Tag Archives: mental health

Most rapists and murderers aren’t ill. Don’t call misogynists “mad”

An actor called him a lunatic, and newspapers and magazines called him a madman and deranged. And while it may have been tempting to use these words to describe the young man who killed six people because of his arrogant attitude of entitlement to women, Elliott Rodger’s videos and manifesto made clear that his problem was not his mental health, but rather his unbridled misogyny.

Using mental health slurs to describe people who are violent or objectionable is not only inaccurate, it also promotes stigma and damaging attitudes towards people with mental health problems. This is why describing rapists and murderers as crazy, psychos or nutters is dangerous as well as lazy.

It is these attitudes that prevent people with mental health diagnoses from getting on with their lives. They cause people in a leafy Sheffield suburb to actively object to a charity-run crisis house in their backyard on their street. The resulting prejudice prevents us from getting jobs and causes people to fear and loathe us. It makes people avoid seeking treatment because they are so afraid of the stigma that comes alongside the ‘mentally ill’ label. As an anonymous contributor to Fementalists wrote:

“For those of us who are mentally ill, however, it stays with us, stabs at us. Whenever we hear this kind of thing we’re getting the message we’re not to be accepted as we are, that we’re bad, wrong, to be mocked, or worse, dangerous. To me, it’s a constant message sent by society that we are unwelcome in it.”

The vast majority of people with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and 95% of murders are committed by people with no mental health diagnosis. However, whenever a killing makes the news, speculation about the suspect’s potential psychiatric state abound, not just in gossipy social media circles but in the mainstream press too.

The problem with abusers is not that they are “insane”. When we label violent and abusive men ‘crazy’, we fail to identify and address the real problems. In cases of domestic violence, rape and stalking, for instance, it is easy to call the perpetrators psychotic but, if we do so, we are missing the opportunity to recognise and tackle misogyny, entitlement and rape culture.

The use of mental health slurs as insults is unrelenting, and the undercurrent of unremitting microaggressions is exhausting. When I call myself mad and you use the same word to describe Jimmy Savile’s terrifying catalogue of abuse, I can only conclude that you think there is a parallel between the two. When somebody is diagnosed with psychosis and you call a perpetrator of vicious domestic violence ‘psychotic’, you are suggesting that you believe the person who is unwell is capable of the same cruelty and abuse.

We see news reports of violent misogyny and we might well get angry. We read accounts of domestic abuse and we may feel frightened and vulnerable. But resorting to disablist language to describe the perpetrators of these crimes makes it easy to ignore the problem, while piling stigma onto mental health service users that will limit our lives and encourage hate crimes and discrimination.

So, if somebody is brutal, call them brutal. If they are cruel, call them cruel. And what if an abuser or killer has a confirmed diagnosis of, say, psychosis or schizophrenia? Well, what if they have epilepsy? Or a broken leg? The likelihood is that their diagnosis bears little relationship to their violence. Assuming there is a connection with their impairment is submitting to dangerous stereotypes that cause palpable, daily problems for those with these diagnoses and issues.

Wait for the facts, don’t assume and never, ever try to diagnose somebody based on what you’ve read on the internet.

Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.

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Lifeworks and the power of protest

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Deputy Editor Sarah Graham reported on the service users occupying their under threat community mental health clinic, Lifeworks Cambridge, in an effort to keep the service open. Two months later, after protesters had occupied the building for four months, an agreement has been reached for Lifeworks to continue providing community care for Borderline Personality Disorder patients for five more years. Lifeworks service user and protester Ann Robinson sent us this update:

At 10:45am on the 30/06/2014, the service users of Lifeworks signed a 5 year contract with the CPFT Chief Executive Aidan Thomas, Cllr Kilian Bourke and, on behalf of service users, Ann Robinson. Along with the contract, the CPFT and service users of Lifeworks are to do a joint piece of work to develop a joint proposal to take to commissioners.

For us the service users it has been a hard and stressful road of learning, protesting, stamina and determination. To occupy a building for 4 months, give up your time and effort, to hold yourself together, help others, meet strangers who have become friends, and deal with media has been intense. With all of this we all still have an illness ourselves, which is stressful in itself. It is as a team and working together that we have achieved this, although some became ill along the way, everyone played their part.

Congratulations to all at Lifeworks from us at Feminist Times.

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Charlotte Raven

A feminist alternative to asylums?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

“You’ll enjoy this piece,” my daughter just said. “It’s your specialist subject.”

She’s right and this a bit of a worry. I hardly notice how much time I spend discussing theraputic modalities with friends and colleagues, or how many Google searches of the side effects of psychoactive medications.

Some of my best friends are mad. One writes self help books using an online acronym generator and another weaves. And one is in an out of the emergency psych ward of our local hospital, which really does seem like a revolving door.

Trawling through recent statistics at the start of mental health week, I was convinced that my mad friends are ‘everyday people’; mad is the new normal, in fact. 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental crisis in the course of a year. It is a woman’s issue, unarguably: women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem than men. We may be getting madder but a rational discussion is taking place about all this for the first time and nothing is off limits.

Everyone agrees; the crisis in mental health care is a gathering storm. Politicians are responding strangely and uncharacteristically. The brutal reality of care in the community has drawn criticism across the political spectrum, although the reasons are different. The Tories are worried about the sane members of the public being attacked by the mentally unstable and the left are worried about the people left in front of the TV in lonely flats for decades, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

At Christmas I was mad as a brush; depressed and alienated with little fellow feeling. Our family home had been a war zone because of my mental crises which have all merged into each other. Until three months ago, I was chronically depressed. I wasn’t sitting quietly in front of the TV watching Friends like my other depressed friends; I couldn’t move but managed to station myself in the one spot in the house where everyone would hear my anguished perorations. I spent whole weekends on the only comfortable chair in the kitchen, complaining about the chores, my doomed existence and the internet age.

I spent 5 years wondering what to do. Having recently read Gone Girl I’m glad I didn’t relocate to a provincial town and set up a bar with an East London name. Then one day an epiphany: I should retrain as a therapist! Several of my mad friends had done this, and a few sane ones who found their skills surplus to requirements. The writer I most admired had gone down this well trodden path. Fortunately for my patients-to-be, I realised I’d be a rubbish therapist one year into a course at the Tavistock: “You’d go on about your problems and never listen to theirs,” my daughter said.

For those who made this leap, their business is sustainable, if poorly remunerated. It is recession proof; a booming industry in this crazy-making late capitalist era.

Why is anyone sane? This system is built on false promises; you are built up and knocked down. We are constantly reinventing ourselves to keep up – and failing. Jobs for life to zero hours in the blink of an eye. Poverty drives people over the edge and if they bear witness to their traumatic experiences of inform on this ‘structurally genocidal’ system, they are discredited. We are all being gaslighted all the time; capitalism dims the lights, murders our friends and relations, then tells us we are lunatics. This system is a suitable case for treatment.

The biological view of mental illness is appealing because the pharmacological answer is a quicker fix than global revolution. We are all drugged up to the eyeballs and increasingly cavalier about it. I recently read something about Ritalin that said few parents asked about the side effects, possible alternatives, what these drugs were whether these drugs are even effective. We think they’re mild because we give them to children. In fact, Ritalin was first synthesized in 1944 in an unsuccessful attempt to create a non-addictive stimulant. This amphetamine-like substance is similar in chemical structure and effects. Like speed, it keeps you awake, suppresses your appetite and makes you anxious and irritable.

I empathise with this desire for quick fix. Who the hell wants a long fix? I was in three times a week therapy for a few years, and barely scratched the surface. When I couldn’t afford it, I decided pills were the answer – I just hadn’t found the right ones. An NHS psychiatrist diagnosed double depression; major depressive episodes on top of persistent dysthymia. He prescribed two different types of anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer. It worked, in a way. I am no longer depressed, but do feel like I’m on drugs.

One recent documentary, Generation RX examines the rise in psychiatric diagnoses among American children and teens from 1980 to 2007. The producer was shocked to learn that the majority of the psychiatric drugs prescribed to kids had never been proven safe or effective. But the regulatory watchdogs colluded with drug manufacturer in supressing evidence of suicidal thoughts and other side effects before Ritalin and other stimulants came to the market. The predictable result; a spike in teen suicides and 7-year-old insomniacs. Our children are the victims of our quick fix mentality.

If not drugs and TV then what? It’s the right moment to re-imagine institutional care and thereby capitalise on public disillusion with community care, without reviving the fear of Nurse Ratched. I came across a magazine of ‘democratic psychiatry’ called Asylum, while Googling the word to find out whether anyone had reclaimed it as a place of safety. They had.

I’ve been heartened by the dialogues I’ve had with radical service users and activists. “We’ve been banging on about this for years,” they said. Now people are listening. A group called Madlove has set about creating a ‘designer asylum’, a safe space where you could go mad “in a positive way.” The project will bring together people with and without mental health experiences, artists, and academics to conceive “a unique space” where “mutual care blossoms” and madness is redeemed. Then it will be built, opened and operate as a voluntary day hospital for six weeks.

As well as model asylums there should be mental health hubs (but don’t call them that!) in the community, within walking distance, where you won’t be stared at. I have been stared at in cafes. What would I have done if my husband had bailed out to protect his sanity? Where would I have gone?

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Hysteria 2.0: has fourth wave feminism made us all mad?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A recent in-depth study by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the “traditional gender roles further increase susceptibility [to mental illness] by stressing passivity, submission and dependence.” Reassuringly, the WHO concluded that “the pervasive violation of women’s rights” contributes to the growing burden of their mental disability.

However, the problem with this mass diagnosis of female ‘madness’ is that it relies on social, economic and cultural constructs. Therefore much of our understanding of mental illness and women has to lie in the controversial term, hysteria. Once described as a “mimetic disorder”, as it tended to mimic culturally acceptable expressions of distress, the term has appeared in our lexicon under many guises, from the ‘wandering womb’ to ‘unmanageable emotional excesses.’

Today its root can be found in a extensive list of disorders including anxiety, depression, psychosis, body dysmorphic disorder, borderline personality disorder, sexual dysfunction, amnesia, bipolar disorder and many more.

The term hysteria, from the Greek meaning ‘womb’, was first used to describe “the restless, migratory uterus that caused mental disorders”. This idea of the “restless and migratory” female can be seen in the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and, in a metaphorical sense, in the continual waves of the feminist movement and the numbers of those within the movement suffering from mental illness.

Shulamith Firestone, author of the radical feminist text The Dialectic of Sex, blames Freud’s failure to “question society itself” for the “massive confusion in the disciplines that grew up around his theory”, since the Freudian talking cure for the hysterical Dora, and his theories of the sub and unconscious, were ruled by the potent theory of the Oedipus Complex – or ‘penis envy’.

Freud’s “poetic genius” and failure to question the constraints of women has followed on into the 21st century; current psychiatrists and doctors still fail to consider alternative factors in diagnosis, whilst reeling off an elegiac list of symptoms. Looking back to borderline personality disorder, an often misdiagnosed illness, we can see the irresponsible reliance on outdated diagnostic rubric. Its emphasis on “impulsivity” and “instability in sense of self” mirrors traits pinned on to the wanton, unfeminine woman. Used when psychiatrists could not decide if a woman was being “psychotic” or “neurotic”, this catch-all diagnosis for women has led to many sane women walking around thinking they are mentally ill. Cue once again mass hysteria – the proverbial wandering womb.

Firestone accounts that psychological moulding by the “patriarchal nuclear family”, where women and children are the dependents, led to the greater risk of psychological problems. Similarly, gender inequality from childhood experiences have conditioned children into believing in what equates to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which is reinforced and constructed through the sensationalism and male dominance of the media.

According to journalist and author Kira Cochrane, the fourth wave of feminism is all about ‘the rebel woman’: the women who will not sit down and shut up; the women who will speak up against patriarchal media. However, I have a problem with the word ‘rebel’, which suggests a mob, a frenzy, and consequently leads back to that controversial word ‘hysteria’.

Despite Cochrane’s best efforts to allude to empowerment, she has managed to reinforce second wave feminist Phyllis Chesler’s idea that psychoanalysis regards madness as a normative characteristic of femininity. The 21st century rebel woman is equivalent to the 19th century hysterical woman.

Recent campaigns such as Slutwalk and No More Page 3 challenge terms and images that were once used to oppressed women, transforming them into punchy media slogans and sealing their negativity in the public consciousness. The female mind interprets the eradication of these illiberal ideas as a means to liberate ourselves, and yet the oppression continues, anxiety rises, and women are still searching for their own lexicon to establish mental liberation.

As Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex argues, in the context of Freudianism and feminism, like all Freud’s theories about women, he “analyses the female only as negative male.” While Freudianism gave women the ‘talking cure’ – the means to express their oppressed unconscious to cure hysteria – it developed a feminine stream of consciousness, littered with inverse male words; a modern repetition of penis envy.

This relentless quest, or to quote Hippocrates, this “restless and migratory” quest, has left a generation exhausted, depressed and anxious. Female rebellion has been going strong for decades, when so many women in the 1960s and 70s thought that everything would be alright in the end. Unfortunately, as we get deeper into the 21st century and our perspectives broaden to become more global, women’s lives are actually getting worse.

If, as the WHO study suggests, mental health has much to do with freedom we need to scrutinise the high points of women’s liberation: getting the vote; sexual liberation thanks to the contraceptive pill; and the rising prevalence of successful career women. Fast-forward to today, and women face corrupt politicians, frequent threats to reproductive rights, and vast unemployment, as well as bearing the brunt of government austerity measures. Women’s rights have indeed once again been violated; this time against many of the victories once crusaded for.

As Deborah Orr points out in the Guardian, the very thing many “leftwing feminists” don’t like to hear is that “combining motherhood with a demanding career is hard”, but there has to be a better solution than the lines of our sisters queuing up for sedative doses of “mothers’ little helpers”.

Women’s mental health will always be a sensitive subject, as it plagues so many lives, and 21st century feminism is indeed suffering from its own form of hysteria. Its unmanageable, emotional excesses towards reform are likely to have triggered a psychosomatic response within women. As the number of women turning to feminism is rising with the hope of change, the internal conflict of its stagnancy is troubling for many. It’s an uncomfortable question, but what if the very thing that has shifted women’s liberation to its height is also what has mentally exhausted us?

Nikki Hall is a writer and critic. Her work has featured in The Independent, The F-Word, For Book’s Sake and Litro. Follow her @nikkihall101

Photo: Hey Paul Studios

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Save Lifeworks campaign: “They used our mental health against us”

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing. 

“We were only going to be here a couple of hours, then it was overnight. And we just haven’t left!”

Jacqueline is one of an amazing group of women (and one man) who are now more than ten weeks into occupying Lifeworks, an under-threat community mental health service in Cambridge, for patients suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Housed on Cambridge’s Tenison Road, Lifeworks is part of Cambridge and Peterborough Foundation Trust (CPFT) Complex Cases Service and has offered a community drop-in and crisis care service for the last 12 years.


Patients now believe it may secretly have been under threat for as many as two years, though they only learnt of the closure in February, when they were told they would be discharged back to their GPs with no specialist BPD support on offer.

We’re sat at the table in the cosy main room of what, at first glance, looks like any other community centre. I’ve come at a particularly quiet time of day, when just three of the protesters are around, but already Ann, Heather and Jacqueline have made good on their promise of “a mean cuppa”, and there’s a plate piled high with chocolate biscuits, which between the four of us don’t last long.

The sense of community is palpable and heart warming. The sign on the door reads: “You don’t have to be mad to live here, but it helps!” – the word “don’t” playfully crossed out.


The sofas, painted murals on the wall, and the abundance of teas, coffees and biscuits on offer almost belie the serious nature of what’s going on here; it’s the sign on the wall listing who can be trusted to enter and – most crucially – who cannot, that give away the building’s occupied status. Then, of course, there’s the room full of banners and placards, the treatment rooms converted into bedrooms, and the collection of press cuttings proudly adorning the wall.

Each of the three women I meet has a similar story to tell about how Lifeworks has provided a literally lifesaving service in their most dire moments of need.

Heather has been using Lifeworks since it was founded, 12 years ago. Before that, she tells me: “I used to take overdoses all the time and self-harm. I was in and out of Fulbourn [psychiatric] hospital all the time.

“I’ve really come a long way since I’ve been in the service. I use it mostly for the crisis clinic and the social aspect – seeing people really helps, to have people around who understand.”


Likewise, since her referral to Lifeworks 8 years ago, Jacqueline says: “I’ve not had one A&E trip and I’ve not been in [hospital] for mental health. I haven’t self-harmed for a couple of years now.”

For Ann, who’s been at Lifeworks three to four years, the service has also been a lifeline: “I was in a really bad way when I came in. I wasn’t functioning very well, I was hibernating, I wouldn’t get out of bed, I was stashing pills. I don’t self-harm but I have a very bad eating disorder, which was extreme at the time, and Lifeworks has helped me to keep my eating disorder under control.

“It’s helped me with socialisation and meeting people too – with our disorder we don’t really go out and meet people or make friends easily because of our mood swings, our anxieties and our paranoia,” she adds. “But with Lifeworks my husband can go to work knowing I’m safe.”


It’s not difficult to see why the potential loss of Lifeworks is a feminist issue; Jacqueline estimates around 90% of the service users – and, indeed, all but one of the protestors actively involved in the campaign – are women.

Proposed changes to the Complex Cases Service would see the service change to what the CPFT says is a “more evidence based model”, but the patients are less than convinced.

“What they’re bringing in with their new personality disorder community pathway is a cluster approach, where they’re treating groups only, with mentalisation based therapy, which works on the basis that you stay in the present, you don’t discuss the past,” Ann explains.

“Mentalisation based therapy really works best on a one-to-one basis, where you can focus and that person gets to know you, but they’re knocking all that to the wind.”

Not only that, the patients also worry they will lose out on the community aspect that is clearly at the heart and soul of Lifeworks. “They’re putting up all these big walls and blanks, and it’s very cold. You come in, you have your mentalisation therapy, you go home – there’s no socialisation, no integration. We just don’t get it,” Ann says, clearly exasperated by what she sees as a chipping away of public services.


The patients tell me their mass discharge followed a gradual scaling back of the service in recent years, with the departure of a number of specialised members of therapeutic staff and the Lifeworks service being reduced from a four and a half day week, to just two days a week.

“To start off with Lifeworks was very much a social, open affair,” Jacqueline says. “You could just turn up and use the groups that were running – the groups were open, they had cooking groups, arts and crafts groups, stuff like that, and you could just turn up and join in. If you were having a bad day you could just turn up and sit in the corner.”

Ann interjects: “The mantra was always ‘come in and be with people’ – and it worked. They would pick you up. All of a sudden, that wasn’t good enough – suddenly the groups were limited numbers and it was a case of if you didn’t join in, you couldn’t come into the building until the drop-in.”

The women estimate around 40-50 service users dropped off following these changes. “They’ve run it into the ground by the staff leaving and the limited numbers. People just stopped coming in because that’s not how we work – and they know that,” Jacqueline says.

Faced with being discharged en masse to their GPs, the group took the decision to occupy the building in March because “nothing else would have worked”. Originally intended as an overnight sit-in protest, to “put the staff out a little bit and prove a point”, the women have been there ever since, determined to be heard.


“When we took over the building we did some digging and it came to light that they hadn’t done a [public] consultation, they hadn’t done an equality impact assessment, and they were literally just going to close it,” Ann says.

It’s this lack of transparency that particularly angers the protesters, who have already gained much support from the local community and trade unions, and are now in talks with the local council’s adult wellbeing scrutiny committee about the terms of reference for a public consultation. “It’s as if [CPFT] are accountable to no one. How can they treat patients like this and get away with it?” they demand.

For each of them, the prospect of life without Lifeworks doesn’t bear thinking about: “I’d feel suicidal, I think,” Heather says. “If you’re in crisis, where do you go? My GP told me they’re out of their depth. They don’t really understand personality disorders; they don’t specialise in it. Here they’re specially trained and understand us.

“One of the main conditions with a personality disorder is a fear of abandonment and trust issues. All the time with this service they’ve said ‘you can trust us, we’ve set this service up for life’, because our condition’s lifelong, and then suddenly they’ve abandoned us and they’ve done a lot of harm.”

While discussions rumble on between CPFT and the council, the women at Lifeworks describe the situation as “a waiting game” until the public consultation begins. Meanwhile, they’re planning further protests, a trip to Parliament, and link-ups with trade unions and other anti-cuts campaigners around the country.

Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust has published a statement on the situation on their website, stating: “CPFT is having to make cuts of about £6million as part of the four per cent cuts that the Government requires every Trust to make. Our community division makes up about one third of that.”

“They quite openly admit it’s a false economy,” Ann scoffs. “But as long as it’s not their budget, they don’t give a toss – it’s A&E’s budget, it’s the ambulance service’s budget, the police budget, the drug and alcohol service’s budget.”


It’s sadly now a familiar story for campaigners across the country fighting cuts to their much needed public services, but the Lifeworks patients are determined to fight for as long as it takes. “I’m in it for the long haul. In an ideal world we’d like to go back to four and a half days, and also bring new referrals in – there’ve been no new referrals for the last two years,” Ann says.

“Open up the door and let the people in that need help, and stop using us as an excuse. You knew you were closing us down, you used all of our techniques and all of ticks against us because you know us.”

Her voice wavers: “They used our mental health against us.” It’s that betrayal that smarts the most.

To find out more about the Save Lifeworks campaign, join their Facebook group Save Cambridge’s Complex Cases Service and sign their online petition here.

Photo: Jacqueline, Ann, Heather and Richard (who joined us towards the end of our interview.)

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“Silly, attention-seeking girl”: self-harm is a feminist issue

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

The last time I sought support around self-harm the response was, ‘Have you considered a cookery class?’

At the time I wasn’t clear how this would help me deal with the next time I came out of a disassociated state to discover I had attacked myself with scissors, but over time it has started to make more sense.

Working for Bristol Crisis Service for Women (soon to be Self-Injury Support), a national women’s self-injury support organisation, every new report about self-harm in the media makes me a little more demoralised. The findings generally come as no surprise, but it’s the platitudes from high-ups that accompany these articles that I find so depressing.

‘We must put an end to this,’ is an oft quoted pledge, but to be honest in my years working in this sector it feels like the will to understand self-harm has stagnated in a flurry of desire to be seen to be ‘doing something,’ regardless of what that something is.

Self-harm isn’t a new phenomenon, but how we conceptualise it has changed over time. Self-flagellation and scarification have existed for centuries. Studies of self-harm in Victorian literature show a holistic approach considering self-harm to have psychological and emotional meaning. As we moved further into the twentieth century the medicalization of self-harm drew us away from trying to understand to focus on trying to fix the obvious wound and the societal discomfort it evoked.

The underpinning ethos of our organisation is to focus on why someone uses self-harm and what they want support with. We know from years of research that the vast majority of self-harm is symptomatic of something else going on in someone’s life. Each person’s experience is unique and it could be anything – from bullying or social isolation to past or present experiences of sexual violence.

Focusing on preventing someone from using self-harm puts them under huge pressure and removes a way of coping that is working for them. For some people this can lead to a shift to more ‘socially acceptable’ things such as drinking or eating to excess or gambling. For others it can remove a safety net standing between them and suicide.

If we look at self-harm and self-injury in only the narrow context of what and who then it does appear to be an overwhelmingly female and more specifically young female issue. But these are the figures we know about collected from studies focusing on hospital attendances and targeted research, often with young people.

Recent research has shown that rates of men and women self-harming are no longer in such sharp contrast when forms of self-harm other than cutting and overdoses are taken into account.

So perhaps it’s not the act of self-harm which is a feminist issue but the response we offer as a society. From being told you’re a ‘silly girl’ when seeking treatment for self-harm to being vilified for ‘daring to bare’ long-healed self-harm scars, responses to self-harm in women reflect wider themes for women in today’s society. Even the language often attached to perceptions of self-harm – attention-seeking, manipulative, hysterical – is overwhelmingly associated with negative traits commonly attributed to women.

The focus on women’s appearance as a defining factor of their worth is constant and raises its ugly head around self-harm in a number of ways. Clumsy attempts to stop women self-harming often include pleas to stop as it will spoil their bodies; they will regret the scars later; they will repel other people.

Women’s bodies are often not seen and sometimes not experienced as their own. A common consideration for me when using self-harm was always where, not for reasons of safety, but to preserve my privacy and prevent others from feeling they had the right to comment on my body. Others feeling they can comment and ask complete strangers about self-harm scars is such a common issue that a colleague of mine role plays with women so they feel confident enough to respond with ‘I did it myself, why do you want to know?’

This lack of bodily autonomy also extends to the coercive approaches sometimes used in relation to self-harm by others in a supporting role. Attempts to persuade someone to stop using self-harm often focus on the impact it is having on others and their discomfort, effectively dictating what a women can and can’t do with her own body.

I realise now that the suggestion of a cookery class was nothing to do with me, but at the time it only reinforced the feeling that my body and any damage I was doing to it were of little importance. As often happens the emphasis of support was disproportionately focused away from the distress I was feeling.

There’s no denying that self-harm is an emotive and often distressing issue – that’s why our organisation exists. But responses which reinforce some of the very reasons women use self-harm are as much a reason to consider self-harm a feminist issue as the causes.

Naomi Salisbury works for Bristol Crisis Service for Women, a national self-injury support organisation for women and girls. Follow @BCSWBristol, or for information and support, visit: www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk

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Why do so many progressives always fall short on mental health?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

So many of us walk the tightrope day by day.

One day soon it might just all go wrong – a friend too many dies, or we lose a job we liked, or the credit card maxxes out on us. Depression – if you have it – is always there a bit, but sometimes it kicks in when bad things happen.

That’s the way it’s been with me. There was a patch a few years ago when I found myself getting off buses in the middle of a journey to go sit on steps in the city and cry, but after a while that stopped.

Or it might just be the weather in our head – today is shiny, but tomorrow who knows?

A lot of people live with varying degrees of clinical depression, and about two thirds of those are women. Many people live with OCD, or are bipolar, or have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. There’s nothing to stop anyone having more than one mental illness. Entirely separate from all of that, there are all the people who are not neurotypical, whose wiring is a bit different; there’s nothing to stop any of them being depressed or whatever as well.

So many of us have bad days, or weeks, or months. And they’re not made better by people being clueless about it who ought to know better. The only reason why I don’t complain more about the failings of the Left, the women’s movement, and the LGBT community on mental health is that mainstream society is amazingly even worse.

Most of us lie about our state of mind all the time because we don’t want people to know. Less than perfect mental health is still a stigma, even if we are less liable to be locked up for it and forced into treatment. It means that anything we say or create will be treated as less valuable, less likely to be true.

We try to pass, we use the language that hurts us, and we try not to let people see us wince when we say someone else is ‘crazy’. It’s very hard not to do it, partly because we are trying to pass and partly because the language we grew up with has so many value judgements implicit in it; sanity is one of the things it assumes to be good, and less than perfect sanity to be bad.

No one has to tell other people that they have a problem and in fact, the way society is constructed, it’s probably sensible only to admit to depression when it gets so bad that you can’t function, or when the drugs you are already taking for it stop working and you have to find something else that works. Still, there’s something quite liberating about owning up to the identity.

Part of being depressed is a sense of never being good enough; it’s like impostor syndrome except that you’re faking it every day about everything, not just having nightmares about exams or making deadlines. At least if you tell other people, if you tell yourself, that that’s just the depression speaking and not the truth, you can start to accept that actually you’re not as bad as all that.

It’s like all the other identities that it’s sensible to hide in a society that quite likes us to lie; to not raise issues that make it harder for the majority to think well of themselves. If we can function, some people say, why can’t we just not mention private issues like mental health? Just like they used to say about sexuality, or like they still say about gender identity issues.

Do we have to flaunt our depression or our OCD, wear it like a badge of honour? They say. And sometimes it’s the sane being irritable and sometimes it’s other people worrying that if they are too sympathetic, the sane people might notice them. Most of the time it is not conscious bullying; it’s just people coasting along with the way things are, and not noticing the privilege that gives them, for the time being.

Most of the time I personally function pretty well – I write books and I write poems and I write articles. I don’t think that ‘coping privilege’ is actually a thing but I can understand how some people think it might be, and even use it as a stick with which to beat people who acknowledge poor mental health but somehow manage to get things done in spite of it.

They’re not inside my head, and they don’t know how hard it is for me, a lot of the time – but then, maybe it is harder for them, and I have no idea just how much harder. Worrying that I have coping privilege is just something else for my anxieties to focus on.

But what is common, and unforgivable, is for people in progressive communities to bully people over their mental health, in a way they never would about race, class, sexuality, gender identity or visible disability (though actually progressives can be pretty shit about that when you point out that their shiny new office has terrible mobility access – even in 2014…) I’ve seen a progressive organisation decide someone was guilty of an expellable offence because he had declared his mental health status and suddenly his guilt could be assumed without motive or opportunity – because his alleged crimes no longer had to make sense.

I’ve also seen it happen online to a number of women who have spoken publicly about their struggles with various mental health conditions. I’ve avoided giving specific examples here because they’d either be uselessly vague or else instantly recognisable to an extent that would be abusively intrusive.

If you know someone has depression, or whatever else, it might not be a good idea to tell them that their ideas are rubbish, that their behaviour is contemptible. Particularly if you are exaggerating, or angry, or just disagreeing with them – because the trouble is, their illness will probably go along with whatever you say.

Telling someone who has depression that they are worthless is an exploitation of the advantage better mental health gives you. It’s an exercise of privilege and it is potentially an act of violence. You are risking precipitating a spiral of self-hatred and self-harm.

Mental health is an area of intersectional oppression, like many others; don’t knowingly harm people. You’re probably doing it anyway but you can at least try not to – it’s just a matter of thinking about it. I used not to but, since my own really bad time, I have at least made the effort.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist. 

For more information and support on depression, or any other mental health condition please visit the Mental Health Foundation or Mind. For advice on staying mentally healthy online, see our article Eight ways to keep yourself sane on Twitter, by psychiatrist Anna Fryer.

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Eight ways to keep yourself sane on Twitter: online feminism & mental health

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A number of recent cases, as highlighted in Kirsty Wark’s recent BBC documentary Blurred Lineshave brought into focus an alarming anti-feminist backlash, where abuse online has emerged as a serious problem in the new culture of misogyny and hate .

Such behaviour can compromise the physical and psychological health of our community, and the strategies below aim to help minimise the stress, and maximise the benefits that a global online community provides.

1) Stay safe 

There is a curious dichotomy in the use of social media. It has the ability to relieve stress with its fulfilment of the human need for social connectedness, but can cause anxiety and infringe on our sense of safety. At the worst extremes, this can result in identity theft, cyber stalking, and cyberbullying.

Keep personal details (e.g. where you live or work) off Twitter. Use the maximum security settings to allow some degree of privacy. Don’t take other users at face value.

Twitter allows its users considerable control of their projected persona, with the opportunity to delete any content that contradicts this perfect self-image. In the real world our assessment of people is far more multidimensional, with information from others, our visual impressions, body language and the nuances of our undervalued gut instinct.

Online, narcissists may appear harmless, but their inflated sense of self-esteem may be fragile and descend into vicious damaging behaviours. In the large groups that form on Twitter, even individuals with a healthy sense of self can lose it. There is a propensity to descend into narcissism, with unwanted aspects of self projected onto an opponent’s avatar. When hateful projects are validated in groups (a cause of concern in the feminist community) the dangers of groupthink and a lack of this reality testing can be apparent.

2) Don’t tolerate abuse of yourselves or others 

There are some behaviours that are automatic red cards, involving immediate blocking and reporting as abuse. If there is a specific threat of harm to yourself or others contact the police in the first instance. Take screen shots as evidence to email to the investigating officer so they can assess the level of risk and proceed appropriately.

Content on Twitter can be inflammatory, with a diverse range of opinions. However, personally insulting or seriously offensive messages can be reported to Twitter. If you are the victim of predatory behaviour, try to resist the temptation to engage in defending yourself or counter-attacking. Such “trolling” is a means of seeking validation via human contact, even horrified or offended responses. Do not “feed the trolls”; show your contempt through silence, blocking and reporting. These “games” of human interaction, as described by Eric Berne, can feel compelling but, when they serve to increase distress and feelings of victimisation, are to be avoided.

3) Use the block function 

Blocking is Twitter’s key safety tool. Be clear on your own boundaries and if somebody violates them, act. Twitter is a virtual space but you are in charge of who you interact with. If you feel interactions lack worth and invite damage to your self-esteem then the online connection can be broken.

4) Don’t get into long, ongoing arguments 

When you believe something passionately it is perfectly appropriate to argue your corner. But engaging in long repetitive discussions with someone whose views are concrete and opposed to yours is draining and futile. While in interpersonal relationships disagreement is inevitable (and healthier than the alternative passive dependant strategy of denial of self), we would be unlikely to develop or continue any relationship based on arguments. The Twitter world is no different: recognising this and withdrawing is likely to be the healthiest option for all involved.

5) Avoid Twitter at work 

The use of Twitter at work (other than as part of your role) is fraught with difficulties. Any employment is a transaction where you receive remuneration for performing tasks. If your Twitter usage is impairing your performance and it is noticed, you risk damage to your hard earned status and position. Venting your frustrations about your boss on the Internet may even directly contravene your employment contract, or your registration if you are a professional.

Recent research by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) showed that two out of five employers used a candidate’s online presence for screening prospective employees. While it is debatable whether a prospective employer has the right to analyse a private Twitter feed, employing privacy blocks can help separate your work and personal identities.

6) Beware of using Twitter as a means of avoidance 

Twitter and the Web allow you the psychological defence of avoidance by procrastination. While reading every tweet from a person who interests you might seem like a good idea, if it happens to coincide with your dream job interview preparation you may be defending your underlying anxieties about failing by avoidance of the important task. Prioritise effectively and resist the temptation.

7) Keep it in perspective 

Twitter users come and go, and are perhaps the most potentially rejecting of all online communities. While amassing followers may strengthen your ego, these online communities are only a small part of our unique self. An online indiscretion, unless you are a heavily scrutinised celebrity, may actually go unnoticed in the constant stream of information, and tweets and other online posts can be deleted rapidly.

8) Switch off and relax 

The breadth of information that can be accessed via Twitter is of variable quality and can feel limitless. The lines between work and leisure time can become blurred, with a non-stop conveyer belt of articles and tweets. Anxiety can be seen as a button being held down on the fight-or-flight reflex to stress. Trying to keep that button held down so you can devour more information could generate symptoms of stress and tension, leading to symptoms such as insomnia, low mood, free-floating anxiety and panic. If you detect the symptoms of information overload, consider declaring a technology-free zone such as your bedroom, or daily offline time, such as the last two hours before you go to bed.

Using mindfulness approaches to manage these symptoms can be useful, and allow us to remain in the present and stay grounded. If you have any concerns about your mental health, talking to your GP can help you access local counselling, psychology and other appropriate treatments.

Anna Fryer is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her  @annacfryer

For information and support on mental health issues, visit the Mental Health Foundation or Mind.

Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

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Why mixed therapy groups may do more harm then good

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

Emotionally unstable personality disorder (previously known as borderline personality disorder) is a pervasive and distressing condition. It is characterised by mood swings, impulsivity, suicidal ideation and self harm. Sufferers have difficulty with relationships, friendships and self image. According to statistics, up to 75 per cent of those diagnosed are women, and it is stated that 70 per cent have suffered some form of abuse, usually in childhood. Many come from difficult family backgrounds, and EUPD can co-exist with other mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, and OCD.

People suffering with EUPD are assumed by mental health services to be very challenging to treat, and personality disorder is often referred to as the “diagnosis of exclusion”. Stereotyping and stigma are rife, and in particular women with the diagnosis are labelled as dramatic, needy, and attention seeking. Specialist services are rarely available and women may find themselves passed from one treatment to the next, which ends up feeding into a vicious cycle of inner chaos, and reinforcing the belief that they are some way untreatable and unwanted.

Unfortunately, for many people, care options can often be dependant on a postcode lottery. Medication, counselling, psychotherapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are used, and some NHS trusts may offer art based therapies.

Therapeutic communities provide a supportive environment to explore issues, but they aren’t mainstream and many women are never offered the choice. The referral process is lengthy, and patients are often sent for a short course of CBT or counselling instead. Therapy on the NHS is expensive and hard to come by; in the current economical climate resources are stretched, and mental health in particular has received huge funding losses.

Psychotherapy for EUPD is usually group based. Patients who have never experienced a stable background or a strong family unit can begin to forge lasting bonds with others and reduce social isolation. If a woman is fortunate enough to secure a therapy space it is likely it will be within a mixed sex group. Women will be sitting and sharing their memories, perhaps spoken for the first time, with men.

This approach within EUPD treatment is to encourage integration by assisting patients to discover a mutually respectful male/female exchange in a place of relative safety. The aim is to enable them to transfer that knowledge to their every day experiences, improving confidence and relation to others. No doubt a positive move in the long run; however, shouldn’t a woman be allowed to decide for herself when she is ready to make that step?

Someone who has suffered abuse grows up with many issues. A woman may experience deep conflict and trauma around ownership of her body, her female identity, and her right to say no (or yes). Could a male group member truly understand and empathise? Acknowledge the lasting and devastating effects she is left with?

A possible conflict within mixed groups could be that women wouldn’t feel they are able to honestly express their feelings, because of fear of judgement, being asked personal questions, or just purely that they are frightened of male reaction because of past experience. There is also the issue of personal beliefs – we live in a victim blaming culture, and this may be prevalent in the minds of everyone. Psychotherapy enables people to share and explore their feelings, but if a man held a particularly misogynistic view, is it the right time for a woman to have to hear that opinion? These concerns could be a barrier to female participation and, in turn, her healing. Certainly, during my career in the NHS, I witnessed women leaving services when they were informed that the groups were mixed, or sitting impassively during sessions, not able to express themselves.

I also have personal experience of mixed therapy, having been in a group for 4 years, and it did present a challenge for me. Disclosing information about painful experiences is never easy. People in groups come for all kinds of reasons, but unfortunately many men hold a particularly difficult attitude to women. I and another woman were told we should “act more like proper women”, “not have an opinion on everything”, and “understand what it’s like to be a man – that’s tough”. This particular member and I almost came to a physical altercation on one afternoon, after he decided to trivialise my disclosure of abuse and compare it to his experience. His exact words were: “For God’s sake, it was years ago, and everyone gets crap anyway – my dad always sent me boxing when I didn’t want to go.” When I and several other people told him he was out of order he became aggressive and stood up to shout in my face.

In a separate incident I was threatened by another male member, again for simply voicing an opinion. He screamed at me to: “Shut your mouth or I swear I’ll smash that table straight over your head.” Men would express their views on women using derogatory terms such as ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’. Whether it’s directed at people in the room or not, it still isn’t pleasant to listen to. When the deep rooted prejudices overspill, it’s the women who bear the brunt.

Of course, not all men are abusers, and not all men are violent. Psychotherapy groups have strong boundaries and strict codes of conduct in place for the safety of everyone involved. But a treatment group is meant to be just that – treatment. Facing personal demons is difficult enough, particularly for those who have never had a voice, have never spoken out before. Having men in a group where the majority of female members have experienced prolonged suffering at male hands may do more harm than good. Treatment for EUPD isn’t straightforward, as sufferers have complex issues. However, women should always have the right to choose.

A. Lewis is a campaigner for changing attitudes around mental health. 

For more information and support on EUPD, visit Mind or Emergence.

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Anorexia: an “anti-feminist” battle with my own body?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

Being force-fed will always be one of the most traumatic, violating experiences of my life. To have a tube rammed into you, painfully, without your consent, and to witness your body change into one that repulses you is deeply humiliating. Eating is personal, as is safeguarding the boundaries of one’s own flesh. When I yanked out the tube, it was pushed back in. When I stopped resisting, I learned to be ashamed. For months afterwards I couldn’t raise my voice above a whisper. For years afterwards I couldn’t eat in public and simply wanted to disappear.

Anorexia is a complicated illness. Without force-feeding, I might have died. I know this and hence, since I want to be alive, I feel the need to come to terms with the feeding. Nonetheless, I’m wary of admitting to this. I don’t want it to sound as though I condone the force-feeding of other anorexia sufferers. I don’t feel I have the right to do that. A person’s body is his or her own and freedom of choice is integral to maintaining a sense of self. And yet, while force-feeding might have made me a lesser person – a more damaged person – without it I might not be a person at all. It’s a circle I’ve never quite managed to square.

As a feminist, I believe that one of the greatest sources of inequality lies in the belief that women don’t own their bodies. Viewed as sexual objects, incubators or foils against which masculinity defines itself, they are seen as less than human, as things to be used, shaped and sliced. In this context my battle with my own body could be seen as anti-feminist. I am ashamed at my failure to feel at one with myself; I have let the side down. And yet if feminism values choice and the right to self-definition, perhaps I shouldn’t feel this way. Women’s choices under patriarchy are rarely pure and our responses, like the feeding tube, may never be wholly good or bad. Even so, this doesn’t excuse us from having to make decisions, both about our own lives and the lives of others.

In recent years the focus of mainstream feminism has shifted somewhat from structural critique to an emphasis on respect and self-validation, something Rosalind Gill and Ngaire Donaghue call “the turn to agency”. There is obviously some value in this; it questions the notion that women are cultural dupes, following patriarchy’s rules without any degree of investment or engagement. It tells women that they are not victims and creates a sense that they can influence their own surroundings.

However, there is a downside. If any critique of meaningful responses to oppression is understood as a critique of individuals – a denial of agency – then what tools do we use to judge the choices women make? Are we permitted to judge at all and, if not, is there any form of acceptable intervention when women do harm to themselves?

I think, within a patriarchal culture in which women’s bodies are exploited, objectified and ridiculed daily, an eating disorder is not an irrational choice. The beliefs and rituals that maintain an ED are irrational (since that is how the mind responds to starvation) but to want to control the boundaries of one’s body and take up as little space as possible seems to me a perfectly logical response to trauma. Hence I am somewhat defensive of pro-ana websites and irritated by “body acceptance” drives. As a student, I remember being annoyed by a slogan touted by our college women’s officer: There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only eight who do. Don’t think thin, think different. “But,” I’d think, “being like 3 billion other women isn’t being different!” While I didn’t want to look like a supermodel, neither did I want to be told to be “normal”.

In some ways anorexia felt like a great big “fuck you” to everyone’s values. In those days I didn’t wash my hair or wear makeup. I wore children’s clothing. I knew I looked unpleasant but it was an unpleasantness I owned (whereas now I merely fail to be beautiful; there is no active rejection, I just glide into the failing that is the lot of most women).

When people told me anorexia was controlling me, I felt outraged. Anorexia was me. How dare they deny my agency! And in this way I see difficulties in the line choice feminism seeks to tread. Whether we’re talking about behavioural trends in parenting or sex work or body modification, no woman wants to be told she is a victim – and yet some of us are. You can be a victim and an agent at one and the same time. You don’t even have to feel like a victim.

Mental health is a fuzzy area, particularly in terms of how diagnoses have been used against women. To be told you are mad is to be told you cannot judge your own reality. Women are told this time and again. It’s rarely true and there’s no definitive test that will tell you when it is true. Even so, it doesn’t mean madness can’t kill you.

I don’t know what happened to most of the women I met during my later treatments. Those that I am aware of have either died in their thirties or spent the past two decades drifting from one hospitalisation to another. I’m the only one who is relatively unscathed, yet part of me believes this is because I am a sell-out or a fraud. At the same time, I am furious that these lives have been wasted (and yes, to talk of “wasted lives” is judgmental, but it is a waste, a terrible one). But what would I do? Tell these women what bodies they should occupy? Hold them down and force in a feeding tube myself? Or endorse their reality, since perhaps that’s all they’ll ever have? As feminists we need to admit that sometimes, the answers aren’t clear-cut.

VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

If you have been affected by an eating disorder, visit beat or Mind for information and support, or call the beat helpline on 0845 634 1414.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The Daily Mail, “White Dee” & the “Happy Depressive”

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. If you have an idea for an article email editorial@feministtimes.com

In this country 1 in 5 of us will have an experience of clinical depression in the course of a lifetime and there will be a higher proportion of women sufferers. The mental health services are in crisis with severe cash shortages and mental illness continues to carry a heavy stigma.

It is indeed hard to understand an illness that cannot be seen but to suffer from depression can feel like living under a curse. Most people think they know what a depressed person looks like but they would be wrong. A doctor friend of mine, when training to be a psychiatrist, was told ‘beware the smiling depressive.’ It is good advice and not stated often enough. Many psychotherapists will have had experience of the client who can appear cheerful and upbeat and then unexpectedly make a suicide attempt.

When reading the Daily Mail’s article on ‘White Dee’ I was shocked but not surprised. Dee, from the Channel 4 program Benefits Street, is seen partying during 4-day holiday, which she has been offered free. However, the potentially high price she is paying is having her picture in the paper, drinking, kissing a man and being offered up to the general readership as an object of contempt. The implication is that she is a liar who is fooling the benefit system. The reader can feel rightly appalled. But the premise here is that depressed people never laugh or smile and if they are able to do this then they are not depressed. This is simply not the case.

I can sit with a very depressed client who is in utter despair and full of self-loathing and hopelessness. Yet, even in the midst of this misery, we can sometimes enjoy a laugh together. I also know that such a client, often a woman, will then go home to their families and make a superhuman effort to be cheerful. Sometimes they manage better than others. It is interesting to note that buried in the article on White Dee was a comment she made on not really enjoying herself because she misses her children and hates flying. The reader is again invited to disbelieve this because all the pictures show her partying.

Ironically there was another article in The Mail the same week on Compassion Focused Therapy. (CFT). This is a relatively new therapy that is used for treating anxiety, which is often a feature of depression. One of the most painful aspects of depression is self-hatred and worthlessness. CFT helps the client treat and think of themselves with compassion rather than criticism. Compassion is not the same as self-pity. It is about being able to have realistic thoughts to combat negative self-beliefs. I’m just ‘completely useless’ isn’t a helpful thought but being able to think ‘I’m doing my best’ and ‘I’ll get better’ is vastly preferable and more constructive.

Depressed people will have such an internal bullying voice which attacks them for not being good enough, perfect enough, thin enough, rich enough and so on. The bully by definition doesn’t have compassion or empathy for the victim, which in the case of depression are the sufferers themselves. The tabloid papers frequently use bullying strategies that denigrate those they wish to attack. The article on White Dee was designed to prevent understanding or compassion. We only saw the photos they want us to see and which invited condemnation. They offered no possibility that this woman might in reality suffer from depression and that being at the receiving end of such media coverage might truly cause her harm.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and EMDR Consultant in private practice in North London.

Photo: Daily Mail

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Charlotte Raven

Again! Again!

My conviction that I am a bad mother has cast a pall on Mother’s Days past. When I’m depressed, motherhood feels like an ironing pile that never goes down. I will be wiping bums, pairing up socks, adjudicating disputes, sweeping floors, scolding without end. Wracked with guilt, I want Mother’s Day to pass unremarked sans daffodils, sans nice-lie-in. It’s not the normal working mother’s guilt but something more subtle which sadly wouldn’t be solved by putting in more hours at the parental coal face. It’s not what I do, but who I am.

When a good friend was agonizing about whether to have children, I invited her round to discuss the pros and cons. My husband was away at the time and I was in sole charge. The cons were immediately apparent: the mess, fuss and constant clamour of competing demands. I knew she’d miss the freedom to create storylines and choose the dramatis personae in her life from an international cast of characters. She looked terrified and I hadn’t even mentioned the guilt! The cons list was as long as your arm. But were there any compensations? I said running jokes, because they are easier to communicate to a third party than unconditional love.

My kids love repetition more than me. “Again,” they say.  “Again.” Not again, I think. I try to distract them with a debate about the dumbing down of children’s fiction.

“In my opinion, Thomas and Friends was a wasted opportunity. The modernisation could have given birth to something whacky and off the wall like The Magic Roundabout. Amazingly, Thomas and Friends is more banal and no less offensive than the original. Over to you John. Where do you stand on this issue?”

“Mum, stop talking, read it again.”

Thank goodness for running jokes; the one repetitive bit of family life we can all get behind.

Every night, John asks: “have I got the ring of confidence, mum?” when he’s finished cleaning his teeth. A few weeks earlier I had commended his brushing and declared: “you have the ring of confidence,” when he bared his teeth. “What’s the ring of confidence mum?”

“It comes from a toothpaste ad from my olden days. The ring of confidence will make you feel a million dollars, even when you’re wearing your holey jeans.”

“Like you can climb Mount Everest?”


“In real life?”


John hates tidying up but loves polishing our taps until they gleam. “Mum, this tap has the ring of confidence.”

Running jokes can be redemptive as well as reassuring. Some of my personal favourites deploy black humour to alchemise angst and redeem family life from my depressive tendencies. When I was depressed ‘doom’ became a verb. My family maintained that I was more dooming than doomed. I thought it was the other way round. I was forced to exist in a house of doom, drive a car of doom and navigate biblical rainstorms every time I left the house.

In our family running jokes, rather than photographs, reveal us as we really are. I look terrible in pictures and feel more at home in one of the comic set ups I’ve had a hand in creating. I wouldn’t say this was in my DNA; it was nurture rather than nature that led me to understand the importance of catchphrases and comic tropes in rescuing family life from the quotidian.

I can’t picture the inside of my childhood home, but I do remember my dads catchphrases: “hit the switch titch”, “put it there pal” and the secret rabbit face my mother wasn’t allowed to see.

My dad liked running jokes because they allowed him to maintain his mystique. He never anecdotalised or reminisced.

Like fine wines, his running jokes get better with age . For forty years, he said “plagiarist” every time Germaine Greer came up in conversation. He repeatedly claimed that he could write a better Bob Dylan song than Bob Dylan and repeatedly assured us that he was within a whisker of finishing his poetic opus The Last Great Whale.

As long as families are full of people repeating themselves, there will be running jokes.  You can’t escape them, even if you want to; we are captive audiences!

My grandmother used to say: “I’ve got a lot of secrets, I will take them to my grave,” every Friday night after four huge glasses of Pinot.

Running jokes are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. My brother and I thought this was hilarious, but it irritated my mother. One evening, we found out why: “If you mean I’m not Mick’s daughter I already know.”

I don’t have any secrets I’m planning to take to the grave; my kids know that I’ve suffered from depression for years, and have found that running jokes and other rituals often cheer me up.

This Mother’s Day is the first one in living memory where I haven’t been depressed. Ironically, I am now in the early stages of Huntington’s Disease. I’m constantly breaking things and bashing myself. Yesterday I bashed the top of my head on a sharp edge of the bathroom cabinet door. “Shit”, I always say, and sometimes “fuck”.

“You must have your Mother’s Day present early,” John said. I got a beautiful installation of found objects on my bedside table and four letters full of kind words in blue envelopes. At least I think they were full of kind words – John favours highlighter pens over pencils or biros, so I asked.

Modern children are meant to be self-absorbed and unempathic. Mine are more accepting and tolerant than most of the adults I know. Now that we both have children, my friend and I agree that this capacity for forgiveness is one of the biggest surprises of motherhood. I thought John and Anna would retreat somewhere hard to reach and would mistrust me after all those years of dooming. Their forgiveness means I will have the ring of confidence this Mother’s Day.

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Review: Close To You

“People don’t really choose one day to wake up and get an ‘eating disorder’ the way you would a new pair of jeans or shoes. It is something that becomes your only friend, consuming you and filling all the empty spaces inside you – the places that are hungry for success, for worth, for beauty, for acceptance.”

Jennie Eggleton’s one-woman performance Close To You is one of the most moving, visceral pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time; I came away feeling somewhere between ravenous and nauseous, and, on an emotional level, profoundly affected by her vivid portrayal of life with anorexia.

Based on a mixture of research and Eggleton’s own lived experiences, the piece follows self-critical aspiring actor and singer Jennifer (who, Jennie says, “is me, but isn’t me”), as she frantically searches for her big break into show business and, in the process, descends further and further into her eating disorder.

Throughout, Jennifer’s story is interwoven with the story of her idol, The Carpenters’ Karen Carpenter – the 70s pop star who famously struggled with the illness under the glare of the public eye. As Eggleton flits between her own story and Karen’s, accompanied by live piano performances of The Carpenters’ classic hits, the parallels are increasingly evident.

The character, Jennifer, not only imagines Karen’s story as a glamourised version of her own but also uses it as an alibi to cling to the disorder that’s literally consuming her. As she sashays across the stage, pulling on the glamorous garbs of her imagined idol, the line between Jennifer and Karen blurs; a glimpse at Karen’s final, tragic fate hints at what also lays in store for Jennifer unless she recovers.


Eggleton, who both wrote and performs Close To You, truly is the mistress of her own semi-autobiographical show, playing more than half a dozen different characters, each infused with humour, and shifting effortlessly between them, even mid-conversation: the concerned mother, the patronising and unhelpful therapist, the friend who comes bearing temptation in the form of a goats cheese and tomato quiche.

The physicality of Eggleton’s performances is not limited to swapping characters; one of the most harrowing scenes sees a distraught Jennifer scraping the much-coveted quiche from her mouth in disgust and throwing herself into a repentant routine of exercise; throughout the play, her movements are as erratic as the thoughts behind them.

Jennifer’s obsessive monitoring of her own behaviour punctuates each scene, serving as a regular reminder of anorexia’s hold on her. She declares her gradually deteriorating weight (“40kg”, “38kg”), as she hops regularly on and off the pair of scales at the front of the stage, along with her diary of food eaten (“seven raisins and half a tin of tuna”). The urgency of her desire for, and self-denial of, first the quiche, and later the chocolate brownie, disturbingly reveal the all-consuming nature of her disorder.

Visually, the set bears the same powerful, physical simplicity as Eggleton’s performance. A bed takes centre stage, flanked by two mirrors and painfully thin mannequins are dotted around the stage, draped with the various layers of clothes under which Jennifer both conceals her body and transports herself to the 1970s world of the Carpenters.

In the post-show discussion, Eggleton and director Anna Simpson spoke of their plans to take Close To You into girls schools, as an education and awareness-raising tool. Though disturbing in parts, the performance is certainly eye opening. Jennifer’s turning point, following bouts of fainting, chest pains, hospitalisation and ultimately the death of a fellow-patient, who she has named Karen after her idol, is a stark illustration of the realities of anorexia nervosa – an illness which, after all, has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

For Eggleton – who suffered from anorexia from around the age of 15 and is now, at 23, in recovery – the piece is a way to use her love of theatre to highlight the complexities of an issue that is simultaneously so prevalent in the arts and yet so rarely addressed through performance.

Having already performed Close To You to audiences of both theatre-goers and medical professionals, Eggleton and director Simpson hope the piece will also have a positive impact on young women’s relationships with their bodies.

Close To You’s run at Southwark Playhouse has now finished but you can catch it at the Brighton Fringe Festival on 17th and 18th May, 2pm, at the Warren Main House. For updates, follow @Close__To__You.

For advice and support on dealing with eating disorders, see: http://www.b-eat.co.uk and http://www.mind.org.uk

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A Womb With A View: Antenatal depression

Read the first in Jude Roger’s series, A Womb With a View: The Anti-Medicine Brigade.

Thirty-five weeks in, I am enjoying lots of things about pregnancy. Watching my stomach doing a John Hurt in Alien. Getting seats on trains (when people aren’t cocooned in their technological bubbles, anyway). Waddling. Napping. And my favourite: not holding my belly in.

But then there are the other things, of course: the niggles, the concerns. The guilt about what food and drink you can eat. The worries about whether baby is moving enough. Random pains. Itchy skin. Recently, I’ve been physically monitored to check some of these out (and I’m fine, all is well), but I’ve been surprised how rarely their psychological repercussions are acknowledged by health professionals.

The thing is, everyone knows about post-natal depression. It’s a regular headline on women’s magazine covers and something addressed, very rightly, in many birth preparation courses. Antenatal depression, however, is a fairly unknown term. Perhaps, once again, it’s because pregnancy is meant to be a blooming, beautiful time, when an ordinary woman becomes a walking, talking miracle. For many of those people, pregnancy is not the easiest draw, though. The pregnancy may have been unexpected or unwanted. It might bring up difficult emotions from the past. It might feel uncontrollable.

According to pre- and post-natal charity PANDAS (Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support), one in ten women will experience antenatal depression. In the UK, it’s meant to be on the health agenda too. In 2007, NICE [the National Institute for Clinical Excellence] published guidance to help women at risk from the condition, and encouraged healthcare professionals to ask women at risk of it three simple questions: if they had felt down or hopeless, found it hard to find pleasure in doing things, and whether they wanted help with these feelings. Even if these women didn’t have specific mental illnesses, NICE advice continued, they should be encouraged to get support from professionals or voluntary organisations.

From my experiences, and those of others I’ve talked to, this isn’t always the case. At 19 weeks, I texted one of my healthcare contacts in desperation, worrying madly about having felt the baby move a few weeks previously, but not since. I felt bleak and couldn’t stop crying, I said. She replied to say sometimes movement changes happen, but didn’t address my state of mind.

At my next appointment, she had forgotten our exchange entirely. Ah, everyone gets anxious, she said, when I reminded her. Worry is normal. Which is all correct, of course, but that wasn’t the point.

A lot of anxiety in pregnancy is put down to hormones – and yep, there’s a lot of them, swirling and rollercoastering around. But bring up slight concerns about your state of mind and most health professionals plump for the “don’t worry, dear” response. A friend of a friend of mine who felt very low during her pregnancy was asked if she wanted to be monitored on machines more often for reassurance. She was never offered what she really wanted: services to help her emotionally.

In October 2012, Netmums, in association with the Royal College of Midwives, published more research about antenatal depression. Their findings reinforced a causal link between antenatal and postnatal conditions. Press headlines at the time had a specific focus, as a result: ITV’s typical example was “Report reveals antenatal depression affects relationship with baby.”

There’s something missing from that headline, of course – the mother herself, and her initial experiences. Once again, the individual growing a new life inside her doesn’t have her own taken seriously. This makes me wonder, dispiritingly, if post-natal depression is given more time because there are two people involved by that point. Still, in so much rhetoric and care, the woman alone, the mere vessel, doesn’t matter as much.

What this comes down to is how psychological illness is treated in healthcare, of course. This requires resources and money, but more importantly the communication of guidelines to all staff working within the system – something that should make the treatment of these issues frustratingly simple. After all, sometimes all that pregnant women want is a listening ear, and a mouth that responds. They want the opportunity to tell someone, “this is how I feel when I wake up in the morning… this is how unmanageable things feel when I think that’s something’s wrong”, and then be given some leaflets, or website addresses, rather than flail around in the dark.

Only then can pregnant women start getting on with the business of enjoying their strange, pregnant lives – something we can only do if we can feel happy with ourselves.

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her @juderogers

For more useful information on antenatal depression, go to:

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NHA Party: “Your NHS is being destroyed and you don’t even know it”

There is a genuine urgency in the way Dr Louise Irvine talks about her political mission: “Our NHS is being privatised, and people don’t know what’s happening!

“If they did know, they would be completely up in arms about it,” she believes. “And that’s our job. We need a movement to defend the NHS – most people still don’t know that it’s under threat.”

Louise has been a community GP in Lewisham for more than 20 years, and is one of the candidates standing for the National Health Action (NHA) Party’s European election bid this May.

The NHA Party was formed in response to, and with the founding goal of reversing, the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Bill to privatise the NHS. You might not have heard about them yet, but they’re determined to make waves between now and the 2015 general election, and have already gained support from high profile figures including comedian Rufus Hound and author Mark Haddon.

Rufus-150x150Rufus Hound, who will also run as an NHA candidate in the European election, told Feminist Times: “I cannot perceive of what human beings are built for if it isn’t working together. As such, the idea of banding together and creating a system where we look after each other when we get sick seems like one of civilisation’s crowning achievements.

“The fact that it’s currently being divvied up and sold off in the hope that no-one will notice sickens me to the pit of my stomach.

“I looked around for who was trying to draw attention to that fact (and it is a fact), and only one group of people seemed to be doing it. A group of health care professionals who didn’t want to be politicians, but realised that unless they became political, the NHS would die.

“Those folks were the National Health Action Party. Joining them wasn’t a choice – once I’d researched what’s being done to our free-at-the-point-of-delivery health service, it felt more like an obligation.

“Ultimately, I’m just some (very) minor celebrity, but because of the age in which I am a bit famous, I have a big reach – thanks to social media (well, just Twitter, to be honest).

“Knowing I have an opportunity to wake people up to the fact that the NHS is being stolen from us – and knowing that Big Media studiously ignores/obscures that truth – my wife and I decided we had a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to help. So I got involved.”

Meanwhile, in the living room of her southeast London home, Louise is holding fort about the destruction of her beloved National Health Service.

“When the [Health and Social Care] bill went through Parliament, Clive Peedell [Co-leader of the NHA and a consultant clinical oncologist], was so disgusted that he announced we were going to set up a party and stand against them – to fight the Coalition in the ballot box,” Louise explains.

“We’ve fought them every other way – we’ve fought through marches and demonstrations, leafleting and public meetings, and that wasn’t enough.”

As a political party fielding candidates, therefore, the party aims to broaden its reach and, as Louise adds: “if we get anybody elected that’s going to scare the bejesus out of them all.”

Currently, she believes the Coalition “think that the NHS is either not an election issue or that they’ll be able to twist it to suit their own agenda.”

But the opposition isn’t faring much better in her eyes either: “Labour’s been very equivocal about what they’re going to do. Andy Burnham is saying good things, but Ed Miliband is very weak on the NHS – weak on a lot of things.

“Whereas Labour is weak and equivocal and vacillating, I think the Tories are clear,” she says. “They’ve already said there won’t be an NHS after five years of a Tory government.”

This gets to the crux of Louise’s urgency about the situation. In her early teens, Louise was attracted to medicine by the idea of “helping people, putting myself to some kind of service and making the world a better place,” and a youthful idealism borne out of the injustices she was increasingly becoming aware of.

Growing up in Scotland, reading Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir and Spare Rib magazine as a teenager, Louise has always been political, describing herself as “a feminist and a socialist,” with an early interest in left politics and debating women’s issues.

As a medical student at Aberdeen University she got involved in the women’s action group, taking part in Reclaim The Night marches and attending many of the 1970s women’s movement conferences.

After graduating, Louise says: “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I was quite politically active.” As a result, her first graduate job was helping to set up the charity Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua – an organisation that raised money to send doctors and nurses to the Central American nation whose own National Health Service was, at the time, in its infancy.

Although work and family life later took priority over political activism, Louise remains firmly wedded to the belief that “we as a society [should] care for everybody who becomes sick, regardless of ability to pay, and that there should never, ever be any fear of illness from the point of view of ‘can I afford this?’”

For her, the NHS is a “great example of social solidarity, that as a society we stand together and help the weakest and most vulnerable, which should be preserved – not just because it sounds like a nice thought, but also because it actually works.”

Louise already has impressive form where public health campaigning is concerned, having founded and led the successful Save Lewisham Hospital campaign.

From an initial meeting of just 12 people in October 2012, the campaign gathered pace rapidly, with 700 people at the first public meeting, and a staggering turnout of 10,000 protestors for the first demonstration on a miserable day in November 2012.

“We told the police we thought there’d be 2,000 on the day, and that was being really ambitious,” Louise recalls. “Later on we began to get the feeling from doing a lot of street work, going out leafleting and petitioning, that lots of people were planning to come to the demo, so we then said to the police it might be more like 4,000 and the police went ‘nahhh’.”

She laughs: “So yeah, we had 10,000 people. It went with no problems though – the police didn’t need to worry about it.”

Louise’s relationship with the local community has clearly been a big part of her success so far. After her return from Nicaragua, Louise opted to enter general practice because it involved “a whole load of different conditions and problems, and also you were in it for the long haul with people; you become part of a community and get to know people.”

She describes her role as a “therapeutic relationship” between patients and a doctor they know and trust and, sitting with her, it’s not hard to imagine.

Louise’s rallying calls to action make her a powerful and inspiring speaker so, on the one hand, I can fully imagine her manning the barricades in the NHA Revolution; and yet, on the other hand, I can just as easily imagine feeling totally at ease with her doing a smear test or offering advice to an anxious new mum.

“There are a lot of positives about this sort of continuity of care, having a doctor that’s part of the community,” she says. Having been in the same practice for over 20 years, she adds: “I’ve known a lot of patients for many years; I’ve known generations.”

Louise believes that being able to rally the whole community in Lewisham was undoubtedly the key to their success in saving the hospital. “People will fight to defend tangible things that they risk losing,” she says, but is keen to stress the importance of outreach.

“We broke with the main left tradition which is about just talking to people who already agree with you and being snooty about people who happen to be in a faith group or small businesses,” she says.

“We’re not talking about right/left wing here – you’ve got to get out and reach out to people. I think if something matters, like the NHS, it matters to the vast majority of people, whatever their politics are. We kept it as broad as possible and I think that’s why we were successful.”

That same anti-sectarian attitude is carried over into NHA’s election campaign, which Louise says aims to target voters across the board. “People vote Tory or Labour or Lib Dem for all kinds of reasons. There are quite a lot of Conservative voters amongst the elderly, but they are the ones who are actually going to be affected most by the changes to the NHS,” she points out.

“We could definitely appeal to some Lib Dems because they let us down by supporting the Tories bringing in the Health and Social Care Act, and we could appeal to some Labour voters simply because Labour has had a bad track record on the NHS and privatisation, and it’s not speaking out strongly enough about it now.”

As a single-issue campaign with a relatively short-term ambition, the NHA’s biggest battle is convincing the voting public of the tangibility of their cause. “You’re going to lose your local hospital is something very real; what’s going to be happening to the NHS is not yet tangible – it’s still abstract in a way,” Louise says.

It’s particularly difficult to imagine how an MEP candidate standing on a solely NHS focused platform might be relevant on the European political stage, but Louise is, of course, one step ahead of sceptical voters.

“The reason Europe’s important is to do with the issue of the EU/US trade agreement. Most people fall asleep when you talk about this, but it’s not really about trade across borders – this is actually about companies being able to sue the government for any change in law which they think could harm their profits.”

Unless the NHS is exempt from that trade agreement, she explains, “It would make any privatisation of the NHS – which is happening now – irreversible.”

Louise is also keen to stress that the NHA would have plenty to offer the European Parliament on the broader issue of public health: “Europe has a huge amount of jurisdiction on things that relate to health – not just competition law and the possibility of this EU/US trade agreement.

“Europe also legislates around things like the environment, pollution, it regulates medicines and doctors, it regulates doctors’ working hours, it regulates around food labelling and food safety, which is hugely important.”

Beyond the European election in May, she’s equally confident that the NHA can put the privatisation of our health service on the UK’s political agenda ahead of 2015, pointing out that none of the major political parties had environmental policies on their agenda until the Greens appeared.

“One MP is enough to give you a credibility and a voice,” she says, “and someone like Caroline Lucas is very strong and gets that message over amazingly powerfully.

“We need a hundred of Caroline Lucas, but even one can do a lot. If we had one MP or one MEP who’s there on the issue of the NHS, we would be being invited onto Newsnight and being taken seriously – this is the biggest piece of legislation that’s transforming the NHS and the media is hardly covering it.”

Given control of a newspaper publishing empire for the day, Louise’s front-page headline would be simple: “Your NHS is being privatised”, followed by four bullet points laying out why people should care:

“1. It costs so much more to run a marketised system so that money is taken away from frontline care.

“2. It reduces quality because private companies are looking to make money. When 60% of healthcare is staff, the only way to make money is to cut staff, and then the quality goes down.

“3. It leads to fragmentation – most of the gains in cancer, stroke and heart attack care in this country in the last decade or two have come from collaborative work; you can’t have collaboration if you’re all supposed to be competing with each other.

“4. Private companies cherry pick the profitable areas so it undermines and undercuts the NHS, so it actually starts to lead to a breakdown of NHS services, you end up with hospitals in deficit and people want to close them.

“We’re already one of the best healthcare systems in the world – the most cost effective – so it should be improved,” she adds. “It’s not perfect, there are things we could improve, but you don’t improve something by destroying it and then completely rebuilding it from the bottom up with a completely different, untested system.”

Louise’s worst-case scenario is that the UK will end up with “a very divergent two tier system, like they do in America, where you’ve got a basic safety net system, which is not very good, for the very poor and a private healthcare system for the people who are better off.”

This same scenario is part of what drives Rufus Hound’s passion for the NHA: “Healthcare doesn’t work if it’s a market,” he says.

“We live in an age where the political panacea is privatisation. Markets are good at governing all sorts of things – but medicine isn’t one of them. You don’t choose to have chemotherapy if you have cancer. You choose to die or fight. Literally a life or death decision. That’s why marketised medicine is so intrinsically unfair – the desperation that fuels the demand means that the suppliers can charge whatever the hell they like.

“In America – the reigning champion of perverted private medicine – the leading cause of bankruptcy is illness. Even people with health insurance end up broken by medical bills, often due to their “excess” payment.

“The NHS isn’t perfect,” he adds, “but it’s a damn site more efficient and better for us than the alternatives – or at least it would be if it weren’t being vilified by the economic vampires hoping to sell it off to their millionaire mates.”

So what alternative would we see in a world where Dr Louise Irvine was Secretary of State for Health? A return to a healthcare system more like the model they have in Scotland, for a start, she says, where “health boards work out what the [community’s] health needs are and they fund the providers to provide it – which is the model we used to have before Thatcher started bringing in the purchaser/provider split.

“In the bigger picture, I think austerity has been terrible for the poor and that has mental and physical health implications,” she adds.

“I would do something about staff pay and improving staff morale, and we would look at the wider social determinants of health – things like food labelling, housing, some of the social issues like benefits.

“We’d certainly reverse this whole awful Atos work capacity assessment, which is just so oppressive to people with long term conditions and disabilities – that would have to go,” she adds.

Realistically, she acknowledges, we’re not going to see an NHA Government taking power in 2015; instead, the party’s ambition is to “have a huge influence and make this an election issue.

“And, if we get anybody elected, to put the fear of whatever into these politicians – they cannot continue to destroy our NHS and get away with it.”

Find out more about the NHA Party here or follow them on Twitter @NHAparty. You can also follow Dr Louise Irvine @drmarielouise and Rufus Hound @rufushound.

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#IDontBuyIt: Immaculate Conception & Womb Envy

At this time of year, in nativity plays, churches, and in the general consciousness, we are reminded of the central role of the female in the guise of Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary takes a special role in Christian theology as the mother of Christ and has been called the ‘mother of the world’.

This concept of worship of the feminine predates Christ, with “Venus figurines” dating back 25,000 years. However, worship of the centrality of the role of woman as the mysterious bringer of life is not without its darker side. Modern feminists rightly reject the narrow stereotype of the nurturing, wholesome woman, consumed with a desire for children to fulfill her purpose in the world.

As a psychiatrist, during the psychoanalytical part of my training, I viewed Freud’s ideas on femininity as diametrically opposed to my own belief system. Freud was a man of his time, opposed to the emancipation of women and had a distorted view of the centrality of the masculine. In Lecture XXXIII: “Femininity” (1933) Freud ponders the “riddle” of women and argues that, in a woman’s psychological development, her first object of her mother must be rejected to fulfil her need to attach to her father.

Her associated despair at realising that she does not have a penis when glimpsing this, leads to envy of the penis, with a powerful “feminine” wish for a baby. According to Freud a woman’s happiness is greatest if her wish for a baby is fulfilled and more so if that child is male and brings the longed for penis with him.

Feminist psychology as a movement rejects this notion of penis envy and proposes the more intuitive concept of womb envy. After training as an analyst and gaining recognition for her talents, Karen Horney rejected Freud’s theories that sex and aggression were the main drivers in achieving personhood. She viewed man’s envy of woman’s ability to bear, nurture and feed children as a cause of conflict in neurotic men. She introduced the term womb envy to describe the drive to success as a compensation for their in-built inability to bear children.

She rejected Freud’s idea of penis envy as a defensive reflection of a patriarchal society. His analysis could be more explicable as a defence arising from a female envy of men’s unfair generic power in the world. The neo-Freudian concepts with the birth of feminist psychology were a decisive point in the psychoanalytical movement. Karen Horney’s own drive in the face of rejection by some of her purist contemporaries was inspiring. I felt this addressed my own uneasiness at the centrality of the penis and sexual drive.

Contemporary psychoanalytical theory has moved away from this phallus-centric model to a more appealing and authentic discussion with a humanist perspective. This more realistically reflects the impact of societal and cultural influence on the development of the personality, and a more acceptable view of childhood development.

As a clinician in mental health, the impact of childhood trauma and neglect, and its influence in the development of a sense of self, has been a recurring theme in my own therapeutic work. But the responsibility of this is not the maternal object and should be felt by both sexes.

Horney was convinced, through her work and own analysis, that the fulfilling of a child’s needs for food, safety and love allowed a child to develop healthy self concepts. This in turn led to successful interpersonal relationships. She felt children whose needs were not met – through neglect or inappropriately defined ideas of child rearing – would develop anxiety, with an associated adoption of maladaptive coping or defence mechanisms to manage this anxiety.

The centrality of the “objects” in the child’s life, or influence of caregivers has achieved its rightful place, and these ideas have developed further in the psychoanalytical community in the last century. The works of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott brought me back to accepting some value in the psychoanalytical model. Klein, although a Freudian herself, co founded Object Relations Theory and was extremely influential in the UK, where she practiced from 1926 to her death in 1960. A divorced mother of two, without an academic background (having halted her studies for her marriage), she must have been extremely determined and talented to excel in the then male dominated field of psychoanalysis.

As we reflect on the enduring symbol of Mary this Christmas we can view not only its religious aspect but an ongoing unconscious societal need for worship of female fertility which has changed little in 25,000 years. Our challenge I feel, as modern feminists, is to not be defined by our nurturing role but to transcend this with the acceptance and recognition of a equal role between genders to contribute to society in whichever way an individual chooses, with self actualization and happiness.

The views in this article are my own and do not represent those of my trust or other organisations.

Anna is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her here @annacfryer

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Charlotte Raven

All I want for Christmas… is a large measure of faux bonhomie

This Editorial is taken from the Charlotte’s speech at the Feminist Times Anti-Consumerist Christmas Party last Friday Night at Conway Hall, London.

Christmas is a terrible time for a depressive like me. The Pearly Queen singing carols at Angel tube seemed like an affront.

The worse thing about being depressed at Christmas is being mistaken for a Grumpy Old Woman. Unlike Helen Lederer and the other TV Grumpies, I like crap Christmas songs and the fact that Christmas gets earlier every year.

I don’t object to Christmas, just the lies we are susceptible to at this time of year. Santa is the biggest – parents still believe in him! My four-year-old son was visibly relieved to discover that his haul of presents isn’t dependent on good behaviour. Unlike Santa, my love for John is unconditional.

Like the Christians, I think the lie of consumerism has ruined Christmas. The lists of must-haves in the magazines at this time of year exert a particular kind of pressure that makes it hard to concentrate. And parents are under even more pressure. I’ve read about people trying to kill themselves because they can’t afford to get their kids any presents and totally empathise.

I can’t really afford to buy the kids a big present and lots of little ones, like I normally do, and have been wondering how to get round this. God knows what it’s like for people who can’t afford little ones either – if nothing else, my depression has helped me connect with those who feel as if they are on the outside looking in at Christmas.

What should Christmas be about if not God or stuff? My family Christmasses were about drinking, talking and telly. We never played consequences or charades. There was little physical activity; the novel idea of a walk on Christmas day was introduced years later by my in-laws. This break with tradition has been good for my health but does make me feel as if my identity and essential Ravenishness is imperilled during the festive season, now that my mum’s dead and my dad’s in a nursing home. The fact that I get Christmas cards addressed to Tom and Charlotte Sheahan doesn’t help.

One memorable year, when I was my daughter Anna’s age, I danced with my mother to the D:ream song, Things Can Only Get Better, before it became the anthem for new labour. We were both holding Dr Seuss string puppets with tufts on their heads that moved to the beat.

My favourite Christmas song is Fairy Tale of New York because of its realism. It’s more miserable than Slade by a country mile. Is it possible to be happy without lying to ourselves? I hope so. While I’m waiting to find out, I wish I could act festive and sport reindeer deely boppers like the receptionist at my doctors this morning. At this time of year, faux bonhomie is better than no bonhomie.

My psychiatrist says my black humour stops me from acting on my impulse to “do a jimmy” and chuck myself off Beachy Head. And the thought of being stopped on the cliff edge by the Christians who have been stationed there for the past few years is also a powerful deterrent.

Feminist Times has the same mordant wit, with the same redemptive purpose. We think modern life is crap but don’t moan about it like the grumpy old women.

I am a highly ambivalent consumer – in certain moods, I think scented candles are the key to happiness.

I left the Mumsnet blogfest with a massive goody bag and felt genuinely pampered and appreciated, until I ate too many New York Cupcakes and felt sick to the stomach about how easily I can be bought.

Working with Deborah and Sarah has made me realize that wonderful things can be conjured out of nothing. Deborah’s DIY ethic has rubbed off on me and I feel liberated from my belief that more is more.

You won’t leave this party laden with boob firming cream and beige nail varnish, because unlike Mumsnet we haven’t sold our souls. Our magical Christmas party was conjured by some amazing people with no commercial partners.

I wanted to take this opportunity to mention that Deborah is taking over as editor. It’s a relief to be able hand over the day-to-day management of Fem T to her and focus on writing, ideas and the big Feminist Times picture. Deborah’s the only positive person I’ve ever respected, mainly because she isn’t bland or deluded. And she respects my Ravenishness; she never tries to talk me out of my negativity, but I do always leave the office feeling better than when I arrived.

Deborah and Sarah have assured me that it isn’t a North Korean style purge, but I will be paying close attention to the pictures of past events to see whether I am photoshopped out…

Sarah is taking over as Deputy Editor – she’ll be brilliant. I never thank her enough. I just wanted to say publicly how proud and pleased I am with everything she’s done at Fem T, in fair winds and foul.

The party was an intimation of Christmasses yet to come. I hope to wake up one Christmas morning with no presents, feeling Sheahanish and up for life, because the depressed and depressing capitalist system has been replaced by comfort and joy.

Thank you to Gabriela Cala-Lesina, Ruth Barnes, Jenny Roper, Eleanor Westbrook, Carly Smallman, Sarah Campbell, Fari Bradley, Conway Hall, Tobias Amstall & 4th Floor Studios and all our other helpers on the day.

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Losing it. No one warns young women about anxiety

When I moved to Paris two months ago to start university, something really weird began to happen inside my body. It was something I couldn’t quite locate – a bizarre, nervy feeling that wouldn’t go away; strange things were happening in my head and my chest.

The first spell of this unsettling ‘thing’ was while I was on the Metro. In sum, this trip cost me at least three hours of my life, underground, sweating and fainting. Something in me was preventing me from getting out of whatever station I was in… I think it was Republique. My mind was blocked, my heart racing. At one point I remember standing up on a train, holding on to a pole with what minimal sugar I had fueling my body, and I lost grip. I fell onto an English man, who stood up and gave me his seat.

In a cliché we would have fallen ‘in love’ and my life would have been lalala… In reality, it wasn’t; I was convinced I was losing it.

IS THIS IT? I asked myself. Am I walking on the bridge from sanity to la folie?

In retrospect I wasn’t; it was simply a panic attack.

Unfortunately the word ‘simply’ doesn’t quite do the event justice. This perturbing episode of out of body-ness lasted for a few hours. Eventually I got myself out of the Metro and into a McDonalds, where I tried to explain to myself what had just happened.

For days I kept the worry to myself, but eventually phoned my mum and told her what had been happening. “It sounds like you have anxiety,” she told me. “What do you mean? I am feeling anxious, I know that.” “Yes,” she said, “It’s anxiety.”

In all honesty, this was the first mention I had ever heard of this thing that is, in scientific terms, ‘general anxiety disorder’. I had known what a panic attack was, and I had been aware that sometimes they happen, but I hadn’t known that they could be reoccurring, everyday, sometimes more often than mealtimes.

Anxiety is very common, especially among students, so why was I not warned? Why, when studies show anxiety is rising in student populations was I not told about it?

When I was at secondary school I remember there being a point when all adults were talking to me about was puberty. Periods, sex, contraception, pregnancy etc. I am very grateful to my form tutor for showing me how to put a condom onto a banana, however amusing I found it at the time.

But as I came towards early adulthood I do wish I had been warned about this anxiety thing; it would have saved me from spending weeks alone, utterly convincing myself I was insane.

If you’ve never had a panic attack I envy you. Anxiety puts its owner’s body into the state it would be in during an intense confrontation. It is a constant pump of too much adrenaline at any one time. This is why we get scared/panicky/think we are going insane.

If I could have located the reason for this anxiety, I would have been able to sort the problem straight away. To my grief, anxiety is hard to determine. It’s hidden in us while it displays itself absolutely everywhere.

When I was younger I used to become slightly anxious when I felt that I had overeaten. I would have irrational feelings that my waist was expanding whilst I was looking in the mirror, as though I was literally putting on weight as I breathed, watching myself.

It wasn’t normal but I don’t totally blame myself – I must put some of the blame on the society I live in. Women have to worry about keeping up with the standards that we are set by men, but also the standards that are set by women. You have to be clever and smart, but also look beautiful all the while. WHERE AM I GOING TO FIND THE TIME? I ask myself, anxiously.

When I came back to London for reading week, the first person I wanted to talk to was my very wise Grandmother. “It’s quite strange actually,” she began to tell me. “I’ve been worrying about you without even knowing that you had anxiety, I had a feeling something was going on.”

She then told me a very comforting story about when she first moved away from home at 16, from Hull to London. She said that when she first arrived, she was so anxious that she stopped eating and lost a load of weight. After a while, as she settled in London, this was resolved, but she told me that the transition had been so unnerving that she too had felt she was losing her mind.

Anxiety is something that is hopefully going to pass, however I am still questioning its causes. I don’t blame human beings for worrying so much, particularly women: women are twice as likely to experience anxiety as men. Women still have so many things to worry about. However, anxiety is something we can learn to cure ourselves, and for me a lot of the time that is done in writing.

Photo Porsche Brosseau

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TV (and Oprah) changed my life

Much praise has gone to the handling of the horrifying case of the three Lambeth slaves by Freedom Charity, the organisation the alleged victims reached out to, and the Police. But little praise has been directed towards the powerful catalyst at the heart of their consciousness raising, the spark that made the women feel they would no longer be held captive, that gave them the information to seek help – and that was TV.

ITV’s ‘Forced to Marry’ went out at 10.35pm on Wednesday October 9th, part of the same Exposure series that also outed Savile. This episode followed undercover reporters as they stung Imams in mosques around the UK who were prepared to marry 14 year old girls. It is reportedly this program that the three women watched and that motivated them to escape their situation.

You often hear people on This Morning’s couch say “well, if this helps just one person”, but it blows my mind when I am reminded of the powerful, messiah-like change TV has the capability of catalysing. Live Aid is a perfect example of this; Russell Brand on Newsnight, well, didn’t quite change the world but hey.

We know the change the Savile programme instigated for the hundreds of victims who suddenly felt able to come forward, bolstered by TV legitimising their experience. What the establishment, thousands of individuals and the BBC had kept hidden for years, one programme split open in under an hour.

Looking back at my own life I can see how television has had a powerful revelatory effect. Whether in my home life or as part of my education, it’s given me knowledge and tools that I didn’t get on the streets of Worthing.

In the 80s That’s Life taught me that violence and sexual abuse were bad and that children could call a new number – Childline. For the first time children were told they had rights through the television, and from that moment every mum and dad had to be more conscious of their parenting.

The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, Simpsons and Roseanne taught me about race, sexism, body politics, sexuality, feminism, gender, politics and class. When Marge served up the Blinky to Mr Burns I learnt how one mum can make a big stand against the most corrupt and powerful. After watching Sandra Bernhard coming out in Roseanne I went to school feeling confident that being gay or lesbian was totally cool and fine by me, even though the education system I was in hadn’t quite cottoned on to that.

The biggest impact by far though was by Oprah. I’m not even sure how I watched her because we didn’t have ‘satellite’ – it was too expensive. Regardless, Oprah remains this dreamlike yoda figure from my childhood, omnipresent, but I never met her.

Oprah’s shows taught me about racism – she interviewed skinheads and neo nazis live on her show, was subjected to abuse, and all the while kept dignified as it got personal.

Oprah’s shows taught me about weight, eating, emotions and female body image – she’s been in full view, fat, thin and embarrassed in public by failing repeatedly.

Oprah taught me about sexual abuse by telling the world she had suffered. Then there’s a million other stories and ideas she’s helped spread in the world; imagine if she had been a monster. Imagine if Jeremy Kyle was that successful?

TV can be a much maligned medium, and no wonder with the likes of Geordie Shore, Ibiza A&E, Celebrity Undertaker clogging up so much time; sometimes it can seem like the whole schedule is taken up with guilty pleasures. (TV commissioners take note: I made up Celebrity Undertaker and have the entire pitch waiting for you if you want it.)

People are jumping ship. They don’t need to glue themselves to the Gogglebox for an evening when they can watch what they choose on Netflix or LoveFilm. But the wonderful thing about old fashioned telly was you were kinda stuck watching whatever Aunty or the others put on for you, and it’s that unwitting viewing that has the power to change. The wealth of ‘choice’ actually may be restricting our growth because don’t we just pick the same thing again and again.

Things I caught by accident the first time around – Louis Theroux, The Thick of It, Father Ted – I’ve been watching again and again. I’ve stopped discovering and am now merely consuming and regurgitating the same fodder because I trust it.

In a wonderful quote from Dr George Gerbner in a 1982 issue of Presbyterian Survey he notes that: “most people watch TV by the clock, not the program. They are more faithful to it than to church.”

Much like with the church, we don’t trust telly anymore. I don’t think we are too sure about how seriously the people behind it are taking the role of mass influencer. If TV seemed more aware of its power to raise consciousness, and this came through in the programming, then maybe people would give themselves over for a whole evening like they used to, and learn something they weren’t looking for.

Image courtesy of Alan Light

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Garry Mulholland

#ManWeek: How to be a man – Mid-Life Crisis

The most loved television show of the last few years was not, in the final analysis, about crystal meth, cancer or severed human heads on turtles. Breaking Bad resonated because it was about a middle-aged man who had failed as a provider, and therefore, in his eyes, as a man. Walter White took somewhat extreme measures in his attempts to regain control of his recession-hit world. But take away the drug money and elaborate violence and you’re left with a familiar story in the 21st century western world: an impotent 50-something trying to relocate his penis in an unimpressed world.

My mid-life crisis hit ten years earlier than Walt’s. If I’d been outstanding at chemistry maybe I would have considered becoming a drug kingpin, but a key part of my meltdown was an overpowering feeling that I wasn’t outstanding at anything. This meant that the popular, almost jocular view of mid-life crisis – you know, middle-aged bloke confronts mortality, buys sports car, pulls young hottie with Daddy issues, starts running half-marathons – didn’t have a great deal to do with my nightmarish 40th year. I contemplated mounting debts and failing career, and crashed. I drank too much, ran up more debts, became depressed, contemplated suicide, had a complete nervous breakdown, and bottomed out, not in some dramatically resonant crack house or dark alley, but at A&E in a hospital in Chichester, with my sister-in-law holding my hand while I gibbered and sobbed to the duty psychiatrist. He offered me happy pills or sectioning. I opted for something dreamy in pink. And so began a ten-year climb back to the point where I can actually write about this without shaking and clinging on to a small cardboard security blanket with Mirtazapine written on it. I’m winning like Charlie Sheen.

So… what is my magic formula for a successful journey from 40 – worst year of my life – to 50, one of the best? Again, you may be underwhelmed. I took the medication for six years. I went into therapy for two years. And I clung on to my happy marriage for dear life. That last one was the pathway to what I actually needed to do, rather than distract myself with chasing teen-twenty totty or taking up skateboarding. I needed to get real.

As my 40th birthday slump hardened into something darker, I increasingly convinced myself that I was the worst man living. Working-class men are supposed to be salt-of-the-earth providers, and I was a very bright working-class man so, by the age of 40, I should have been wealthy, famous, universally respected and able to lavish my wife, son and mother with holiday homes in Cancun while bankrolling their own successful businesses. Instead, I was a failed and anonymous writer with mounting debts, living in fear of bailiffs and – and I want to stress that this was the depression-induced paranoia talking – the rest of the media world pointing and laughing at the ghetto brat who had dared to share space with the Oxbridge set. One of the horrors of depression is its narcissism. The media world was far too busy to notice me, never mind collude in collective Garry-taunting.

So, in the spirit of getting real, I took the therapy seriously and realized that the black hole sucking me in used money as its most potent magnet, but was actually made of the same kind of childhood issues that everyone else had. I’d repressed them for so long that I’d developed them into shadowy beasts with loud voices, loud enough to drown out all the real voices around me, like my wife’s, when she would tell me how much she loved and admired me. She must be lying, the beasts roared, and I believed them and took my self-loathing from there.

The therapy didn’t cure me, exactly, but it introduced my self-image to my real self, made us some tea and sandwiches, encouraged us to hang out to see if we got along. Ten years down the line, and we get along pretty well. I still don’t trust the notion of loving oneself – sounds like megalomaniac kinda business to me – but I began to realise, a few years ago, that I quite like real Garry, with his fear of failure, uselessness with money, tendency towards solipsism, but also decent amounts of intelligence and talent, loyalty to his loved ones, ability to open up and be open. Garry’s alright. And now he’s past medication and suicidal impulses, and managed it without abandoning his marriage or his family, he’s a little more alright.

So, eventually, I got my penis back. I’d missed him, funny little fella. Whether Walter White would see my crime and cash-free recovery as possession of a truly thick and meaty Heisenberg, I doubt. But I related much more to his apprentice Jesse Pinkman anyway. Young and pretty (some self-images die harder than others) and buffeted hither and thither by powerful forces he’ll never control. His future is uncertain. But at least he’s alive.

Garry Mulholland is a journalist, author and broadcaster. He has written four books on music and film published by Orion Books, including This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk And Disco. Find out more @GarryMulholland

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Feminist Toolkit: How to grow a thick skin

Have you ever stuck your head above the parapet or thrown a hot potato into Twitter? If so you’ve probably been shot down or burned and, like many of us, wish you had a thicker skin.

In order to help us all feel free to express ourselves we’ve investigated how every one of us can grow a thick skin and feel more confident in our ideas. Feminism is about ideas and therefore feeling confident to share them is an essential feminist life skill.

We called in a world renowned expert in having skin as thick as a rhino, Julie Burchill – love or loathe her, you’ve got to admire her ability to take the kind of criticism that would send most writers crying to their mums.

Julie’s answers to our questions were so far removed from our own instincts we genuinely considered she could be a freak of nature, so we put this to psychotherapist and author of Happy Relationships Lucy Beresford, who explained why a thick skin can be an asset and why it’s not healthy to need people to like you.

Julie Burchill:

How important is it for you to be liked?  

Not a bit important. All my life I have been trying to avoid affection, as it comes so easily to me and can be quite restricting.

Is needing to be liked a weakness?  

Yes, it is practically an illness of the mind, I think. I don’t feel sorry for such half-wits, though, as they bring it on themselves.

What does it feel like to have a “thick skin”? 

I actually get a mild sexual thrill from being verbally abused by strangers. Just a mild one, though – I’m not kinky!

Why aren’t you on Twitter?  It seems the natural home for anyone who likes being controversial AND has a thick skin. It’s the recipe for Twitter success.

Exactly. I would be having a new feud every day – TOO predictable. And I have my novel to write.

Does having a thick skin make it harder to back down, change your mind, apologise? How does this affect the personal life of a thick skinned polemicist?

Because I am so secure in myself and my beliefs, I find it super-easy to apologise.

Did you learn how to be thick skinned to survive?  And how can others learn those skills?  

I was a very pretty, very clever teenager who in many ways was given everything on a plate, despite my extremely working-class background. So it was quite a perverse act to become such a bruiser while still very young. I just really like the way it feels. I enjoy being tough.

Do you read comments under your work? 

Only when in search of said mild sexual thrill!

Have you Googled yourself and was it like “like opening the door to a room where everyone tells you how shit you are” (Peter ManYum, Thick of It)?

All the time. It’s the mental equivalent of jumping into a very cold swimming pool with a hangover – bracing and invigorating and, in my case, I feel very much better afterwards.

Lucy Beresford:

To have “Thick Skin” is being able to really not care, not worry about what other people think. It’s to have self-confidence, being able to move on without being wounded. Thick skin is a support structure, so you don’t collapse psychologically.

Some people have always been thick skinned. Even as children. The rest of us have to acquire it. You develop your own self confidence by having a certain mental attitude: “I believe in it”. Over time it feels less painful.

On the internet you have to train yourself not to pick at the scab. If you’re writing an article or a blog, simply the writing should be enough ideally. Even an excessive addiction to good comments is just as bad as reading the bad ones. Don’t read, don’t reply. It’s hard to do because seeing something in writing burns into the retina more so than hearing someone say something.

Julie gets excited by the conflict, the confrontation and that’s why she’s brilliant at what she does, and at some point in the past she realised she was articulate and sharp and enjoyed the jousting. Other people would rather persuade. It’s like bungee jumping – some of us will do it, some not, but there’s an adrenaline.

The important thing is concentrate on your own self esteem. Ideally it’s about breaking free from the childhood obsession of needing mummy, daddy and everyone in the class to like you, and just doing things for yourself.

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Pussy Riot by Igor Mukhin

We are not all Pussy Riot

Dressed in brightly coloured tights, dresses and balaclavas, and sticking two fingers up at the establishment, Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot seized the world’s attention last March, for far more than their garish dress-sense.

Their iconoclastic, anti-Putin protest gig, performed in the Russian Orthodox Church, landed two of their members in prison, sparking international outcry.

Pussy Riot’s protest – like the suffragettes’ smashed windows, the 1970 smoke-bombing of Miss World, and the women-only blockades of Greenham Common – shares a spirit of feminist activism that, throughout history, has been brash, rebellious, and radical.

But we are not all Pussy Riot. For the many women contending with mental and physical illness, childcare, poverty and shyness, that kind of direct activism is simply not possible.

Yet feminism today boasts an increasingly diverse range of activists, many of whom are crafting out their own frontlines away from more traditional forms of protest.

Zoë, Clare, Mandy and Wanda are four such feminists; all very different, and spanning two decades in age, but whose voices still so often go unheard. They tell me – a self-confessed fainthearted activist – why the emphasis on marching and blockading can be alienating, and how activism is changing to include women like us.

25-year-old Zoë was “doomed to be political”, with a feminist mum and a Marxist dad. She went on her first march aged 17 but now, eight years later, there are days when she struggles to leave the house.

Zoë suffers from bipolar, agoraphobia and anxiety problems, and is recovering from anorexia – mental illnesses that “can be really devastating” to her everyday life and her activism.

“Sometimes I can’t get out of bed or I have panic attacks if I go outside. Being on public transport or in public spaces can be really, really difficult, so I have people come with me to make it easier,” she says, indicating her boyfriend, who is sitting at the next table and has accompanied her across central London to meet me.

Although Zoë’s mental health has improved thanks to cognitive behavioural therapy, she finds traditional activism difficult: “A lot of the events need you to be more mentally fit than I have been – crowds can be incredibly difficult.”

At the TUC’s March 26 protest, Zoë “freaked out” when she found herself near a group of protesters who were smashing the windows of a Starbucks coffee shop.

“On the one hand you’ve got potentially very violent police, and potentially very violent protests, and you’re somewhere in the middle, trying to cope with the whole thing while having a panic attack,” she explains.

More commonly though, her mental health simply stops her from participating at all: “What normally happens is I get worse before I get there, so it stops me getting places,” she says. “I just become overwhelmed with anxiety about the whole thing and sometimes I won’t even get out of the door.”

Like many women in her position, Zoë has felt frustrated by the emphasis on traditional activism. “There’s an idea that boots on streets activism is where it’s at, and it’s all about a particular style of protest,” she says. “It used to make me feel really awful.”

Finding her own community online changed all that. After building up an online network of more than 2,000 Twitter followers, Zoë co-founded The Fementalists, a collaborative blog for feminist women to discuss their experiences of mental health problems.

“There are a lot of women with mental health problems who are struggling to do traditional activism, which is why we came up with the idea for this blog,” she explains.

Since launching in late May, The Fementalists already has its own following of more than 1,500 Twitter users and posts covering topics from depression and anxiety to bipolar and eating disorders.

“It seems to have really hit a chord. People are feeling unsupported and this is what they’ve been waiting for,” Zoë says.

“It’s about giving women a space to talk about their own mental health conditions and feminism, and how the traditional styles of activism can be quite excluding and difficult.”

Like Zoë, 42-year-old Clare Cochrane has always been political, experiencing her first taste of direct action at the age of 13, when her mum took Clare and some friends to visit Greenham Common women’s peace camp.

“Then, when I was 16, I borrowed my mum’s tent and went a few times on my own,” she reminisces. “There’s nothing like it. It was really inspiring to get to be part of something that amazing and to learn from such amazing women.”

She recalls the excitement of disrupting cruise missile convoys: “Some women would stay at the base and make lots of noise, while other women would go along the route and hold up the convoy,” she says.

However it was a physical disability, rheumatoid arthritis, that put paid to Clare’s days of direct action.

The illness developed 20 years ago, while Clare was involved with activism at Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland, prompting her to give up activism and move abroad to stay with her parents for their support.

“It had a huge impact on my activism,” Clare says. “I stopped doing any for about 12 or 13 years.”

Since returning to the UK Clare has rediscovered activism but had to make huge adjustments, as the illness means her health and mobility fluctuate dramatically.

“I have a lot of periods where I’m just ill and there’s very little I can do so my life’s quite restricted,” she explains. “As I get older, I’m less and less able to do stuff, so I can’t walk very far anymore without being absolutely worn out at the end of it and in pain.”

Clare talks with all the passion and conviction you might expect of a Greenham veteran, but several times has to stop for breath or to find the right words.

“It’s a chronic, lifelong illness, so I have to be aware that if I’m going to put lots and lots of energy into a campaign then I have to do less other stuff.”

This means pacing herself, allowing for recovery time, and completely rules out spontaneity.

Nevertheless, activism remains one of her top priorities: “I don’t do any less activism, I do less other stuff!” she laughs, when I ask how she balances living with the illness.

Even so, it’s been a hard shift to make: “I can’t do direct action anymore – I couldn’t do lying down in roads or locking myself to things, so I have to focus on doing the organising,” she says.

“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s very painful and difficult, if that’s where you heart is,” she adds.

“With disability comes loss, and, inevitably, you end up grieving for the things you can’t do. It takes a while to find new skills to start doing a different kind of activism.”

Most notably, Clare has brought activism within her own limitations by founding Oxford Reclaim The Night in 2007, after she moved to the town. Although she’d always loved the London marches, Clare found the length of the march and the travelling involved exhausting.

Her first attempt at travelling from Oxford to London for a Reclaim The Night march “nearly killed me”, so she formed a creative collective of feminists and set up a much shorter march closer to home.

“It’s probably a walk you can do in 25 minutes, but we stretch it out to 45 by stopping along the way to sing feminist songs,” she says.

Mandy*, just two years her junior, couldn’t be more different. While Clare spent her teenage years blocking cruise missile convoys at Greenham Common, Mandy was so shy as a teenager that she “always preferred to keep quiet in the background rather than speak up and be noticed.”

Although motherhood has boosted the 40-year-old’s confidence, she still prefers to speak to me by email and text message, and says, “I never have and can never see myself going on a march!”

Shyness affects Mandy’s feminism on a number of levels, making her cautious about openly identifying as a feminist because of how that might be perceived.

“If you are naturally shy, when you are put in a confrontational situation, it is actually very damaging and difficult,” she says. “So to even openly talk about feminism isn’t something I always do.”

Like Zoë, Mandy has found that Twitter provides a safe and supportive space for her to explore and keep up with feminist issues. But even online Mandy has faced criticism for opening up about her wariness to identify as a feminist.

“There seems to be a general feeling that unless you speak up and proudly shout out that you are a feminist, you ought not to call yourself a feminist,” Mandy says, describing a recent confrontation on the subject.

“Some may argue that I’m an armchair feminist – that’s it’s little action, just words – but I feel there are other ways to get involved in feminism,” she says.

“I feel very strongly that instilling the right values in my children from a young age can have a solid foundation for behaviours later in life,” she explains.

A stay-at-home mother of three, who also works part-time with autistic children, Mandy strives to raise her two sons to respect women and girls, in the hope that they will grow up aware of, and intolerant of, inequality.

“Likewise, I think it imperative that my daughter is aware of inequality and doesn’t ever feel that she is in some way inadequate to her brothers by virtue of being a girl,” she says.

“I think there is an importance in recognising that activism isn’t all about shouting and marching.”

The same is true of Wanda Wyporska, the equalities officer at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), who spoke to me in a personal capacity.

As a trade unionist, Wanda is used to physical protests being seen as the “truest” form of activism, but she believes it’s important to use everybody’s different skills in a way they feel comfortable.

On a personal level, Wanda goes on fewer marches since having her son, now three and a half years old.

“It may sound a little bit precious, but I’m not willing to presume that what I believe in is necessarily what he believes in,” she says.

“If there were a march to bring back dinosaurs, then I’m sure he’d be at the front of it,” she laughs.

More generally, there are a host of reasons why mothers have long struggled to participate in direct activism, from childcare to event logistics.

“How long is it? Will they be able to walk? Will they end up on your shoulders? Are you going to have to take a buggy? The things you have to start thinking about are just endless,” Wanda says.

“I have nothing but praise for women who do that, but my own personal thing is that I just don’t really fancy it,” she adds.

As a former journalist, Wanda prefers to keep her activism to what she knows best: “I’m not very good at standing on the street shaking a tin, but I can write articles, I can use social media, and I can think about how to set up a campaign and how to reach people,” she says.

For her, activists now have more tools at their disposal than ever before, so there’s a role for everybody: “There are hundreds of ways in which we can get involved, and I don’t think one way’s any better than another,” she says.

“There’s a time for getting out onto the streets and taking direct action, and there are some people who are great with a megaphone.”

Others, like Mandy and Zoë would “run a million miles away from shouting into a megaphone”, but are striving to make their voices heard elsewhere.

For today’s feminists, there must also a time for putting down the megaphones and just listening to those who are breaking out of the mould.

*Not her real name

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Young woman in balaclava

Shying away from the front line

I once spent a Wednesday night with a group of French activists, covering the walls of Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University with anti-rape posters.

I’m not a natural born activist – in fact, that Wednesday night three years ago took even me by surprise and was, to this day, the high point of my feminist activism.

There’s a well-known feminist adage that well-behaved women seldom make history. It always weighs heavily on my mind because, apart from briefly dabbling in sex, drugs and punk music as a teenager, I’ve always been quite well-behaved.

Becoming a feminist was probably the most rebellious thing I did at university – those wild years you’re meant to spend enjoying your first taste of freedom were largely spent poring over Simone de Beauvoir books and discovering a huge network of like-minded feminist women online.

My first attempt at drunken university casual sex failed spectacularly, quickly leading to the occasional dinner before escalating to a full-blown long-distance relationship, and later a mortgage and cats. Somewhere along the lines I snogged his (gay) school friend to prove some kind of point, and even that backfired – that same friend is, in nine months time, going to be a bridesman at our wedding.

I suffer from a combination of shyness, depression and anxiety that, on my worst days, can be crippling. Even on my best days it’s not conducive to the kind of bad behaviour that flies in the face of authority and overturns oppressive laws.

Aside from that one Wednesday night, much of my free time in Paris was characterised by hiding under the duvet, submitting to my depression with the blackout curtains closed, or mooching around obscure museums on my own.

I once made it as far as the door of a French activist meeting before deciding my French wasn’t really up to the job and dashing home. Sadly the same excuse doesn’t work for the many English activist meetings I’ve failed to attend, or the meetings I’ve sat through in silence feeling totally intimidated by the confident, articulate women around me, and unable to get a word in edgeways.

Not one of my feminist heroines reminds me of myself – shy, retiring and fainthearted. I suspect my true feminist soul sisters were quietly and invisibly working in the background, writing impassioned articles in favour of the vote, while the Pankhursts were being force-fed in Holloway prison.

The militancy of the suffragettes and, more recently, of Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot, makes me feel like the world’s worst feminist. My introversion, and the perfectionism that goes with it, make me a great writer and organiser, but I constantly feel that I’m not DOING enough.

Is getting angry and writing article after article, email after letter, really enough? I feel like a fraud for sitting on Twitter and retweeting a petition while women who I hugely admire are out there, arguing with sexists on Newsnight and chaining their wheelchairs together in protest at the government’s attack on welfare.

The mere thought of speaking in public – let alone being shouted at on national television – fills me with dread, and I’m only marginally less terrified of being arrested than I am of phoning my parents from a prison cell to tell them.

If there was a prize for least likely to pick up a megaphone at Reclaim The Night, I’d be top of the nomination shortlist. In fact, more than once I’ve chickened out of a Reclaim The Night march because I knew I’d have to travel alone. I’m still not sure whether to laugh or cry at the irony of that!

Even writing this article has well and truly dragged me from my safe journalistic comfort zone of News and Features, and into the scary and vulnerable realm of The Personal. So there you go, be gentle with me, and please say hello if you spot me at Reclaim The Night this year. I’ll be the one hiding behind a Pussy Riot mask.

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Video: Cannibals

Cannibals (2013) is developed out of ongoing research around an online community – ‘Women Empowering Women’.  In this instance notions of female empowerment operate as an authoritative branding tool, WEW emerges as a traditional pyramid scheme; a microcosm of a capitalist system, mirroring an image of unsustainable growth. Before they eat, the women participate in ‘emotional circuit training’; the body is ‘tenderized’ in preparation for self-consumption. The fictional process deteriorates when one of the participants observes this pseudo-therapeutic process to be eating away at itself.

Artist Lucy Beech was born in Sheffield, 1985. Working predominantly with video, a central focus of her work is an exploration of how performance is initiated in non-theatrical environments as a tool for transforming private stories and experiences into public communicative acts. www.lucybeech.com

Recent and forthcoming exhibitions include:  Outpost, Norwich (2013), Plaza Plaza, London (2013), V22, Young London (2013), 21st Century, Chisenhale Gallery (2013), IMT London (2011) She has also been working collaboratively with Edward Thomasson since 2007, developing performance works for both theatre and gallery contexts including: the 2nd Biennale de Belleville, Paris (2012); Open House, South London Gallery (2012); 7 Year Itch, More Soup and Tart, Barbican Theatre, London (2011) and Holding it Together. Night and Day Performance event, Modern Art Oxford (2010).

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