Guest post by Avenging Alix
The mentally ill are ‘other’ to the non-ill; they are different. Where the well are logical, functioning and able, the mentally ill are illogical, ineffective and disabled. Often, their condition seems without reason, and too often mental illness is portrayed as a negative character flaw, a defect of the human psyche. It is this schema that discounts the voices of those who are suffering.
Recently, I have been staying in a women’s crisis house. Since here, I have heard many women’s stories of rape and domestic abuse. Women describe the need to move from house to house as their abuser hunts them down repeatedly, terrorising them and their children. The women are on a constant vigil, scared to walk down the road, terrified to leave their home in case it is destroyed, terrified to remain in their home in case they themselves are destroyed. Their lives are decimated by one individual.
But where is the emphasis? Is it on the person who has destroyed their lives? Often the answer is no; frequently perpetrators are known to the police, and yet very little prevents them from continuing to act. Instead the impetus is placed on the woman, she is the one to move, she is the one to plan different routes each day to make sure she is safe from danger, and she is the one who must manoeuvre within an uncaring criminal justice system. The emphasis to change is placed on the victim.
As a society, our solution to the problem is to ensure that the women who can no longer carry the burden of humiliation, fear and terror are invalidated. Rape, abuse and sexual assault have been sensationalised to such an extent by the media that people have become afraid to even discuss the issue. This includes the professionals who are there to help support them.
People perceive rape as something rare, an abuse that is caused by mad, deranged and evil individuals who are easily identifiable. This fear means that, as a society, we become unwilling to discuss the subject, perhaps from fear that if it happened to her, it could happen to you as well. Therefore, when a woman who has been abused goes to a professional she may be given no real help.
The majority of GPs are woefully unaware of the services available to women who are suffering from the effects of abuse. Even the fantastic charities that do offer tailored support are underfunded; their waiting lists long, with many women waiting months, if not years, for support. During which time, their story is hidden.
Previously, I had hoped, naively, that women who had suffered any form of domestic violence or rape would be offered counselling and specialist support. This is rarely the case. A few may be able to access cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) within the NHS if their symptoms are ‘bad’ enough. However, the very nature of CBT discounts the importance of the women’s story, as it focuses on the here and now. The therapy aims to rejig thought processes to promote a change in behaviour – though helpful in some situations, the therapy effectively discounts the situation prior to the illness developing, instead treating the woman as a computer to be rewired.
Worse still, waiting lists can be months long, during which time a women’s mental condition can deteriorate, leaving her in a place that was far worse than when she first went to seek help. Not to mention that all services operate on a postcode lottery basis, if the women happen to live in the wrong county or the wrong borough then she may not be able to access help at all. It then comes as little surprise that many of these women begin to develop systems of deep psychological distress.
Of women who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, approximately 40 per cent have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. A further 9 per cent are further damaged by the system as they experience abuse while hospitalised. Within this process, past experiences become less and less important as current symptoms develop into the primary issue. Slowly the woman becomes defined as mentally ill as her previous self is forgotten, along with her story, and along with the power dynamics embedded in society that allowed her situation to occur, unnoticed and unquestioned.
If change is ever to occur and if our society is ever going to start questioning the discourses that help sustain male domination and abuse, it is of paramount importance that these women are heard.