Tag Archives: feminism

Anger, violence and mental health: a response to Deborah Orr

I’d noticed some outrage on twitter about a comment piece by Deborah Orr, published on Friday afternoon, but had avoiding reading it until this morning. The headline is incendiary enough, but it was a sentence in her final paragraph that made me really furious:

It seems to me that lack of mental health, not gender, is the defining motivation of all violence.

At its most basic level, this statement is unsupported by evidence. Women are 40% more likely than men to have mental health problems, and yet over 85% of perpetrators of violent crime are men. If there really was a causal relationship between poor mental health and violence, we would expect women to be the majority of perpetrators of violent crime.

It’s in attempting to make such simplistic causal links that Orr’s analysis falls down. Fifteen years ago, Lori Heise proposed the now widely used ecological framework for explaining violence against women. Heise’s model recognises that men’s use of violence cannot be explained by identifying a single causal factor, but that it is the interplay of personal, situational and socio-cultural factors that result in violence.

Ecological model | Image from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004. Sexual violence prevention: beginning the dialogue. Atlanta, GA: CDC.

The ecological framework doesn’t discount poor mental health as a factor, but it makes it one tiny piece of the puzzle. And like any puzzle, one piece can’t operate on its own. When a person – usually a man – makes the choice to use violence, that decision is a product of factors at the individual, relational, community and societal level. In a country where the state is sanctioned to use violence to resolve conflict through overwhelmingly male military and police forces, where perpetrators of violence against women are rarely convicted for their crimes, and where sex and relationships education isn’t mandatory on the curriculum (let alone education about consent), identifying poor mental health as the primary causal factor for men’s use of violence seems absurd.

So Orr’s argument frustrated me in its absurdity. But it made me furious because it’s personal.

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2004. The first time I’d ever heard of it was when my male psychiatrist gifted me with the label. The diagnostic criteria for BPD is changing, with the publication of the DSM-5 last month, but in the previous version (DSM-IV) there were nine criteria. One in particular stood out and made me believe the diagnosis was incorrect: “inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).” I was being told that not only was I angry, I was potentially violent. That I was a danger to others.

Earlier this year, I requested my patient file from all those years ago. It shows that we discussed the diagnosis over three sessions and although I strongly resisted the diagnosis, after three sessions the psychiatrist’s notes still recorded that I met 6 of 9 criteria for diagnosis and a letter was sent to my GP informing her of the diagnosis. The barely legible scribblings over the many following sessions contain notes like “gets angry – self harm”, “holds anger in onto self”, “showing anger by rebellion, appearance; passive aggressively; repressed.”

And this leads me back to Orr. The pathologising of my anger and being told that I was potentially dangerous to others was about the least helpful thing anyone could have done for me. While my psychiatrist interpreted my anger in his notes, I did my best to avoid addressing my anger in therapy, because I didn’t want to meet the diagnosis I’d been given. I dropped out of psychiatric treatment after 18 months and got on with my life. But I never dealt with my anger.

Nearly ten years later, I’m back in therapy again. I have another diagnosis: moderate depression – an improvement on the BPD, major depression, alcohol dependence and anorexia nervosa I was labelled with last time. Hopefully older and wiser, I’ve found a female counselling psychologist through Mind who I know doesn’t do diagnosis. And what have we been working through over the past several sessions? Finally, after all these years, my anger.

So guess what, Deborah Orr? I’ve got a mental health problem and I’m angry: but I’m not violent. I choose not to be. And that choice has nothing to do with my mental health and everything to do with hundreds of overlapping personal, situational and socio-cultural factors in my life.

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Silver Action.

Last week was tough. After feeling better for a few weeks, my mood dropped for no obvious reason. Someone mentioned to me a GP surgery that prescribed volunteering for depression, resulting in reduced antidepressant prescribing. I haven’t been able to verify it, but I said to them, “If I went to my GP for treatment for depression and was prescribed volunteering, I’d scream.”

They don’t know I’m depressed, nor that I’m on antidepressants. And I wouldn’t actually scream at my GP. When I visit the GP I’m pretty much polite and compliant to a fault. And the last time I had depression, volunteering was actually an important part of my recovery. So much so that volunteering, and specifically activism, have become a central part of my life and identity.

This time though, the stress of group dynamics within activism was a partial trigger  for my depression, and feelings of responsibility towards my volunteering commitments increase my anxiety. So I’ve reduced these commitments to give myself time to heal. That doesn’t mean switching off completely though, and last Sunday, I did volunteer. There was a commitment to attend two meetings last week and then all day Sunday and I felt I could manage that.

I volunteered at Silver Action, a performance by artist Suzanne Lacy at the Tate Modern Tanks. Over five hours, 400 women over 60 years old gathered in the performance space to talk ageing, activism and feminism. They sat at tables draped with yellow tablecloths, in groups of four, sharing stories of their lives as activists and reflecting on the challenges of ageing as women. I listened in to their conversations at various points during the afternoon, and what I heard was transformative. Not in a “my depression is now cured” sort of way, but it did transform some of my negative thoughts.

Conflicts within activism have left me feeling that I have nothing to contribute and that all I’m doing is fighting others within the movement. One woman completely flipped those thoughts for me though, without us ever actually interacting. She said that at the start of second wave feminism, they all thought they were part of a sisterhood, that they all wanted the same things and they’d fight together. But they weren’t all the same, they had disagreements and the movement fractured. In her view, this was exactly what needed to happen. They did fragment, they moved into smaller groups, all starting different campaigns on the issues that were important to them, and she felt that the movement was stronger and more powerful because of it. When she said that, with the benefit of 40+ years experience in the movement, for the first time it didn’t feel like someone just putting a positive spin on conflict, but actually made me believe that conflict and disagreement is integral to change.

Across all the conversations I heard, women talked about the sexism they experienced as young women. In my most negative moments, I feel like nothing will ever change. But these women changed their lives, and they changed mine too, before I was even born. I heard lesbians talk about having their children removed when they came out, a woman talk about not being able to open a bank account, another not being able to list her partner’s name on her child’s birth certificate because they weren’t married, and another remembering being asked to leave the room so the men could drink port. Things have changed and that didn’t happen by chance, it happened because of these women.

One woman said something that I found hard to hear. She felt that younger women have taken their gains and are sitting back and theorising about it. While most of these older women are still active in different ways, they also spoke of not having the same energy for campaigning that they did in the past. Right now, my depression means I don’t have the energy for it either. I know that I need to care for myself and focus on recovery, and this means scaling back. But it will only be for a little while: I’ll be back, because there’s still so much left to do.

You can catch up on what happened at Silver Action on twitter #silveraction

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