I feel it would be remiss of me not to comment on a recent email from a top UK psychologist. Whilst offering his services to ‘edit’ a letter addressing ‘Wilful Blindness’, he chooses the word ‘survivors’ to describe the authors of the letter.
“Wilful blindness is a legal concept which says that if there are things that you could know and should know and somehow manage not to know, the law holds you responsible.”
Regardless of the legalities of the issue, is his use of the word ‘survivors’ one of wilful blind hypocrisy?
He continues, ‘We need to focus on what we want to see – a new way of thinking about mental health (and delivering services) in the broad aspect, but more humane, reflexive, thoughtful, compassionate, open-mined dialogue in the short term.’
Bravo to that! But in this context, how can the label ‘survivors’ be ‘open-minded’, ’compassionate’ or ‘thoughtful’? What place does the label ‘survivors’ have in a new way of thinking about mental health?
His comments are reflective of a system which does not yet respect patient leaders. So called ‘survivors’ have considerable expertise to offer and are not valued by the systems for which they often work tirelessly for free. They collaborate, are respectful and often live isolated lives ‘reminded of past suffering’. They know they have expertise to offer but are faced with systematic barriers to inclusion, and often ignored or even exploited for their expertise. Many are experts who have intelligently processed their experiences, constantly reflect, learn and do what they do for the greater good. They are individuals who have found strength in vulnerability but who are so much more than the sum of their suffering; they are undervalued expert resources.
`Survivors’ is part of the old way of thinking and a language which suits organisations and professionals. It hugely undervalues ‘experts by experience’ and allows them to remain excluded from the professional system or be rewarded financially and by title. ‘Survivors’ is part of the power relationship; in essence it screams “me doctor, you ex-patient", with everything that loudly conveys. In reality, it is the experts by experience who are taking responsibility to improve a failing system which is causing both harm and death.
The psychologist continues, ‘I’m all for disciplining people who’ve transgressed, but we must at least give the message that a different approach is both required and possible.’
I am not a ‘survivor’. I am not a psychologist, but my language has already evolved beyond simply ‘disciplining those who I believe transgress’. Instead, I will offer him some advice. Read the ‘Patient Revolution’ by David Gilbert. In relation to those you call ‘survivors’, it might just help you use different and more appropriate language, especially as "there are things that you could know and should know and somehow manage not to know”.