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FACT: Mental Distress in a Digital Age

FACT: Mental Distress in a Digital Age

11.05.15  /  Words: Daniel Sandison

It's 2015 and it is OK to talk about your mental health. Well, almost...

Great strides have been made in the past couple of years in terms of getting people to discuss their psychological wellbeing, to challenge the issues that face millions of us every day and to have the whole battleship grey spectrum of mental health removed from under the covers and thrown open to the mainstream. More can still be done.

FACT, as part of their ongoing and extensive work within mental health, are showing an exhibition entitled Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, which aims to further explore the complex relationship between technology, society and mental health.

The Guardian- another leader in the charge to have mental health issues taken seriously- have claimed that "the exhibition brings the cross association between the outer limits of artistic innovation and the bewilderments of mental illness right up to date."  We weren't quite sure what that meant, so we caught up with one of the artists involved to hopefully make things a bit clearer.

Madlove: A Designer Asylum is the latest work by The Vacuum Cleaner (real name, no gimmicks), in which- based on his own personal experiences of mental health hospitals- he attempts to rebrand the arena to "find a positive space to experience mental distress...and enlightenment." Sounds mad, doesn't it? But that's sort of the point. The Vacuum Cleaner explains...

"I’ve spent a lot of time in different mental health hospitals, most of which have been very challenging environments to be in.

Very institutional, very bland, no thought to how they are designed, not much to do and most of the staff seem to be bogged down in paper work. The kind of place that would make you depressed, which is both ironic and unnecessary.

In spring of 2011 I was experiencing a challenging time. I was depressed and my suicidal thoughts were very hard to manage. My care team wanted me to go back to my local hospital, but I couldn’t see the benefit in that. Why would I put myself back into a place that is so difficult?

So in a moment of ‘madness’ I decided to turn my council flat into my own hospital - just by declaring it so.

I wrote my own mental health act and detained myself within it, in an attempt to find a creative way through this period. A wide range of artists and non artists came and spent time with me. We made work together and I made some work on my own too, the project was called Ship of Fools. See more about it here.

Once the project was complete I had a fair few people emailing me asking if I could reproduce this for them. I wasn’t in a place to do it at the time, but the idea stayed with me.

What would happen if the lunatics designed, built and ran the asylum, rather than just the lunatics taking over the asylum?

This, over time, formulated into Madlove: A Designer Asylum, which at FACT in Liverpool, is a beta or test version of the project. A way to try out some of the design ideas and begin to consider what may happen in it."

Turning your own council flat into a mental health hospital and writing your own mental health act are wonderful statements as a starting point, but since 2011 the popular opinion around mental health in The UK has started to shift. How have you viewed this change, considering this has been something that has affected you, and your work, for a relatively long time?

"I think that the change has be brewing for a while, but what has made the real difference is social media.

For a long time people with mental illnesses didn’t have a voice. We were spoken for by the big charities and spoken about in the mainstream media. What has changed is that now we have the tools to speak to each other and challenge how we are being spoken about.

This has meant that it has become more acceptable to be open about your experience of mental distress and it is easier to challenge how we are represented.

I think also credit is due to those celebs that have been open about their mental health too, Stephen Fry, Frank Bruno, Sol Campbell etc. That doesn’t mean to say that the stigma and discrimination has gone, but things are slowly improving."

That's a wonderful list of national treasures, and Sol Campbell. If the UK is starting to move in the right direction, can the rest of the world follow suit? After all, it is a global issue.

"Firstly I haven’t had any first-hand experience of mental health care outside of the UK, but I have been touring mainland Europe with my piece Mental, and to a lesser extent with Madlove: A Designer Asylum.

It’s painful to see that America seems obsessed with over- pathologising and over- medicating, where if you grieve for more than two weeks you now have depression.

I’ve shown work in Latvia, where they just don’t talk about mental health, and I seemed to have unintentionally shocked a lot of people. I’ve also had some surprises. I’ve been showing work a fair amount in Switzerland, and I would of thought that the health care there would be first rate, but from what I heard it is as problematic as it is in the UK.

This question is something I want to research further though: how do different cultures and societies respond to mental illness? What works and what doesn’t?"

Away from the "Mental Health is a hot topic" headlines, not a great deal has changed in the practicality of how we treat mental health problems. Why do you think there is this disconnect?

"One of the recurring problems, for me, is where our understanding of mental illness, madness, or whatever you want to call it comes from and how it’s defined.

Before Freud and up to the present day, mental health care has been professionalised. It’s been the job of the doctor or the therapist or whatever.

Now, I don’t want to dismiss that knowledge, but mental illness isn’t just a biological issue and it isn’t just a social issue or developmental one. It’s all of these things and more. The human brain and the human mind is a vastly complex thing, and therefore it seems that all of these factors need to be considered.

For example, living in poverty isn’t a direct cause of mental distress, but trying to get by with no money is certainly stressful, and not the kind of thing you should be worrying about when you’re in a lot of emotional pain.


To change that would require massive social change and this isn’t something that mental health professionals consider their remit - they just work with what they have got. 

On top of this is the role played by someone with lived experience, and the expertise that they have that is often overlooked. Living with mental distress and coping with it is a skill you will master and that is easy to share with others: what you’ve found that works and what strategies have worked. Unfortunately in our current model of care this huge resource is ignored and often looked down on." 

What could be done to close this gap between the way we look at and understand these issues and the way our services treat them? If anything...

"This is a huge question, and one that you could write a PHD about, so I’m not sure I can cover everything, but maybe I can touch on a few things.

Firstly mental health care needs the funding it deserves. It makes up 26% of NHS care yet often gets around 15% of the budget.

This would make a huge difference. Coupled with this would be changing how we care for and support people. Our current services are about crisis management and coercive care, which is the most expensive model you could come up with. Yet if you had early intervention, if it was seen as a good and healthy thing to get help with your mental health then this would help for sure.

Secondly, I think we need a change in what we see as a healthy and unhealthy mind.

Western society is all about the productive person, that can function in a particular way. This is bullshit.

To judge the value of both an individual and a society by monetary value is about as stupid as you can get and people whose brains are different, people who function in a way that don’t fit into this model are never going to reach their potential. So without a systemic change to how we function as a society it will be same old same old."

Mental Distress in a Digital Age is exhibiting until May 17th at FACT. It's the last week, but there are yoga, singing and other classes to book onto, here. Alternatively just have a walk around the space.

For more on the Vacuum Cleaner and his work, have a look here

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