Gentle Activism uses the oral histories collected by the Women Listening to Women project to explore the history of Bristol Crisis Service for Women. We celebrate the power of empathy and listening as agents of radical change and contemplate the past, present and future challenges of running a service for women and girls that is intersectional and inclusive.

Listen on the Women Listening to Women website, on Spotify, Pocketcasts, Radio Public or Soundcloud

Podcast art by Jen Price

When I was asked to create these podcasts, I was intrigued. I had previously been involved in Unlocking Our Sound Heritage and had found that listening to voices from the past made the world today make more sense. So much about our mental health systems doesn’t make sense to me, so I was keen to find out more about this subject through the lens of the Bristol Crisis Service for Women. For me, understanding where things come from is a crucial part of finding solutions in the future. I was excited to delve into the history of feminism and mental health, and thinking back, I truly didn't appreciate how deep these issues went or how much they still impact our lives today.

My first order of business was to listen to the 22 interviews with former staff and volunteers. It was immediately striking how candid these women were. Their openness took me off-guard, I had expected emotional reports, but the raw, unbridled stories transported me to their time and their experiences. Suddenly, I was in the 1980s in a psychiatric hospital, then grappling with the media in the 1990s and felt weary at the struggles for funding. What I was actually doing while listening to these testimonies was crying in a library, realising that stuffy face masks are not designed for this kind of emotion.

The fact that an enormous amount of the raw content was so moving meant that editing was tough. I struggled with feeling like I was doing an injustice by choosing one segment over another. What did the world need to know from these women? This was a question I grappled with endlessly. Fortunately, we had a wonderful team of volunteers who had conducted the interviews and their feedback was invaluable. They were not just kind and generous, as so many of the people at Self Injury Support are, but also honest about their thoughts.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about editing and producing these podcasts was how much I learned about feminism, mental health and self-injury. I am a mental health activist and have personal experience with trauma and sexual assault, so naively I thought that I wouldn’t be surprised by anything. Spoiler alert, I was wrong. Their personal stories were drastically different from one another, yet they all spoke of the systematic way in which women have – historically and to this day – been punished for their behaviours: particularly if they are showing their distress in a socially unacceptable way. Sal, a long time staff member, highlighted that women who contacted the service felt like the world was saying :

Don’t be angry, don’t self-injure but if you were to cry a bit, then that’s palatable.

Self-injury is complicated, people’s relationships with it are individual. Like so many things, it is part of a vast spectrum. The trainers for Bristol Crisis for Women reported that many people found the concept of self-injury hard to understand and felt that women were attention-seeking or manipulative. The media often reinforced these messages, giving graphic or visceral accounts of women's self-injury that focused on the act rather than the emotions behind it. Yet I think this is neatly challenged by Jess, the current support services coordinator:

“It's not an alien concept. It's not. We all do things that harm us…. It might be something like, you drink an extra glass of wine that night or, I'm just gonna order some junk food because I feel rubbish. We know what that is. We know what those feelings are, those feelings are the same feelings.”

Furthermore, attempts to understand self-injury have been deeply undermined by efforts to categorise it. For many years, professionals within psychiatry have attempted to place it neatly into diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder. Despite this, the most important message that I have taken away from Bristol Crisis Service for Women and now Self Injury Support is: it is how you do things that count. By putting a radical form of empathy and gentle activism together, they have been part of a wave of change in how self-injury is understood.

But more action is needed. Although awareness has improved, the societal root causes of self-injury are more prevalent than ever. Domestic abuse, sexual assault and people experiencing mental health issues have all been rising over the past ten years. Furthermore, with the cost of living rising research has shown that this will more acutely impact women alongside their physical and mental health. Self Injury Support has a vital role in supporting those who self-injure and being a focal point to demand change.