Mental Health and Madness

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health recently. One of the groups of people we prioritise in our Everyday Activism local training programme are those with lived experience of mental health.

In speaking to lots people across Yorkshire through Everyday Activism, I’ve learnt so much about mental health, what it means to be ‘mad’ and the idea of sanism, and I wanted to share some of my learning and experiences with the Bootcamp community.

As someone who’s struggled with my own mental health since childhood, and been an activist for almost as long, I’ve spent significant time grappling with the tricky relationship between mental health and campaigning. Campaigning and activism have the power to change some of the structural issues that cause mental illness. Taking part in activism can also foster a feeling of empowerment, which can boost mental health. At the same time, we talk a lot about being bad at self-care and burnout for campaigners. Instead of approaching mental illness as a problem, others celebrate ‘Mad Pride’ and neurodiversity, demanding recognition for different ways of being and acceptance of how differently we all experience the world. In short, It’s complicated!

In April, I facilitated a day of mental health activism training with Rainbow Heron in Sheffield, a charity set up in memory of Dora Daniel, a local woman who lost her life to depression.

The training day was a great success, bringing together people with lived experience of mental distress to talk about past and present campaigns including Mad Pride, Recovery in the Bin, Occupy the APA, the Mental Patients Union, and Time to Change. We also discussed anti-stigma campaigning and sanism, and participants created their placards, one of which is pictured below.

Since the workshop a group of the participants have been working on a pledge of demands to campaign around, focussed on NHS services.

My co-facilitator from the day, Ben Dorey, a Recovery Education Trainer in the NHS, a DJ and a poet, spoke to me about why he thinks campaigning is so important for people with lived experience of mental distress and what change he wants to make.

‘Mental health services often are still led by a narrow idea of what constitutes normal and work towards normalising people, rather than acknowledging the diversity of people’s experiences, backgrounds and beliefs and the way in which this diversity is hard to live with, in an often oppressive society’,  he said. ‘I want services which help people to deal with the hand life has dealt them, rather than treating them as people with malfunctioning minds, and which have room for mad experiences to be celebrated, when appropriate, as part of what it is to be human’.

Ben talks about ‘mad’ as an identity, something which I’ve found more out about too, through finding out about the ‘Mad Pride’ movement and working in partnership with Hull Mad Pride to host two ‘Mad Activism’ trainings on 4th and 18th July as part of their ‘Who Are You? How Are You?’ exhibition at the Prince’s Quay, Hull. If you’re in Hull, go and check it out! 

Photo credit: Hull Mad Pride

It’s been great to be able to create and participate in spaces where staff and service users (or those who choose not to use services) can begin to talk about some of these big ideas. One of the things that has come up again and again is that social isolation means that it is often hard to find other people to campaign with. Often, that lack of grassroots resistance to the things that contribute to poor mental health (whether that’s service cuts, poverty, or lack of community resources), can mean many things go unchallenged, hitting people’s mental health even harder.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with Sheffield Flourish to find people with ideas about how to campaign around mental health so that we can provide support, link campaigners up, and help develop these ideas. We’re looking for people from across South Yorkshire with creative ideas, and will be taking ideas throughout the summer. You can apply as an individual, or as an existing group of people. To see more and submit your idea, click here.

Ben said his long-term vision is to change the way people understand mental illness – I think, on a grand scale, that we would see mad people treated as a legitimate section of society, rather than as something to be treated away. I hope that instead of anti-stigma campaigns we could have campaigns against “sanism”, thus moving from a notion of “sick” people who shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their ‘illness’ towards an acknowledgement that it is society’s attitude towards these people that is, in some ways, “sick”‘.

At the beginning of this journey, I was afraid of talking about my own experiences in public. Now I feel like not only is it nothing to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of. Collectivising with others who experience things the way I do is a route to changing those material things that cause them, as well as creating space in which to heal too.


If you’ve got a creative idea about how to tackle issues around mental health, submit your idea here. You can find out more about Ben’s mental health story in a short video from Flourish, here.

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