Kelvingrove Art Gallery - Photo by Photo by Radubradu:

“Mental health culture has gone too far, says Mel Stride”. This was the title of an article published in The Telegraph towards the end of March, that certainly generated a fair amount of attention on my Twitter feed, at least. The article recounted comments made by Stride, who is the Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary, at an in-person event, where he outlined his plans to reduce benefits spending through reforms to welfare payments. His statements mostly echoed a column he himself had written in The Telegraph the previous month; there was little new of note, but perhaps The Telegraph just felt like giving their mate Mel some good exposure, or using him to gain some clicks of their own. The argument was familiar to anyone who has followed Conservative politics in the UK over the last decade – the “benefits bill” is too high, there are people receiving benefits who should be working (the word ‘malingerer’ is usually unsaid but strongly implied), there need to be cuts, penalties, and more restrictions. What Stride failed to mention, is why he thinks this approach, which has been the Tory policy since their arrival in power in 2010, will suddenly work now, when it seems to have had little success before. It’s a tried and tested policy – blame sick people for being lazy, and draw attention away from a decade of Tory mismanagement. It’s good to know that nothing ever changes.

The piece drew a significant amount of reproval or even ire – many of the major mental health charities made statements outlining their work in encouraging people to seek help, and the detrimental effect Stride’s comments might have. They also noted that in both his written article and his comments he somewhat simplified the statistics, ignoring the frequent occurrence of mental health as a co-morbidity alongside other health conditions. Interestingly, many of the statements took at face value the headline that “mental health culture has gone too far”, responding to this as Stride’s key claim. Yet when I read through the article those words didn’t seem to be a direct quote – rather they seemed to be the work of a very effective sub-editor at The Telegraph, who knew just how to pull eyes to the story.

But nonetheless, I think it’s interesting to look at the use of the word ‘culture’ in the headline – what does it mean to take the different parts of Strides comments and suggest that they add up to a comment on ‘culture’? The phrase slickly encapsulates Stride’s derision for any approach that grants validity, weight, or heaven forbid care and attention to mental illness, a derision which he hides under supposed concern that we are “labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions”. (The ease with which a central branch of the sociology of mental health, and its critique of the power of medical institutions and discourses, was integrated within Tory rhetoric might certainly give us pause for thought.) Stride seems to be talking partly about a general social understanding of what mental health is, and also about a set of institutional practices from DWP assessments to GP’s sick notes. (The irony of a Conservative minister criticising the care patients receive from the NHS which his party underfunded is almost too much to bear). These might all certainly have cultural components, but there’s more to culture than this.

In particular, there’s more to the culture around mental health in the UK than this. Stride seems desperate to suggest that we have become too soft, too lenient, too indulgent when it comes to mental health. Yet he conveniently ignores all the ways in which this is self-evidently not the case. He is manifestly uninterested in the fact that for all its supposed over-indulgence, we have a ‘Mental Health Culture’ that in many inpatient wards uses dubiously-legal video technology to surveil patients against their will rather than offering them care and kindness. He ignores the way that healthcare and social services staff often treat patients labelled with ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’, dismissing patients as annoying and manipulative to justify the withdrawal of support. He seems completely unaware of the ways that welfare processes themselves contribute to, exacerbate, or cause mental illness through their manifest cruelty. This, too, is mental health culture – it’s a cruelty culture, a cut-costs-at-all-costs- culture, a dismissed-as-attention-seeking culture, a squeeze-the-use-and-the-joy-out-of-people-and-then-discard-them culture.

But there’s also more to culture than attitudes, or even treatment. Culture refers to the intangible meaning and relation that exists between us and around us. Culture refers not just to processes and paperwork, nor even just to discourses and discussions – it also refers to our dreams, our fears, our imaginations, our stories, our art. I was reminded of this when a recent trip to Stockholm took me to their Moderna Museet, home to a truly enviable collection of modern art. As I wandered around I was struck by how often mental illness was mentioned, referenced, or implied – from the biographies of authors to the words of the art itself. I was left reminded of the inextricable relation between mental illness and culture – not because madness is in some way a ‘gift’ of creativity or insight, but because mad people are humans, because we’re part of society.

I was struck by the wonderful work of Rashid Johnson, whose drawing Anxious Men is so deeply moving, and whose work Bruise Painting invoked wounds, and loss, and despair, and healing. I was interested Horizon of Me(aning)installation by Carola Grahn, which features many logs piled together in the centre of a room, and is accompanied by an instruction that those putting the longs in place should discuss mental health. I felt almost overcome by Louise Bourgeois’ woven artwork I Am Afraid; I stood for a long time staring at the pale rectangle, and thinking about emptiness and imperfection.

I was so touched by these artists’ work, which seemed to envelop and surround me, even as I stood still. Mel Stride imagines Mental Health Culture as weak and as grasping, and so often the Mental Health Culture we encounter as mad people is one of disregard and ignorance. But these artworks reminded me of the Mental Health Culture that I’ve found in community with other mad people, in the activism and art we’ve created together. Here, Mental Health Culture is what connects us to one another, what binds us together and brings us forward in our shared aims, ideals and commitments. It is a Mental Health Culture that allows for both frailty and for strength, that can hold both the ways we fall and the ways we get back up again. Mel Stride thinks we’ve gone too far, but just wait till he sees how far we’ll go.