When movements move on

Wednesday, 18th June 2014 at 18:38 UTC 1 comment

I want to pick up on something that was recently posted around regarding the Recovery ‘movement’ within Mental Health by Charlotte Walker, and which chimes with some observations of my own regarding the evolution of movements. sum up the point I want to pick up, she points out that those who won’t or don’t make all-out recoveries from conditions can feel at odds with the dominant narrative in mental health campaigning.

I want to start by saying that I’m not trying to validate or diminish Charlotte’s own experiences, which she’s evidently thought through in detail. I’m trying to write about a movement dynamic that this appears to sum up quite neatly.

The problem with defining movements is that they are, by definition, moving and changing. “Is this a movement?” is a question for which there will almost always be different opinions. Movements often form when a problem is framed in a way that people connect with. Some movements deliberately set their frame wide, and some deliberately set it narrow. Isolate one problem, polarise the situation – some of us do this stuff without even realising we’re doing it.

There was a time, even fairly recently, when both society and professionals viewed many Mental Health diagnoses as a living death warrant. There was an assumption that anything at all that could be called a recovery was out of the question – one might manage to scrape by with a condition but a fulfilling life was out of the question. And by recently, I could be thinking of one local professional who only retired from psychiatry last year.

In that context, the solution was to switch the narrative from one of guaranteed failure to possible success. A lot of people subscribed to this view, many of them with their own personal mental health struggles, and where there has been success, its had a hugely positive impact. But it also means that the situation being framed has moved, and needs reframing. The new frame won’t apply to everyone – its likely to be very important to those on margins of the movement as originally framed. The generalisation involved is likely to be much less general.

Some other movements have followed this pattern: the Gay Rights movement has shown that with equal treatment, Gay people can live normal lives. Gay people now feel pressured to do so, and for some, that’s a pressure that needs resisting. Of course, for those who personally enjoy the newly achieved status, it might be cause for a multi-million pound corporate sponsored annual party with what some feel are increasingly strained links to a history of protest.

The anti-war movement around the 2003 invasion of Iraq faced this when transitioning from an anti-invasion to an anti-occupation frame. Without Saddam Hussein, there was a debate to be had about the frame we should be using. Instant withdrawal, or a drawn-out hand-over plan? Lots of people had lots of reasons to oppose a war starting, but very different views on what to do once it had started, not all of which were quite as compatible.

Feminism is probably the clearest example, where successive ‘waves’ have made very different contributions, each time framing a situation that needs to change. Those who were once the leading edge might find themselves reacting against the movement in a later iteration, such as Radical Feminists opposing inclusion of Transwomen in the movement.

I don’t think this just ‘the law of unintended consequences’. Sometimes, as has been the case for disability movements in many cases, movement aspirations have been quite deliberately bent out of shape by contact with government agendas for which they haven’t been prepared. Sometimes movements have presented themselves as representative of those they were never representative of to start with. Other times, quite unrelated external changes have taken place, and the results have subsequently been blamed on the movements themselves.

It should be natural that movements have to adapt as they change the world around them, but sadly it seems to come as quite a surprise. From the outside, it seems harshly ironic that the creators of social change are bad at adapting to change themselves. But perhaps its just a natural result of the strength of belief required to initiate change in the first place that we’re hard to convince.

All movements need to find better tools for evaluating their own efforts and redirecting themselves where appropriate. Sometimes, that means listening to those who find themselves on the edges of their movement, and hopefully in the case of a movement supporting people who are, by their very definition, marginalised, can take into account new ways their natural members feel marginalised.


Entry filed under: Activism, Mental Health, Participation.

You are what you watch? Space for divergence?

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Genna Millar  |  Friday, 20th June 2014 at 17:59 UTC

    Interesting blog post. I run mental health groups in Scotland for a social inclusion project. I was talking about this yesterday with quite a new group. We were making a recovery board game as a way of discussing the key concepts and exploring their thoughts on the recovery movement itself.
    All 8 members of the group said that they believe that they will not “recover” fully. Some were more adamant on this than others, but all agreed that things can improve a great deal for them.
    It all depends on what the accepted definition of recovery is. I personally feel that if someone can live the life they want to despite their condition and symptoms then that is effective recovery, but I think that many people take the word at face value and want to get back to ‘normal’.
    I’m not saying full recovery is not possible, my wife has posted about her recovery from postnatal depression today, but it’s not for everyone.

    THIS to me is what recovery is all about:


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