Chris Ballance: Better mental health must mean taking back control of our own lives

Ben Wray

CommonSpace reader and former arts & mental health charity organiser, Chris Ballance contributes to our special week of coverage on the mental health crisis.

I SEE TWO categories of mental dis-ease. Like types 1 & 2 diabetes, one is inbuilt, arising from some chemical or physical failing of the body; the other grows from pressures put on us by life (and lifestyle). Type 1 requires pharmaceutical intervention. Type 2 requires person-centred non-medical support, though may also require acute short-term pharma intervention, in its most extreme forms.

For a few years in the 90s, I ran an arts and mental health charity (Survivors’ Poetry) in Glasgow. For the people who worked with us, turning, in a supportive environment, their experiences through metaphor into art, had a clear therapeutic benefit.  We found that writing down one’s experiences, thoughts and feelings as story or poetry, gives one a sense of taking control of the thoughts and thus helps towards regaining control of a dis-eased life. Just as writing a to do list helps reduce the stress of having too much to do. It doesn’t work for everyone, but active participation in creating visual arts, theatre and music also has a well documented benefit for many people. But not all. Story as therapy – telling and listening to positive stories which redefine one’s view of oneself is another therapy gaining currency within the NHS.

Reconnecting with nature is also rising up the agenda. Getting out of the built environment of a city simply to spend time in the natural world is also seen to be helping us reconnect with our true selves – and escaping the mindset that we are what other people try to turn us into, by creating our own life stories.

Is it possible that some of this is about regaining control? I was surprised not to see the phrase “lack of control” in the CommonSpace article on the roots of the mental health crisis. Most people today feel they have no control over what happens in their street, their town, no involvement in the democratic process, no control over their work life, their finances. Is it surprising that lack of control helps minds become out of control?

One of the key aspects of the arts/nature/story as therapy practice is that it is generally run by or in collaboration with people who identify as survivors of mental health issues. The patient as healer. The patient taking control. (RD Laing still has relevant stuff to say!)

Through the 70s-00s we became screen addicts, spending hours each evening passively taking and believing in whatever is thrown at us. Out of control. Interactive screens ought to have worked against that passivity – but when the interaction consists of friends, colleagues and total strangers bad mouthing you and/or your beliefs, that’s what we believe. At least the BBC in the 70s wasn’t run by our friends in the way that our posts on Facebook are.

READ MORE – Scott Macdonald: The gauntlet of shame that is life in modern Britain can be overcome

And then there’s self-confidence. It’s one of the first things to go in a mental health episode, though I suspect it is also frequently pre-existent, and is related to the sense of being a pinball in a world in which one has no say in the directions you are being flipped.

So the solutions? Big pharma does have a role to play, but on the sidelines. Too often an expensive pill is a solution for a time-pressured health worker – but personal therapeutic support is probably cheaper and in the long-term has better results. Just don’t expect there to be One answer. To mangle Tolstoy: “Every happy person is alike, but every mentally distressed person is distressed in their own way.”

Preventive, prophylactic societal solutions are harder to find. Any support mechanisms potentially offered in schools are hugely outweighed by the structural problems identified in the article. Screens aren’t going to go away anytime soon, nor is our belief that what we see on them must be true. Abolishing relative poverty would be nice but doesn’t seem to be on any government agenda. More possible perhaps is re-creating community and a sense of geographic community, through community activism and involvement, increasing our sense of having our say in society and increasing the amount of time we spend face to face. Sod taking back control of our borders – government needs to enable us to take back control of our own lives.