Hello Dear Readers,
Here is a wee introduction so we can feel more at ease with one another. My name is Anna. I grew up town named Uawa, or Tolaga Bay as it is more commonly known. It’s choice as and beautiful too. I am 26 years young currently. I have a degree in sociology and social policy from Victoria University, and a strong passion for mental health. I enjoy writing, reading, napping, cats, vegan chocolate, and taking long walks through the bush for months on end. I also enjoy talking about things that we ought to talk about more. Such as, how far we have come in mental health, and how far we need to go in order for all people in our community, to feel respected, empowered and seen as the voices that matter most.
Let’s get started shall we? When I was asked to write something, I thought at first it may be a risk to put my name out there as indentifying as part of the mental health community. I was wrong.
My initial trepidation was prompted by previous times when I felt ashamed to tell the world my story. After all, we get a bit of a bad reputation by so many people. I used to think of myself in terms of the labels that were given to me at 18 years old. Being labelled by a doctor, who told me that having ‘bipolar affective disorder’ meant I could not expect to live a ‘normal life’ like everybody else. A life that I had already planned out previously: having children, going to university, and maybe get into a creative-type career. I felt as though my whole concept of who I thought I was, had been taken away from me. My power and voice were silenced by the medical world. I was not asked if I would like to go on medication, I was told that there was no other choice, and that I would be on them long term, as there is no cure. I felt if I was seen and treated by many, as a lesser person. It sucked big time. I was still the same person after all. I had just had a bad experience and now needed help. However, I was lucky because I had proper support; I had people who believed in me enough to see me as ‘Anna’, and not ‘Bipolar Anna’. I chose not to listen to that particular doctor’s opinion of what I was capable of. Instead, I packed my things and off I went to university. This was the best decision I ever made, to this day. I met more people who had similar experiences like me in Wellington, and I lived life the best I could. That is not to say everything went as planned. I had hospitalisations, break ups, troubles, and difficulty living sometimes.
Now I realise, after my harrowing experiences—both in mental health wards and out in the big scary world—that there is such value and importance in speaking up for what is right and fair. There is value in working with people who want to see things change and improve for everyone. Because it’s about time we were heard and listened to! We are the experts of what works for us. We have lived it after all. It’s our lived experience. Of course everybody has a different experience, and it is a long process to figure out, however the one-size-fits-all model does not hold up. It simply cannot work for all.
This leads me onto one of the subjects I struggle to shake off—the medical lens in which I am viewed by some psychiatric professionals. For example, when I emerged out of my first ever seclusion nightmare. This torture caused more trauma as a direct result of being locked away for two weeks while I was completely distressed. But not to worry, this is what the medical folks called ‘healthcare’, or ‘therapy’, or ‘keeping you safe’. I did not feel safe.
I asked my case worker if I could have a counsellor to talk about my trauma. I was asked bluntly, ‘what for?’ I was seen as mad, and I felt it. Although this mad girl was mad with frustration at a system that did not provide basic care. In turn, I got sick more often, I got angry, and I got scared of going to hospital. I got a new label too: anxiety disorder. Fun times right?
Now I know, after nine years of lived experience, that I know best. I can manage things. I have conquered. I don’t need to be ‘fixed’. I need support sometimes, like everybody in this world does. One in five people experience some sort of mental distress in a year [the statistics are one in two people over a lifetime. Te Rau Hinengaro, 2006]. I am no different. I am the same.
So my question is, how do we shift the narratives of myself and others, being seen as ‘dangerous’, ‘incapable’, ‘not fit for purpose’, or even ‘mentally ill’. We know it’s not true, and the long-term damage it does for everybody involved is, in reality, pulling us backwards, not pulling us up and out. Sure, there are a lot of media doing great things, like taking about mental health in a positive light, (not all of them do regrettably). It’s okay now to talk about it in television advertisements, or on social media, but what about in a job interview or a doctor’s office? How do we keep hold of our own power, voice, and autonomy, when you have a system that sees you as damaged goods? Let me say right now, you are not damaged. Sadly, the current and dominant model in mental health in this country is the biomedical model. Let’s change that, let’s work together and start changing the tired and outdated dialogue. The ‘mad movement’ is one which gave us a platform to speak out, and demand change. It’s about saying proudly that we are here, and we refuse to be seen as people who are limited.
Wellbeing Wellington gives that power back to the community. It is an organisation that strives to work within a model with more than just one solution, but many. By working ‘within Sir Mason Durie’s holistic model Te Whare Tapa Wha, which sets out four cornerstones of health encompassing psychological health/te taha hinengaro, spiritual health/te taha wairua, physical health/te taha tinana, and family health/te taha whanau’ (Wellbeing Wellington, 2016).
Mad in Aotearoa allows our voices and experiences to be valued. There are many amazing people I have met in the mental health community that have made me feel like I am on the right track. I need to thank Andrea, Sara and Mary for their wisdom, vision, and spirit. You are all awesome ladies, and I have learnt so much from you all. I will no longer feel the intense guilt and shame I used to feel. I will make my own choices and do the best for me.
So with that in mind, I know that there are many risks in life we take, some good and some bad. Saying that I have experienced mental distress/lived experience is no risk to me at all. I am proud to be part of this community.
(If you are interested, I have a blog firstname.lastname@example.org with more of my personal writing. Please feel free to check it out.)