The whole picture
As social workers, we are taught to take a holistic approach to mental health. To ask not what is wrong but what has happened. We look at how the experiences of others, be they caregivers or wider communities, impact on a person’s perception of the world as something protective or threatening. We are guided to explore how power and oppression affect development and identity.
We are coming to recognise the interlinked nature of our environment and the mind (this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was focused on the important relationship between nature and wellbeing). But we can go further.
It is important to also view those experiences sitting at the outer edges of the mental health spectrum, including hallucinations, delusions and hearing voices, as responses to what has come before. In the public eye, they are frequently seen as random events, a malfunctioning of sorts, rather than what they truly are - an understandable response to traumatic incidents.
This is what prompted the creation of a new podcast series, Notes on Madness, which explores real stories from people who have lived experience of serious mental health difficulties.
My co-host, Tom Pollard, and I are both mental health social workers and have spent the last three years working in NHS community services, with individuals who have experiences often diagnosed as psychosis, bipolar and complex trauma.
From the beginning, I was aware of the extraordinary privilege this line of work brings, in which people let me into their homes and shared their remarkable stories of human experience and resilience.
I was struck by the stark difference in what I saw each day. I saw a person’s humanity and vulnerability, compared to the negative stereotypes of mental illness perpetuated by misinformation and Hollywood tropes. Most importantly, I came to realise how much ‘madness’ (and I use this term with respect to the service-user groups who are reclaiming it) actually made sense.
Amidst the cacophony of conversations about mental health and wellbeing taking the world by storm, we have failed to give enough space to those affected by what is known as ‘severe mental illness’ (SMI).
In Notes on Madness, we provide a platform to these oft-unheard voices. We hope this will demystify the unusual experiences associated with SMI, shedding light on the complexity of mental health and promoting an understanding of the social model of mental health.