Tag Archives: Mental health

Not Mad but Angry: Domestic Violence and Women’s Mental Health

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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.

Frighten them, drug them or shock them… (Women’s Voice, 1977)

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MY PROBLEMS had their origin in my upbringing – of course.

The initial damage was done at home, and then it was reinforced by years of being a ‘charity’ pupil in a convent. There every flickering of individuality and independent thought was crushed as a matter of policy.

My doctor sent me to an ‘expert’ because I was having crying fits after having two operations in a year, and because I suffered from lapses of awareness. I would ‘come to’ in the middle of the road, feeling lost and disoriented.

I wonder how many years of training it took to create this expert on mental health? I wonder how big a salary he gets for saying, as he said to me, ‘You’re a student, eh? Fancy teachings about sociology and psychology, eh? I suppose they’ve been teaching you that freedom stuff. I don’t hold with that. What you are is genetically determined. There’s nothing I can do for you.’

The sum time of that bit of ‘treatment’ was two minutes, including the time it took me to go in and out of the room.

When I left that ‘psychiatric unit’ I walked straight in front of a car. I can remember the screeching brakes. I remember feeling grazed and hearing shouting, but to this day I don’t know where I was for the next 89 hours.

I had to leave the degree course I was on – and I’d grafted years at night-school to get on that course.

I struggled through a few years of mundane office and factory work with the help of fags and booze and occasional drugs. Then I just caved in.

I found I would just work and then go home to bed. I spent my weekends in bed. I was unwilling to go near the medical profession because from experience I knew they had three basic solutions to people’s problems: frighten them, drug them, shock them.

Eventually I became unable to get out of bed at all, and my husband called in the doctor. He gave me drugs which left me in constant sleep.

When I took overdoses, the hospital doctor asked me if I didn’t feel silly putting them to all that trouble. I told him that I used to be an auxiliary nurse and that I knew he might be overworked, but it was no good trying to make me feel guilty about that! I guessed from his reaction that he wasn’t used to such an attitude in his patients.

I turned to private ‘therapists’, who didn’t know an arse from an elbow, but who certainly knew a ten pound note from a fiver.

Then three things happened.

I read the books of Arthur Janov, where he describes that human beings are not naturally destructive, aggressive, grasping and frantic. It’s the way we are screwed up that causes us to suppress our true nature and needs – leading to tension and neurosis. Uninterfered with, we would be peaceful and co-operative. We survive at the price of conformity to false, imposed values, the values of those who have power over us.

The second thing that happened to me was that I met a woman psychologist who wasn’t interested in lining her pockets. She related to people as feeling individuals with unmet needs, not as morally inferior deviants who threaten society’s order.

The third thing was the construction of a ‘shelter’ of mattresses and bedding where, in cushioned, sound-proofed surroundings, I can experience all those suppressed pains of stifled individuality and needs.

The more I experienced the suppressed ME, the more I got rid of the imposed muck.

A warning though, this shouldn’t be undertaken without some supervision. It’s a long and painful process. But where are people to have such treatment and be psychologically liberated?

Where are the ‘feeling-centres’ where in-touch therapists can assist us? Where we do most of the treatment ourselves, helping each other to feel and express our most deep-felt needs, so they are no longer blocked and filling us with tension?

Such an approach calls for taking away much of the almighty power and control of the doctors and ‘experts’. That needs to be done. It is our lives, our sanity that are threatened. It is our needs to be whole and happy human beings. Treatment should be in our interests, with our full and willing participation.

I’ve spent two years slowly and painfully dismantling the phoney me that was conditioned into being for the sake of survival and acceptance. I’ve come a long way. During that time I’ve read Socialist Worker and other socialist publications, keeping in touch with the struggles against repression and for freedom, more and more convinced of the necessity for people to control their own lives.

The freedom of the capitalists stinks. It’s the selling out of true individuality to the man-made symbols of profit and prestige – the ‘freedom’ to crush one’s fellow beings.

The we’ll-provide-it-for-you reformers have missed the point.

Freedom isn’t given. Freedom is what we naturally and automatically have, individually and socially, until someone starts defining our freedom for us and imposing their own limitations on its expression.

By Marie, from Manchester

Women’s Voice 12, December 1977