Nearly forty years ago, it all seemed so obvious. Newly released from one of the old asylums where I had stayed just long enough to be utterly scandalised by my treatment and that of my fellow patients, I embarked on a career of activism for the voices of people like me, with a mental illness, to be heard, listened to and acted on.

I remember we were thrilled at the Half Way House, where we volunteered and at the wisdom of the radical workers who worked there. We really were little disciples – drinking in, without question, the teachings of anti and critical-psychiatry. For me, young, anxious, distressed and filled with anger about what I still do not quite know, this seemed like an ideal cause to align myself to. Even more ideal, because as a White middle-class young man, I had so far had nothing to make me feel oppressed or exploited, and I so needed a cause to engage in.

To put us down as misguided and naive would be wrong. We did do some good things. I particularly enjoy the memory of setting up McMurphy's, a drop-in centre run by young people with a mental illness for young people; painfully created step by step and yet with such joy and excitement. Sometimes when I look back, I wish that had been the path I had followed in my life, just creating the services and the culture we knew we thrived in, but I took a different path of activism and voice.

Radical activism to Highland collective action

It was very early in my career when I was still at university, that I questioned my certainty and anger at the professionals who had only featured briefly in my life by then. In a well-meaning attempt to help, my parents put me in touch with another student who had also been very ill at university.

I remember the awkwardness of our meeting, my attempts to radicalise her, to introduce her to the anger she must surely feel about her treatment and the society we were both a part of and her bemusement. Her tale of her experience of psychosis and a diagnosis of schizophrenia and how life was hard, but she was coping and hoping to finish her degree and move on. It made me uneasy, I had more or less given up on university, or the path people like me usually took in life and did not like her acceptance of what was happening to her. It was only many years later when I realised that being sectioned had often kept me alive, too, that I began to understand her viewpoint.

Fast forward to my arrival in the Highlands, after a stint of setting up advocacy groups and working with Patients Councils in Lothian and elsewhere. I was still fascinated by Asylum Magazine, excited by the Trieste model, scandalised by the idea of community treatment orders, convinced the voice of people with a mental illness was the purest, the most important; sure that carers had little right to speak about our treatment and that everything about the mental health system was about the uneven and abusive use of power.

However, meeting people in different settings, the old asylum of Craig Dunain, church halls and drop-in centres in various villages, I found something very different to the debate of the cities. We were still angry about how people with a mental illness were treated, but it somehow seemed to be a wave of more genuine anger. You didn’t need to have experienced a crash course in the theory of oppression; there was no requirement to be a committed socialised to want to have a voice. You didn’t have to sneer at any community services set up by faith-based organisations. What people talked about seemed genuine, heartfelt, not something they had been taught to say or believe.

The first thing we decided to talk about was what would happen to our old asylum now that it was being shut down. I already knew! Hospitals were, by definition, bad and, if sited in old Victorian buildings on the edge of town, even worse. The people who I was working with told me something different. They said that that hospital had saved their lives; that many of the staff were almost friends. That they loved the woods and the views – the duck pond. It was often a place of peace and privacy and mutual support that they didn’t hate the idea of a hospital and no way that they wanted treatment in the centre of the town. We used their arguments with the health board and ‘won’ the point, and my perspective changed.

It set me on a new path. The direction I had been taking; where my viewpoints were an article of faith from whatever was fashionable, fell away to be replaced by the need to gather the grassroots voice of our community; eventually to realise that contribution and change did not have to be a battle; that anger did not need to be the only motivation. Many of the workers we associated with shared our views and wanted us to succeed in our vision of a better world for us all.

Over the years, way up in the very north of the country, we wrote reports involving hundreds of people, worked with government, councils, health boards, the police; went into schools where we spoke with thousands of children, educated professionals, made films, appeared in the media, held art exhibitions, made, for a time, a vast difference in services, policy, and the law. We attracted the attention of European partners and found ourselves in Romania and Catalunya, Portugal, and Poland. We realised that partnership, kindness, and dialogue was usually the best and most pleasant way of creating change.

I returned to the Central Belt of Scotland five years ago and, with my memoir published, discovered, very late the debates, arguments, and passion of mental health twitter and some of the prominent National voices from whom I felt alienated. I became aware of an international movement that bewilders me in its bitterness. I now find myself confused by the movement I have spent much of my life with. Sometimes there is so much anger, such confrontation! It dismays me.

I meet people who, desperate for their own vision, will do whatever they can to force their point forward. They don’t care if they damage other people in the process. If in their need to win, they send fellow people with mental illness back into despair; that is just collateral damage. To think that many professionals are natural allies, or a manager might have good motives for them is laughable. Managers are responsible for our deaths; psychiatrists know nothing of our worlds and have no possibility of empathy; they are not worth speaking to unless they come prepared with apologies. It makes me terribly sad.

I have a fondness for those times when I meet people in grassroots groups across Scotland, and the violence of opinion was absent. I remember operational meetings, planning services and because we took the trouble to get to know each other and knew that about eighty per cent of the professionals present had also had mental health problems themselves. I remember meetings in the north where support workers, CPN’s and occasionally psychiatrists joined in and shared their own experience of mental illness and were welcome. I still feel joy when I meet people locally in Edinburgh, Dumfries, Arbroath, and we still speak from the heart about what seems to be a reality, but what about some of my fellow activists? Or my similarly radicalised politicised colleagues?

Why are we so divided? What ever happened to our common collective voice?

Sometimes, when I hear someone calmly and sensitively sharing the evidence of what leads to a reduction in restraint or seclusion and all I can hear is the point-blank response: “This is not good enough; It has to stop completely and immediately!”

I find my loyalty divided. Sometimes when my fellow people with lived experience say:

“I don’t mind the effect of what I say; this is my passion, this is my right. As someone with lived experience, I have the right to speak as and how I want to. It is up to you to deal with how I come across!”
I despair a little sometimes when I hear people saying: “Those managers; they earn a fortune; they don’t know our world; they do not care at all.”

I know many of those very managers start work at seven in the morning, finish after seven in the evening; work weekends, feel the same despair we do, take the same antidepressants we do; crave time with their children and their friends and partners in the same way that we do.

Then I wonder at the consequences of my voice and my peers' voices over the years. Sometimes I crave the chance to sit down and talk, share a meal, and go for a walk. Anything other than engaging in the politics of division that I thought I had left behind 25 years ago when I first went to the Highlands and found a different way of finding out and acting on our common collective voice.