Vote Leave outlined how their social media strategy enabled them to ‘nudge’ voters towards their desired outcomes. “A good micro targeting strategy has to test, has to work out what sticks, it puts a lot of different advertisements up there and for about 20% of your audience you’re testing on them. You might put three to four hundred different messages out there to about twenty percent of your audience and for most people you’re constantly testing what will stick: one issue that’s their key reason to vote and you want to split up your voting population into those one key issues. I often get asked ‘but how many key issues should I have? As many as seventy, eighty for a population of about twenty million. Eastern European countries it’s usually slightly less. If you have nationalistic messages those are easier to clump together. What you;re looking now is the parts or actions that slightly motivate them to do something. What’s the little breadcrumbs you can drop that they can attache their own cause to… Animal welfare in the UK is one of those super spreading issues. Our most popular advertisements, the ones that get shared the most are all about animal welfare. To a certain demographic, if a candidate is wanting to do that, then a picture of a sheep being taken to the slaughter because of rules and regulations we currently have in place is a very, very powerful message.” These ads were more successful than ads about the NHS or immigration in terms of “salience of sharability,” said Borwick, “and motivation to go and do something. Where we had advertisements of this nature people pledged to vote significantly higher and then on voting confirmed they had voted on the day related to that message. Take control was a very salient message. A salient message is easily repeatable, easily memorisable and one that I can personalise. I don’t want a message that is too different for every person but it is very helpful that people can intertwine their own narrative with that message. I believe that a well identified enemy is probably a 20% kicker to your vote. I believe that having a clearly identifiable baddie is a vital part of increasing your cohesion within your voting group and giving them the impetus to kick someone out.”
If psychology can be out in the world making it a worse place, then it can be out in the world making it a better one. A coalition of those who experience mental health difficulties, those that understand the mind, and those who are marginalised and abused could created new visions of the future where things work out differently. Says Rebecca Solnit: “Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented, as though we are starting from scratch, when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing alternatives. What we dream of is already present in the world.” As with all futures, the futures we want are already here, they just haven’t reached the right people.
Hope and the future
Which futures reach who is an issue of social and political organisation. Rebecca Solnit quotes American novelist, playwright, poet, literary critic, and psychotherapist Paul Goodman: “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!” But, that’s easier said than done if you don’t have a professional status that enables that and a sustained income that supports it. To embrace the possibilities of a future becomes more difficult when there is no present that is not pain and terror.
The intellectual work of creating hope is in creating alternative versions of how the future might be. This takes playfulness, honesty and exploration. Academic work is often a limit upon this if academic work is seen as the only mechanism for this. Academic work is predicated on standing on the shoulders of giants, of adding to the sum of knowledge.
There is a hierarchy of knowledge around mental health, a hierarchy of who is allowed to have ideas and analysis. This is the historic remnants of conceptions of mental health difficulty that only included those who experience it as subjects to be observed and classified, never fellows and partners. Still, what can be ‘known’ and recognised is defined by its use to the existing systems of delivering help and support. To be included in this dominant discourse, experience and history and knowledge must be translated, collected, turned into evidence in a way that it guillotines the thread that links it to the people it belongs to. The Furies need a home from which the construction of the future can begin.
Learning to be together
Our objective in the business of generating hope is to generate alternatives; to build a tender kind of knowledge that can remain malleable and useful to taking action. What is needed is alternatives rather than answers, ways of seeing rather than proclamations and terminal solutions. Hope happens where people are able to come together despite their differences, rather than because of their similarities. I feel that often we arrive at optimism when we are pitching for hope. We quest for big ideas and big answers in mental health when the sticky, messy, frustrating world of making change feels to far away and when we feel lost in it. When we recognise injustice but we do not have anyone to share that feeling with, we try to find a home in ideas alone. Hope often seems so distant and desperate that we reach out for answers like drowning people grasping at ropes. When we cannot see and feel hope in our lives and relationships, we reach for ideas and for abstraction.
Hope is in what we do, not what we say. Explaining to someone what you intended your actions to mean is not the same as your actions being of meaning and utility to them.
In mental health we have been knocking seven bells of shit out of each other because we see each others positions and histories and ideas as threats to our own. We are often Furies ourselves, ready to jump to vengeance. We’re at the beginning of finding ways to be safe with each other, of finding community and fellowship. Because people have been closed out of hope for so long, such hope is shakey, delicate, constantly battling against the reassertion of despair and grief. Because we have been used to to stakes that are life and death, playing with futures and ideas is something that other people have had the confidence to do, not us. Hope is not an easy path to take.
A brief history of a condition of despair
To give an idea of how far from safety and hope some people might be, and thus how far from the having the place of safety to explore anything more than the next day or the next week it’s worth zooming down from our high pinnacle of principle and abstraction to the valley floor where others are forced to live their lives.
It’s difficult to talk of hope and transformation when you have to make the choice between feeding your bairns and feeding yourself. The safety net has become so filled with holes, that for some people all that’s left is a few strands hanging across the abyss of ‘what the fuck do I do now?’ like bunting rotting between lamp posts from a street party that no one invited you to anyway. We know that if you have a mental health difficulty you are more likely to end up poor. If you have a mental health difficulty you are more likely to end up dead sooner. If you have a mental health difficulty you are more likely to have poor physical health. If you have a mental health difficulty you are more likely to end up estranged from family, to never taste love, to never find a comfortable home. The years spent unwell takes money from your pocket and years from your future. These are the result of social organisation, not of individual illness.
Entitlement to social security benefits has changed starkly since the beginnings of the global financial crisis in 2007. The big redefinition of what social security benefits means began with Dame Carol Black’s 2008 Review, ‘Working for a Healthier Tomorrow’ which concluded that there was a positive link between being in work and being healthier. Black’s review observed that “While around 55% of those coming onto incapacity benefits came either from work or a period of sickness absence from work, a further 28% were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support immediately prior to claiming incapacity benefits.” There had long been a discomfort at the growing number of people in the UK claiming disability benefits, with political concern about it being voiced as far back as the 1970s. The problem has seldom been with disability or impairment that you are born with, it’s disability that you acquire that is up for political grabs. Acquired disability leaves enough of a grey area in its definition for it to become a moveable quality; ripe for the political imagination to make alterations to; a nip here, a tuck there. Acquired disability leaves the tantalizing political possibility that somehow, somewhere, those who are currently disabled are not, in fact disabled but somehow swinging the lead and not trying hard enough.
It is true that the social model of disability maintains that disability is not embodied within a person, but instead it is the conditions of living in a world that is not designed for them that causes impairment to become disability. But, a pitch and a pivot toward seeing those on benefits not as the victims of economic or social circumstances, but chancers, skivers or ‘people left to rot’ tilted the discussion to a very particular reading of the social model of disability where it was concluded that the aim should be to keep people in work and to, where possible, limit the amount of time people spent on benefits. Dame Black’s review stated that “over 200,000 people with mental health conditions have flowed onto incapacity benefits each year over the last decade,” which the review identified as “an historical failure of healthcare and employment support for the workless in Britain.”
The roll out of a new benefit Employment Support Allowance, designed to replace Incapacity Benefit, Income Support for illness or disability and Severe Disablement Allowance began the same year. This introduced the dreaded Work Capability Assessment. From a policy perspective the WCA was assessing how able to work a person was. In practice it is a ruling about how much they are entitled to in benefits and what they are obligated to do in return for those benefits.
The arrival of the coalition government accelerated the programme of welfare reform under the zealous championing of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith. The policy of Austerity, which dictated that he country must ‘live within its means’ led to a focus on reducing public spending. Working age benefits were a prime target for this; despite the fact that Duncan Smith’s various benefits schemes often ran vastly over budget and did not actually deliver many savings.
In 2013, the dreaded Bedroom Tax arrived, limiting the amount of housing benefit that could be claimed for people living in social housing. It was intended to make people move to smaller council or housing association homes. But there weren’t any, so it was just another extra cost to cover. Disability Living Allowance, which could be awarded for a lifetime, began to be replaced with Personal Independence Payments or PIP, a benefit that looked to outsiders to be doing the same job but in practice had much higher thresholds. The benefits cap was introduced to limit the amount people out of work could receive in benefits each month. Employment Support Allowance went from being equivalent to disability benefits to in effect becoming similar to Job Seekers Allowance, with lots of conditions which, if not met could lead to sanctions. Sanctions being cutting of your money.
In 2016, existing benefits were frozen for four years. Again, a bit less money. The slow, wrong-headed roll out of Universal Credit began in 2013, intending to roll a number of benefits up into one monthly payment “because people get paid monthly”. Again, the pattern of changing the rules and changing entitlement reduced money available. Universal Credit has always been a terrible idea, dressed up as a liberation. It makes people poorer and it makes claiming the things you need to live on harder. It is not a natural fact. It is a policy. A government could decide to end its roll out tomorrow. A government should end its roll out tomorrow.
People watched their futures shrink, as money became harder and harder to claim, despite their lives and conditions having not changed. People have seen a system that was never generous or easy turn into one that seems to be actively structured to catch you out and to reduce the money coming in. They hadn’t changed, policy around them had. This at a time when the economy is changing in ways as profound as during the last industrial revolution and at a time when the fabric of shared social life is being eroded. Two local councils have collapsed already, unable to work out a plan for delivering even the barest of services. Where could hope be if every new round of benefit changes inched you closer to a cliff edge, and every hand you expected to help you as you reached out left only empty air. Where could hope be when an envelope landing on your door mat could change the quality of your life forever while you had done nothing more than be subject to the shifting of numbers in columns on a spreadsheet somewhere?
People who may once have found the safety to begin to explore what their mental illness or distress meant for them and their lives slowly and often invisibly found the walls around them closing in; their choices being pared away. And it seemed no one was listening. To be on the receiving end of an arbitrary power acting in what you are told is your best interest; but when you know in your heart that it is not; is the kind of violent machinery that snuffs out hope. Often with tragic consequences. Helping someone to address the most difficult parts of themselves and their experience becomes almost academic when the message from the world as experienced is ‘you and your basic needs do not matter.’ No one asked the people claiming benefits what they wanted their future to be.
Hope is made through actions
So, how to keep hope alive in such blasted wastelands? The answer is: you put your care into action. In the Autumn issue of Asylum, psychologist Jay Watts wrote a piece called ‘Supporting Claimants: A Practical guide’. The claimants in question are those claiming, or attempting to claim social security benefits. As Watts says in her introduction: “As I write, I have friends and claimants going through this process, subject to ‘compliance officer’ reviews and endless re-assessment. As many say, this is often more devastating, more life threatening than decades of psychiatric oppression and traumatic experiences such as abuse. If we do not call out the devastating effects of these policies on our friends and claimants, we are, as far as I am concerned, complicit.”
The article is about more than ‘calling out devastating effects, though. It lists in meticulous detail the steps that a mental health professional can take to make sure that those they know and care about have the best chance of passing the ever increasingly draconian tests that people are forced to take in return for a monthly total of benefits that are nowhere enough to live a fulfilling life upon but which are better than no money and no support at all. As Rebecca Solnit says, Action breeds hope and hope leads to action.
Watts hammers home the point that when it comes to access to benefits, never put emotional support above practical support where access to social security benefits are concerned. Nothing is more important than people being able to eat and live and not fall off the map of life completely. This will require getting stuck in as your patient or clients ally, using your authority and your power to replace the authority and power which they do not, by design, have in the process.
Watts’ first piece of guidance is don’t listen to your professional colleagues about how the benefits system is supposed to work. Listen to the people who are actually going through it. Don’t rely on what ‘sounds about right’; go and read up on how the current benefits system actually works. Know when Universal Credit is coming. Know when a letter might hit someone’s mat. Watts advises health teams to find their own training in the benefits system and to demand that it takes place. Giving someone the address of the local Citizens Advice might feel like enough, but it might not be. Watts suggests setting up support groups for claimants, so that advice and support can get to people where they are and with the things with which they are dealing. Watts makes it clear that to avoid betraying those you wish to help, treating people’s fears and their experiences with respect is vital. Saying ‘I’m sure it won’t come to that’ or ‘maybe it won’t be so bad’ is the pointless optimism that erodes hope in others. It’s been proven that benefits assessors act in bad faith and set traps for the unwary. Watts suggesting treating events and feelings related to benefits with the gravitas and compassion they deserve; treating them as actual life events not just hiccups of bureaucracy. If an assessment is coming up, asking what someone will do and how they might feel is important if such an experience is likely to compound challenges that someone is already facing. Watts warns against assuming that someone else somewhere is supporting someone through their benefits experience. The chances are they won’t be. Offer help and support in filling in forms. If there is space to do so, write strong letters of support for people’s claims.
Make sure that the time you spend with someone both helping them to fill in forms is on top of their therapeutic time with you, not instead. You can’t help someone who can’t eat.
The objective, says Watts is to make sure that someone gets the benefits that they need and to which they are entitled. Claiming benefits or being reassessed is not a therapeutic experience. It’s a brutal one. As Watts says: “Filling in forms in the way the DWP requires, and providing useful letters of support, often means focusing on what is difficult and writing in a far more pathologising, medical model manner than you might normally. It must be deficits based, with diagnosis used as shorthand. If you are critically minded, speak with claimants first about the need to adopt what Recovery in the Bin Administrators calls ‘double speak’, i.e. writing in a way that you disagree with because that is best way to serve the interests of the claimant. Acknowledge this is shit, and ask permission to do so. I have always found claimants understand, are relieved, and say yes to this.”
When writing letters of support, write them so they can be forwarded to assessors. Write them with knowledge of the descriptors used to make the judgement. Get in touch with other professionals to makes sure that they also write letters of support. Use your professional power to stop someone being harrassed by the DWP. Request a mandatory reconsideration within the month of a decision going against someone.
Finding your power
What is true of support through solidarity in benefits claims is true in other forms of help your profession might afford you the opportunity to provide. Hope is made by ideas given action.
This is where you have power, the kind of power that is uncomfortable and unpleasant and messy. This is where Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope returns: neither cynicism nor optimism is going to influence the amount of food in someone’s cupboard or help them to keep the only home they’ve ever felt safe in. The hope lies not in inspiring people or winning debates, it lies in being alongside someone to face something which they cannot take on alone. It’s recognising that you cannot help someone to build themselves up when you ignore what knocks them down. It horrible and dirty and it shouldn’t be like that, but it is.
Describing how power is used against someone is not the same as being able to mitigate the effects of that power. I will never have the professional power that a room full of clinical psychologists will have. I am just a windy barn, creaking impotently as things fall apart around me in the face of the storm whipping people’s lives away. I do what I can, but I know I’m just another voice trying to find the right pitch and key to shout loud enough to shatter this great glass palace of shit. In the end, I’m just noise and arm waving and a torrent of words against processes and circumstances that crush other people like me to dust.
The future is made from putting understanding of the past and present into action. WInning an argument with a peer may feel like turning the course of history, but most of the time the real enemy is somewhere else, getting on with making things worse. Looking in from the outside, it has often looked to people with mental health difficulties that the mental health professions have spent more time battling each others of definitions of injustice than actually putting hope into action and attempting to change that injustice. Intellectual work is important and vital, but so is being there for people.
But mental health professionals have a power I will never have, even when every sinew in their body screams out that they should not use it. Fear of being wrong or doing the wrong thing is the biggest barrier to taking action. No action is perfect. There will never be entirely clean hands. But maintaining your optimism or nursing your cynicism means you will never be wrong. Whether it’s face to face or in more systemic ways, action is the only thing that can give hope to others and reinforce hope in yourself. As Rebecca Solnit says: “Everything is flawed, if you want to look at it that way. The analogy that has helped me most is this: in Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat-owners rescued people — single moms, toddlers, grand-fathers — stranded in attics, on roofs, in flooded housing projects, hospitals, and school buildings. None of them said, I can’t rescue everyone, therefore it’s futile; therefore my efforts are flawed and worthless, though that’s often what people say about more abstract issues in which, nevertheless, lives, places, cultures, species, rights are at stake. They went out there in fishing boats and rowboats and pirogues and all kinds of small craft, some driving from as far as Texas and eluding the authorities to get in, others refugees themselves working within the city. There was bumper-to-bumper boat-trailer traffic — the celebrated Cajun Navy — going toward the city the day after the levees broke. None of those people said, I can’t rescue them all. All of them said, I can rescue someone, and that’s work so meaningful and important I will risk my life and defy the authorities to do it. And they did.”
So, be with people. Be with the things that ail people. Play with futures. Be useful. Be prepared. Be clever and kind. Remake the world by understanding the world in all its messy, horrific, amazing glory. Be curious and open and take the risks that your status allows in the knowledge that others will take those kinds of risk for you. As Rebecca Solnit says: “To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed.”
Hope transforms fury into kindness. Hope is made through action. And that’s where you come in.
Mark Brown is @markoneinfour on twitter.