Mad studies and queer studies

My friend Helen Spandler and I recently wrote a piece for the Mad Studies Network about what Mad Studies and Queer Studies are, and what they might learn from each other. If you’re interested in mental health and/or sexuality and gender you might find it interesting. If it feels a bit too academic, my comic book on Queer with artist Julia Scheele is coming out in September!

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Mad and Queer studies: interconnections and tensions

With the recent emergence of Mad Studies we thought it timely to explore some connections with Queer studies – another critical field of enquiry. We wanted to examine their similarities and differences; any points of tension; and what each could learn from the other.

Helen has been part of the recent emergence of Mad Studies in the UK and has a long standing interest in critical approaches to gender and sexuality. Meg-John has recently written a book about queer theory as part of the ‘introducing…’ series of Icon press comic books, and has a long standing interest in critical approaches to mental health. This piece arose out of discussions between ourselves on this subject.

Summary of key points

  • Mad and Queer Studies have lot of common ground – especially in terms of challenging existing binaries (for example, gay/straight and mad/sane); subverting negative connotations of Queer/Mad; and critiquing prevailing normativities (ways of being ‘normal’).
  • However, we have to be careful to think critically about new normativities which develop when we move away from old ones, and who is included and excluded in any movement.
  • Therefore, both projects could do more to question the ‘alternative’ norms and binaries they introduce which may have unhelpful effects.
  • In addition, madness poses new and significant challenges to Queer activism/studies.
  • As a result, Mad / Queer scholars and activists would benefit from greater dialogue with each other – and with other critical fields of inquiry (like critical disability studies).
  • Finally, we recommend foregrounding practices of consent and kindness as part of our political strategy to achieve our desire for more liberated social relationships and societies.

We start by briefly outlining a history of the two disciplines.

What is the history of Queer theory and Queer studies?

Read more…

New Zine! Staying with feelings

A topic I’ve written about on here quite a lot is the idea of ‘staying with’ feelings. After the Pixar movie Inside Out I wrote all about how important it is to get in touch with all our emotions. I’ve also written about the value of noticing how we feel with kindness and curiosity, and about how to stay with other people’s feelings.

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In this new zine I discuss both why we get so shut off from our feelings in a wider culture which values some emotions far more highly than others, and how we can go about shifting our patterns of avoiding and fighting some feelings, and craving and grasping for others. It covers both therapeutic and spiritual practices for staying with our emotions.

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You can download or read the zine here.

 

Bi Visibility Day

September 23rd is bi visibility day: something I’ve written about here before. This year I thought I’d post a Q&A I did recently on the topic of bi visibility to say why I think it’s still so important. You can also read a lot more on this topic over on the BiUK website and in The Bisexuality Report.

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Why do you think that most research shows that bisexual people are struggling compared to lesbian, gay and straight people?

It seems highly likely that a major reason for this is bi invisibility. Bi people are marginalised in similar ways to lesbian and gay people, for their same-sex attraction, but they also experience something additional to this which is their invisibility – or erasure – in popular culture. Lesbian and gay people are rarely questioned as to whether they are really lesbian/gay. Also generally, once they have come out, people accept that their sexual identity is what they’ve said it is.

For bisexual people however, the experience of coming out is one of continued questioning, suspicion and even re-closeting (people assuming they must really be gay or straight). Bi people also experience double discrimination (from both straight and gay communities) which can lead to a sense of isolation or having no home or sense of belonging. Often bi people turn to LGBT communities when they have experienced biphobia and homophobia, only to find that they are rejected there too.

These things all tap into a couple of major elements of common mental health difficulties: self-criticism and alienation. Bi people are encouraged to doubt and criticise themselves, and they often feel very alone.

Of course the wider reasons for bi invisibility are the binary assumptions our culture has about sexuality and gender: that people are seen as gay or straight (and male or female).

What do you think the goals of bisexual activism and the bisexual movement should be?

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New Zine! Social suffering and social mindfulness

I’ve made my first attempt at a zine!

For the last few months I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the social side of mental distress. It feels really important to me to recognise how our suffering is embedded within our relationship dynamics; our workplaces, communities and other institutional systems; and our wider society.

I often notice what a relief it is for me – and my friends and clients – when we realise this social element to our suffering: particularly how the self-criticism that we do so constantly is something that everybody else does as well, because we’re all in this self-critical culture. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with us. It’s understandable.

This week I’m speaking at a few conferences which touch on themes of inequalities, individualising and intersectionality, and on mental health and mindfulness. So I thought – instead of the usual stand-up presentation – I’d make a zine that captures my experiences of these things, and makes some suggestions about how we might creatively engage with them.

It was also a good opportunity – for me – to get back into making comics: something I’d love to do more of, especially now I’m working on a comic introduction to queer theory with a professional artist. Here’s one of the comics I made for the zine. You can download the whole zine at the end of this post if you’d like to read it more clearly.

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For my zine, the comics really helped me to understand how intertwined all these social levels are – as are the inequalities that we suffer from, and benefit from, and the ways in which we are individualised and individualise others.

You can download the zine as a pdf by clicking on the link below. I’d suggest printing it out as a booklet to get the full zine experience – or just reading it online. There’s also a whole book on mindful therapy by me here (including more comics!) if you’re interested in reading further on the topic.

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Supporting each other through mental health struggles

Novaramedia is currently publishing a number of useful articles around the theme of mental health, including pieces on work and mental health, and one on talking therapies.

They asked me to submit something that particularly addressed mental health in the context of relationships, so I wrote this article on supporting people in our lives when they’re struggling.

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Most of us will experience a mental health difficulty like depression, anxiety or addiction during our lives. And at some point, most of us will have a friend or family member who is mentally unwell.

Our culture tends to view people with mental health problems in one of two ways. Either they have brought it on themselves and need to ‘pull their socks up’, or they have a ‘disorder’ and need help because they’re incapable of helping themselves.

When faced with a friend who is suffering it is tempting either to blame them for their problems and try to shake them out of it, or to leap into ‘rescuer’ mode and try to fix them.

Neither extreme is a good solution. We can end up angry and resentful if we hold them responsible for their problems, or burnt out from all our attempts to help. They can end up more defeated and self-critical than ever if they feel culpable, or kept in a guilty and powerless state if they can’t respond to our efforts.

As a therapist and psychology academic I am often asked to give advice on supporting friends when they’re in difficulty. Here are seven thoughts on how you can help without either rescuing or blaming. Read more…

Sex blogging superhero!

I’m stoked that I was voted in the top 100 sex blogger superheroes this year by the kinkly website. So great to hear that people are enjoying my posts on sex and sexuality (as well as all the other things I blog about on here!)

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Thanks to everyone who voted for me, and to all of you who read my blog. It feels so great to be able to put these ideas out and know that they connect with people.

I haven’t been blogging much this past few weeks due to work deadlines, but I’ve been using the chance to post up some of the interviews I did over the summer so there’s not been a gap. I’m mulling over some more blog posts to come soon though. I’m still thinking about consent (what actually happens when we bring ideas of sexual consent into other aspects of relationships?) and BDSM (with the upcoming 50 shades movie what advice would be useful to people wanting to bring kink into their sex lives?)

Also I’ve been working on a great project with a couple of friends for Asylum magazine. The whole of next year we are contributing features to the magazine about mental health and comics. We put out a call for submissions and were completely overwhelmed by the response: loads of fabulous comics, and writing about how people had found comics helpful in thinking about their own experiences, as well as reflections on specific comics. It has inspired me to start making more comics myself (something I haven’t done for a few years), so I might well be sharing some of those here as well.

Thank you: The psychology of gratitude and appreciation

My university, The Open University, has recently started a ‘thank you’ campaign (#OU_thanks) where students and alumni have been encouraged  to express their thanks to people who’ve helped them along their journeys of studying at the OU. I was interviewed about this for an article that appeared in The Metro yesterday.

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The OU has always had a major commitment to opening up access to higher education beyond those who have conventionally engaged in it. They put on flexible courses so that people can study alongside working full-time, they encourage lifelong learning, and online courses mean that people can study from home, while travelling, or from prison.

This recent thank you campaign recognises that for every OU student there is generally an unacknowledged cluster of other people who have encouraged and helped them to study in this way. There are supportive friends and family members, people who’ve assisted financially with fees, flexible employers, and the OU tutors and peers who’ve helped them through the process. With this campaign, students are taking the opportunity to express their thanks to all these people who’ve helped them to do something which they are often extremely proud of, and which opens up their possibilities in all kinds of important ways.

Interestingly, at the same time as the campaign was happening, a bunch of OU psychologists were putting together a new psychology module called ‘Living psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary’. I’ve been writing two chapters for this module that have a bearing on gratitude: one on self-help and happiness, and one tackling relationship conflict. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on what we know about the psychology of gratitude, as well as giving some of my own thoughts on the matter.

Gratitude for mental health and well-being?

We probably assume that gratitude will be a positive thing for the person being thanked, but recent research in ‘positive psychology’ has found that it also has a very positive impact on the person doing the thanking.

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Is taking care of ourselves a relationship responsibility?

Recently Diabetes UK have been running an advertising campaign that sits uneasily with me and with a lot of my friends. In their posters they show images of people hugging their loved ones and crying, with slogans such as ‘If not for you then for your family’ and ‘so you and your family don’t suffer‘. The idea seems to be that people in high-risk groups should get tested early for diabetes so that they can do something about it before amputation, blindness, heart problems or other health implications mean that they become a burden on their loved ones.

My immediate reaction was to feel angry that this – otherwise excellent – charity was using guilt tactics to frighten people into action. I also disliked the implication that other people might have so much power over what somebody chooses to do with their own body.

However, I had to reflect that – when it comes to mental rather than physical health – I have used a somewhat similar argument myself. I am a great believer that we all need to build some form of self-care into our lives in order to be in an okay place emotionally and psychologically. It is when I don’t have a moment to myself that I get overwhelmed when stressful things happen, respond badly to conflict, or make mistakes at work. Similarly, clients who I work with in therapy are often constantly engaged with work, family and friends. When I encourage them to build in time for a ‘daily kindness’ to themselves, or for quiet reflection, the major block that they frequently come up against is all their obligations to other people in their lives. They don’t want to let down their managers and colleagues, their partners and parents.

For many of us the argument that we will feel better if we look after ourselves doesn’t get very far because we see self-care as being self-centred or as spoiling ourselves. When we’re depressed we don’t feel that we deserve this. Or perhaps it doesn’t fit the self-sacrificing image that we want to have of ourselves.

However, the realisation that we will be better for the other people in our lives is often the thing that helps us to make that first small shift towards building in some time for self-care. For example, we might notice that a small amount of self-care can leave us less exhausted, more able to hear other people, and better able to manage extra pressures. We might also see that we are a better role-model for others in our lives if we demonstrate that we are able to say ‘no’ to things or to prioritise looking after ourselves.

So how is this different to the Diabetes UK argument that people should take steps towards better physical health in order to be in a better place for their loved ones? I think it comes down to the complex tension that we all face that we are, at the same time, independent individuals, and unavoidably involved in interdependent relationships with the other people in our lives. There are a few elements of this that I want to tease out here, but I don’t think there are any easy answers. Rather I hope that this blog post might be a starting point for people who want to talk about such matters, and that it will set out some of the territory in a way that is helpful.

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Mindfulness and Mental Health – London, 1st November

Call for presenters/facilitators/attendees
Mindfulness and Mental Health Day – 1st November 2013, London Camden
Dr. Meg Barker will be running a free event on 1st November for practitioners and academics who are interested in mindfulness and mental health, to coincide with the publication of their new book on the subject. Please get in touch with Meg if you are interested in attending or getting involved (megbarker@gmail.com). Confirmed speakers include Steven Stanley, Duncan Moss, Rebecca Barnes, Many Bazzano, and Jyoti Nanda.

The inevitability of treating partners as things? Romance in Ruby Sparks (and why I like the ending)

Recently I got round to watching last year’s Ruby Sparks on DVD. I’d been looking forward to watching this film for some time because it is a mediation on what would happen if we could create our perfect partner. The film was everything I’d hoped for. However, when I gushed about it on facebook, several people said they had felt let down by the ending. Here I want to present my take on the film, and to explain why I think the ending needed to be the way it was.

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In the film an isolated writer (Calvin Weir-Fields) has writer’s block having published one highly successful book when he was pretty young. His therapist encourages him to write a brief account of a positive encounter with another person. He invents a scenario where he meets his perfect girlfriend in the park. Soon he is writing more and more about her because he enjoys imagining her so much. He describes her to his therapist:

Calvin: Ruby Sparks. Twenty-six years old. Raised in Dayton, Ohio.

Dr. Rosenthal: Why Dayton?

Calvin: Sounds romantic. Ruby’s first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead. Ruby got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher… or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet. Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like best about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks and… Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before that was an alcoholic. She can feel a change coming. She’s looking for it.

Dr. Rosenthal: Looking for what?

Calvin: Something new.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to watch the movie without knowing what happens.

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