By Harry Gijbels and Lydia Sapouna
The Critical Voices Network Ireland (CVNI) are very pleased to welcome the launch of Mad In Ireland (MII). Congratulations to all involved in staying the course to get this realised. Thanks also to Mad In America for their support and encouragement over the last couple of years in getting MII off the ground. MII is a very welcome addition to the various critical voices already established and active in Ireland, of which the CVNI is one.
In this brief article we give an overview of the emergence of the CVNI and its activities since its launch in 2010, including a link to the 2022 14th Critical Perspectives Conference, held again in person, after two years of online conferences, on 16 and 17 November 2022 in University College Cork.
From the late 1990’s onwards critical perspectives emerged to question the dominant bio psychiatric thinking and practice, in the shape of campaigning and developing alternative ways of supporting people in distress. These were voiced and organised in various ways by a diverse range of ‘actors’, including people who describe themselves as service users, survivors, patients, members of the mad community, carers, family members, practitioners, professionals, academics and members of the public, all of whom were dissatisfied with current forms of care and its underpinning biomedical philosophy. John McCarthy (Mad Pride Ireland), Mary Maddock (MindFreedom Ireland), Kieran Crowe, Paddy McGowan and Jim Walsh (Irish Advocacy Network) and Joan Hamilton (Sli Eile Housing) were just some of these ‘actors’ to campaign and provide alternative ways of thinking and working, which contributed significantly to widen the debate within and beyond mental health services.
While these campaigns, initiatives and new practices demonstrated some transformative potential, they nevertheless remained quite isolated and fragmented, and as such did not manage to significantly influence the bigger scheme of mental health matters at a national level. The need for collective action and communal solutions towards transforming mental health systems were recognised by a number of survivors, practitioners and academics.
In an attempt to provide a broad platform to discuss and debate concerns and share new initiatives and ideas, we, through our respective Schools of Applied Social Studies and of Nursing and Midwifery, University College Cork, started to organise a series of critical perspectives conferences in University College Cork. The first conference (2009) was very well attended and appreciated, to such a degree, that is has become a well-established annual event, now in its 14th year. The conferences are unique as they are free events and involve people from diverse backgrounds (self-experience, survivors, professionals, academics, carers) presenting, discussing and debating critical and creative perspectives in mental health. Since 2009, the annual conference has focused on themes such as recovery, medicalisation, meanings of madness, trauma and distress, the value of psychiatric diagnosis, the therapy industry, activism and resistance, change, and safe spaces in mental health systems. The conference has an annual attendance of over 500 delegates and is considered one of the most significant events of its kind nationally and internationally, attracting speakers and delegates from across the world. The 2022 conference will focus on ‘Critical perspectives on the lived experience of distress and mental health services’ (see https://cvni.ie/2022-2/).
The 2010 conference saw the launch of the CVNI, a coalition of service users, carers, professionals, academics and national campaigning and advocacy groups, all looking for a mental health system not based on traditional pathology-focused models. This network provides a democratic space with no hierarchical structures, being open to everybody who wishes to join its discussions. A website (www.cvni.ie), an CVNI e-list, a CVNI Facebook page and a CVNI Twitter account have been established for people to begin to share, debate and discuss issues of concern and different ways of working. During the first two years, national and regional meetings were held quarterly, which were open to all and organised around a series of roundtable discussions, followed by a plenary session focusing on creative approaches (e.g. setting up residential crisis and recovery facilities) and critical
perspectives in mental health care (e.g. overuse of medication, forced ‘treatment’ issues, capacity legislation). Networking groups were set up to undertake work in specific areas. These debates have been enriching, and have, in many ways, shaped new ways of knowing about mental health issues. While regional and national meetings now take place less frequently, the CVNI continues to provide a platform for its members to make public contributions through interviews, participation in debates, letters to the editor and newspaper articles.
Since its launch, the CVNI, together with the Schools of Applied Social Studies and of Nursing and Midwifery, University College Cork, has been associated with the critical mental health conferences. The CVNI, in partnership with other groups, has organised a series of public talks, (including those by Robert Whitaker), seminars, one day conferences and, more recently, a series of online workshops on critical mental health matters. Furthermore, the CVNI offers a resource to draw on in critical mental health education, with the annual conference being part of the curriculum for mental health nursing, social work, and occupational therapy students. As educators ourselves, we have become more active and confident in articulating critiques of dominant ‘expert’ systems , in drawing on the expertise of users/survivors, in promoting partnerships with users/survivors as essential skills for practice and in developing different ways to understand and work with ‘unusual experiences’, such as voice-hearing experiences. As members of the CVNI, we have also been part of establishing a university-wide disability and mental health research cluster that aims to explore the meanings of mental health and disability, with a particular focus on building capacity for critically informed and engaged research and mad activism in academia. Since the launch of the network, the CVNI has struggled to be a prefigurative example of ‘mutual aid’ (Sedgwick, 1982), in other words, to consistently model a democratic way of self-organisation and action. We think that the biggest challenge for the CVNI is to establish itself as a politically engaged movement as a way to influence mental health issues at a wider socio-political level.
In conclusion, we think that through the CVNI, an environment has been created where different and sometimes conflicting voices and agendas can be heard and respected rather than silenced. Professionals, students and people with experience have a free exchange as part of this environment. This can be a challenging process. Questioning mental health practice can be unsettling as it may require positions of certainty to be reviewed and possibly relinquished. Nevertheless, the power of these exchanges lies in the opportunity to tell stories, to make sense of experiences and to reconstruct meanings, particularly previously silenced meanings. We hope that the CVNI continues to provide such a space but that it will also engage more explicitly with social activism and acts of resistance. Hopefully, with the arrival of MII, a politically engaged movement to influence mental health matters at a wider socio-political level can now be better realised.