Asylum and mental health in the COVID-19 lockdown

Ian Parker has the latest special issue of Asylum: Radical Mental Health Magazine.

This pandemic, a function of ecological destruction under capitalism, intensifies every existing form of oppression and misery. This includes, of course, those already shunted to the margins of society because they are economically unproductive, their ‘illness’ often arising from different forms of abuse and stress that psychiatrists too-often then attempt to straighten out with drugs and other physical treatments.

Asylum Magazine, founded in 1986 as a hospital ward newsletter, described itself for many years as a magazine for ‘democratic psychiatry’. This was a reference to the attempt by the far-left Psichiatria Democratica movement in Italy to close down the old mental hospitals, one that had partial success in Trieste in the northeast of the country.

Perhaps psychiatry can be ‘democratised’ or perhaps a full-flowering of democratic self-management of our lives will enable us to dispense with psychiatry altogether, who knows. What is certain is that the medical model for the forms of distress we experience in this wretched unequal society often makes things worse, and we need much more radical approaches to ‘mental health’. The latest special issue of Asylum Magazine was assembled fast to examine the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, and the diverse responses to it from users of mental health services. It includes articles and images and resources that are indispensable for a more humane world.

Mad resources

Among the resources highlighted in this issue of Asylum are those produced by MadCovid, which includes crowd-funded small grants to help mentally ill and neurodiverse people, and ‘Quaranzine’ which explores isolation at home as well as detention in hospital. The MadCovid Diaries bring together different perspectives on the crisis; this not only to draw attention to isolation and to break that isolation with zine and quiz initiatives, but also exploration of ways in which the lockdown also gives unexpected space to people who are otherwise subject to pressure to adapt to a hurried uncaring world. One of the accounts of lockdown by Frieda B, excerpted from her longer more detailed blog shows how ‘social distancing’ repeated experiences of restraint and humiliation in hospital after initial euphoria at being safe at home, no longer driven out to live a so-called ‘normal’ life.

Long involved in Asylum has been the Hearing Voices Network that brings together those who have been given a psychiatric label for their experience, and the Paranoia Network. The report on the recent Paranoia Network lockdown support initiatives includes noting that few people in these strange times are being seen by professionals – not necessarily a bad thing – and the way ‘the real horrors of the pandemic are similar to the unreal horrors of paranoid thoughts’.

The special issue also explores longer-standing debates about medical and non-medical approaches to mental health under these new conditions, including a reflection on the recent controversial decision of the magazine to include a contribution by a mainstream psychiatrist. This reflection by a member of the Asylum Editorial Group is also included as an open-access sample article on the magazine website. There is a sharp letter complaining about that decision and a response by the editor, pointing out that the magazine does not shut down debate around mental health, including over medical models that many users of services still look to for support.

Medical models

Also in this issue and available on the website is a service-user manifesto – one of many such that the magazine has published over the years – and a Rosenhan experiment book review; volunteers were sent to mental hospitals in the early 1970s in the US as ‘pseudo-patients’ to demonstrate how easy it was to be admitted and how difficult it was to get out of the psychiatric system. It turns out that it is likely that Rosenhan may have fabricated some of the research, and this opens a question as to the value of the story as a powerful anecdote wielded over the years against medical psychiatry.

There are other book reviews, one on the way that the Rorschach blot test was used to pathologise gay people, but also brought in as evidence in the campaign to de-pathologise homosexuality (which was removed from the main medical psychiatric classification system in the US in 1973). Another is a review of a book on what is sometimes called ‘outsider art’, and this is complemented by art by Bryan Charnley, and some other fabulous images in the magazine. There is also plenty of poetry, as usual.

This special issue makes it clear that psychiatric survivor and Mad liberation movements must be part of any serious attempt to change the world. They turn their ‘illness’ into a weapon against the psychiatric system and are part of a broader movement to understand how it is that political problems are too-often and too-conveniently reduced to biological imbalances and chemical deficits.

Previous issues of the magazine on the back issues section of the Asylum website include ones devoted to racism and sexism. There is also a detailed list of resources and campaigns on the website. These forms of oppression, whether on grounds of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or psychiatric diagnosis, are symptoms of a sick society, and Asylum Magazine shows us that treating individuals who resist oppression as sick is part of the problem, an issue that should be on the agenda of socialists everywhere.

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1 Comment on Asylum and mental health in the COVID-19 lockdown

  1. Dina asked me to clarify something I wrote. She writes: “In your article, you mention my piece in the Covid-19 Asylum issue and you describe it as ‘a reflection on the controversial decision of Asylum to publish an article by a mainstream psychiatrist in a previous issue’.
    I am afraid this description of my piece is inaccurate and actually misses the point of my contribution. In my piece I do not deal at all with the decision of Asylum (controversial or not) to publish Samei Huda’s article.
    I only refer to Huda’s article and the response from Double and Moncrieff in passing as an example of a (relatively) constructive and respectful debate which stands in contrast to the hugely polarised and often far from respectful debates on mental health prevailing on social media, twitter in particular.
    My piece is not about Asylum’s decision to publish Huda’s article. It is about polarised mental health politics and whether mental health service users can/should /do care about it in the Coronavirus era. It is about the need for humility and open-mindedness when we enter difficult discussions on contested issues in mental health. It is about the need to avoid foreclosure, tolerate uncertainty and embrace ambivalence during these discussions.”

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