Our director Naomi Salisbury took part in a virtual panel about Survivor History and Activism on the 15th November (you can watch the recording here), organised by the National Survivor User Network. The programme was full of important discussions and workshops on topics such as: racial justice, abolition, and safety and agency around our own mental health. 

The conversation around survivor history is so timely in its attempt to acknowledge the injustice of whose stories we hear. Time and time again, survivor histories, often women’s histories, have been buried - not maliciously, perhaps, but through the general social consensus that women’s issues are ‘less important’ than men’s. Our stories are worth less, especially - but not only - if we are perceived to be at the bottom of the social food chain. Our contributions must be questioned. As Kate Mann points out in a New York Times article: “Mansplaining may be recently named, but it’s most likely a phenomenon as old as time.” (I highly recommend the article within the article, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me for further reading). 

The way this plays out in mental health support, especially with self-injury, is women and girls being told to “go away, and come back when you’ve stopped doing that”. Self-harm is seen as a form of attention seeking that prevents medical professionals being able to helpfully engage with the needs being expressed behind that action. This is a feminist issue. The history of ‘hysteria’ and the plethora of reasons attached to it that prevent women having any social or political power has a lot to answer for. Through decades of relentless campaigning, providing alternative services, and researching and publishing our own findings, we are starting to see change in the way medical professionals respond to those who self-injure. 

This Survivor History and Activism panel is a great opportunity to hear more about the ways in which grassroots, experience-led development of services can help all of us get the care and support we deserve. For too long, that care and support has been held within the realms of ‘professionals’ who ‘know better’, and it is a breath of fresh air to see the value of people’s experiential knowledge being recognised. Systems don’t work when they are built by people who don’t understand the needs of their service-user.

Mark Brown, who will be on the panel with Naomi, has written about this too, and prioritises lived experience over ‘professionalism’. In this piece from 2017, they write about coproduction: the need for professionals and people with lived experience to work together. The need for all experiences and all kinds of knowledge to be valued and used to develop services that work for the people using them. As Mark succinctly puts it: “making lives less shit”. In this work, we also see the beginnings of a redistribution of power. It is no longer only the ‘professionals’ who hold knowledge - a social phenomenon is happening that enables receivers of support to be their own advocates, to insist on the care they know they need. Not everyone is able to do this all the time, but the voices of those who have historically been belittled are growing stronger. We see more and more different representations of self-injury on our blog, which contributes to wider representation and wider recognition. 

Survivor history and activism have been instrumental in moving us forward to the point we are at now. Without the bold voices of those who have come before us, the way would not have been paved for our current understanding of mental health, mental illness, and self-harm. We are starting to recognise the many ways in which social factors encourage mental illness, such as overwork, stress, and lack of healthy relationship education. The more we amplify voices of those who are the experts of their own experience, the better our collective understanding can be, and the more improvements we can make to the services that exist to support us. There’s a long way to go, but we are standing on the shoulders of giants. 

The panel will be expertly hosted by Akiko Hart, who co-wrote this excellent piece of work; An Alternative Review of the Mental Health Act in 2018.