Vulnerability, stereotyping and self-care are all observed in a tender appeal for compassion, forgiveness and support that must be heard.
'So U Think i'M Crazy' is a stage play about mental health that paints a picture of how young black men are often treated when they come into contact with acute mental health services and the police. Or at least, that's the loose premise Mental Health Today anticipated and looked forward to as it approached the Ovalhouse Theatre in South London last night.
In the words of Know My Mind, the Croydon community theatre group behind the production, the play "shines the spotlight on mental health issues from the perspective of service users and carers".
In truth, the performance, which has been painstakingly refined over the last few years, goes far further than either description. 'So U Think i'M Crazy' is the arts doing what they do best, awakening us to see ourselves: what we are, what we were and what we can be.
"The play underscores that even where medical diagnoses are accurate, they follow a connection of events conspiring, are never innate, and the way we respond should be steered first by compassion."
One of the play's greatest achievements is its eloquence in depicting how vulnerable each of us is to breakdown. This is embodied through 'Mr X', the lead protagonist later identified as 'Isaac'. His spirit has been corroded first through over-exposure to fighting between his parents, then abandonment from his father, then harassment and stereotyping from social workers, police and, perhaps most devastatingly, his psychiatrist.
Despair, not aggression
This would lead anyone to despair. When Isaac ultimately erupts, the play demands us to see the emotion as just that, despair, where the play's mental health professionals see it as aggression.
Young black men are statistically more likely both to be sectioned and to receive a schizophrenia diagnosis. Black mental health charities have long argued that this is at least in part down to profiling and through Isaac we see what this can look like institutionally. The play underscores that even where medical diagnoses are accurate, they follow a connection of events conspiring, are never innate, and the way we respond should be steered first by compassion.
Isaac's beacon of hope, when it finally arrives, comes not from psychiatry but from love. He finds empathy from a potential partner in a pharmacy waiting room.
"As an audience, we can see how vulnerable we all are to breakdown, but we can also see how we can potentially survive and thrive if we recapture the idealism and compassion synonymous with youth."
The play invites us to dislike the psychiatrist. He stereotypes Isaac, doesn't see him as a human being, and patronises all around him. The play is not anti-psychiatry, nor does it look to undermine the other mental health professions. The audience can infer that, though inexcusable, the psychiatrist has been conditioned, at least in part, by case-loads, culture and a failure to recognise his own needs for emotional support.
The younger mental health professionals in the play are all presented sympathetically. We can see that they have chosen their career paths for the right reasons: to care for people. These characters are all presented as vulnerable to cracking, though, if they don't look after themselves or if flawed, underfunded policies continue to overstretch services.
Self-care and forgiveness
All the mental health staff are also overworked and we are shown how this always and inevitably impacts home lives, harmony and well-being. The theme of the dangers of overwork to our home-life, values, sanity and ability to stay compassionate runs throughout. It's arguably the play's most powerful message, eclipsing even that of the destruction caused by prevailing everyday racism.
As an audience, we can see how vulnerable we all are to breakdown, but we can also see how we can potentially survive and thrive if we recapture the idealism and compassion synonymous with youth. Written by a carer, Ekanem Hines, the play encourages us to look after ourselves to ensure we can look after others.
We are also encouraged to forgive. Isaac's father is later presented as a man who's anger and violence has derived from pain rather than malice. The uncaring social worker is revealed as the victim of a recent marriage collapse. We have discussed the psychiatrist: unlikable but a product of his circumstances.
The police are the only group the writer cannot bring herself to forgive or stretch to comprehend in her portrayal. The disgust and distrust, born out of ongoing bad race relations in many communities and rooted in incidents of profiling and violence, is vivid. Her points are well constructed, not spoken about enough, and audibly resonated with the Vauxhall crowd. It is slowly being acknowledged more widely that the police could and should be playing a smaller role in mental healthcare for reasons tied to recovery also.
'So U Think i'M Crazy', more than anything, is an appeal for mental healthcare to be delivered, at all times, by people who are able to care for others and able to care for themselves.