Monday, 29 November 2010

Living Adventurously

When I started submitting the manuscript for Delivered Unto Lions to various agents and publishers, I was offering it as a work of fiction.  I stressed that it had a factual basis, but I didn’t really give much clue as to the details of that factual basis.  In fact, the book is very closely based on my own experience as child mental patient in the 1970s, but being aware of the stigma associated with mental health problems, I wanted to put some personal distance between me and what I had written.  In taking this approach, I was living very cautiously.  And as it happens, none of the agents or publishers I approached showed any interest in my book – with the exception of one publisher who was willing to put it out for an ‘author contribution’ just short of £10,000! 

Yesterday afternoon (Sunday, 28 November 2010), I attended a Memorial Meeting celebrating the life of Edward Stanley Nattrass (1920-2010), who died suddenly on 21 October. The meeting was held at the local Friends’ Meeting House according to the Quaker tradition to which Stan belonged.  Many of the people who spoke at the meeting had known Stan for decades.  Although I had only known him for about three and a half years, he had been a good friend to me.

When I was exploring the possibility of becoming a Quaker myself (which I did, in due course), Stan was one of the people who particularly befriended me.  He patiently answered all my questions, and posed quite a few of his own.  I particularly enjoyed hearing some of his anecdotes about the various things he had done in his very full life. 

As well as being a Quaker, Stan was very involved in various spheres of community life.  He was chairman of the Bognor Regis Housing Trust (an organisation supporting the homeless), and an active member of both the Littlehampton Town Twinning Association and the local History Society.  He was also a Labour Party campaigner and activist.  And he was always very courageous in standing up for what he believed. 

In recounting some of his experiences to me, Stan spoke with amusement and humility, telling stories about his involvement in protests, some of which took place in other countries in the face of sometimes very intimidating police and security forces.  He also referred to the rather mischievous attitude he adopted towards certain authority figures when he took on the role of ‘McKenzie Friend’ in the early ’90s, assisting in the defence of individuals who refused to pay the controversial Community Charge (‘Poll Tax’).

Needless to say, not everyone would agree with Stan’s passionately held religious and political views, but no one would deny his courage in holding fast to his values. 

Since Stan’s death, two well-loved Quaker phrases have been used over and over again in the tributes that have been paid to him: ‘Let your life speak’ and ‘Live adventurously’.  Stan’s life certainly did speak, and, of course, he lived adventurously.

By contrast, my attitude when trying to get Delivered Unto Lions published was very guarded.  But I discovered the mistake I was making when I submitted my manuscript to CheckPoint Press, Ireland.  The editor at CheckPoint got back to me with two alternative offers.  I could pay CheckPoint a three-figure sum to have my novel published as a fictional work, or I could come clean about the factual background and have it published as biography under a traditional ‘no fees’ contract.  I chose the latter – the ‘no fees’ option (and avoidance of the ‘vanity publishing’ tag) was very persuasive!

With Delivered Unto Lions, I did not set out to live adventurously; I wanted to be cautious.  But in the end I made the right choice (even if not necessarily for the right reasons).  I took ‘ownership’ of the experience which had prompted my book, and allowed the novel come out supported by a new openness about my past.  In doing this I hope I have made it possible for other people with similar histories to take ‘ownership’ of their experiences too.

The lesson I take from Stan Nattrass is that I shouldn’t have had to think twice about living adventurously.  At least I got there in the end – but I won’t try to kid anyone that I intended it this way.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press.
For more information visit

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Does Society 'Choose' Who Must Suffer Mental Health Problems?

Does society ‘choose’ who must suffer mental health problems?  In the early 1990s, Stephen Pattison, an academic in the field of ethics and theology, set out to answer that question.  His interest was, of course, religious, but his methods were taken from secular sociology.  What he discovered is included in his book Pastoral Care and Liberation Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1994). 

Pattison found that social status and background has a lot to do with who goes on to have contact with the mental health services.  The lower down you are in society, the more likely you are to be diagnosed as mentally ill.  Ethnic minorities, women, and people from ‘working class’ backgrounds are excessively represented among those supposedly suffering psychiatric disorders.  Pattison argues that these are all people who can be counted as among the less privileged in Western society.  And so he concludes that mental illness is a social/political issue, something that is often ‘given’ to some people by others because of the way our society is ordered.

One of the things my book, Delivered Unto Lions, focuses on is the powerlessness of being a child caught up in the psychiatric services – and Pattison’s work particularly focuses on issues of power and powerlessness in connection with psychiatric health-care provision.  Pattison looks to those elements in society that support the privileged against the less privileged.  Being a religious studies academic, he especially looks at the role of the churches in this situation.

The chaplain is a particularly visible indication of church involvement in health-care.  When I was a patient at Merrifield Children’s Unit in Somerset, I remember the unit often being visited by a Methodist chaplain.  Chaplains are usually employed by the health-care provider, but even where churches provide the chaplain’s income, it is still the case that the person offering pastoral care is part of the dominant social structure.  He or she (even if unintentionally) is acting on behalf of the powerful.

Pattison says that religion has a ‘conservative function’ in Western society; it isn’t usually politically radical and so, by default, it supports the powers-that-be.  The chaplain may well offer kind words to the suffering patient, but these words do not challenge the powers and institutions that placed that person in that ‘care’ environment in the first place.

My own view is that all bodies – whether they be churches, political organisations, charities, voluntary groups, etc. – need to step back and look at what their actual function is in society (something like a Business Classification Scheme analysis might help with that).  Once they know their actual function, they can then decide if it is the same as their intended function.  For instance, if a church was to find that it did indeed function in support of the powerful against the weak, it could then decide whether it really wanted to be on the side of the powerful, or whether, perhaps, it wanted to take someone else’s side. 

Those who are mentally ill – or who are viewed as mentally ill – need more than kind words.  They need people on their side.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press.
For more information visit

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Mental Health Professionals Cannot Read Minds

I’m no expert on psychology, but over the years I have undertaken some courses of study which have touched upon various aspects of the subject.  One area I have found particularly interesting is discursive psychology.  This is something which focuses on what people do (through words and actions), rather than on what they think. 

My novel, Delivered Unto Lions, is written in the first person, so the only thoughts that readers get to know are those of the character who narrates the story.  When it comes to the other characters, readers can only ‘see’ what they do and ‘hear’ what they say.  As my book is about children in a mental unit, that is the context in which the words and actions of the characters do things.  We can see what they do, but we don’t know their thoughts and motivations.  This is particularly significant in the case of the adult characters (nurses, psychiatrists, social workers, etc.), as we just do not know how they reached particular conclusions about the children in their care, or why they decided to treat them in the way that they did.

It is probably the case that we generally assume psychology to be about internal states or processes in the mind.  But as the social psychologist Michael Billig has pointed out, what goes on in the privacy of people’s minds cannot be observed; we can only guess at what is going on in someone’s head from his or her outward behaviour.  This would suggest that a lot of conventional psychology – and psychiatry, too – is guesswork.  The therapies received by the children in Delivered Unto Lions (which is, of course, factually-grounded) are therefore based on inferring what might be going on in their heads.  The behaviour of those children is observed and noted, of course, but it is assumed – without real evidence – to have particular meanings.

If I were to try and guess at what goes on in people’s minds, I would suspect that most of us feel (at sometime or other) that we are misunderstood.  Someone might appear to assume he or she knows what I’m thinking, but I know that person has got it wrong.  In the setting of the (real life) children’s psychiatric unit, where young people were subjected to all kinds of treatments by those who ‘knew best’, I wonder how many felt they were misunderstood?  I wonder how many knew with absolute certainly that the experts had got it wrong?  

Personally, I find the assumptions of discursive psychology very persuasive.  Discursive psychology – while it may well offer interpretations – primarily concentrates on what you can see and hear with your own eyes and ears.  It then analyses what it observes and tries to identify established patterns of speech and action and then discover what these ‘discourses’ actually achieve.  What discursive psychology does not do is try to tell you what you’re thinking.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press.
For more information visit

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Television and the Portrayal of Mental Health

Yesterday, 22 November 2010, it was widely reported in the British press that a study had found that television drama often portrayed those with mental health problems as ‘dangerous’.  The study was conducted by the Glasgow Media Group who produced the following findings:

  • 45% of fictional characters with mental health difficulties were portrayed as a threat
  • 63% of references to mental health problems by fictional characters were derogatory

So what, actually, is television drama doing?  It is presenting a particular view of mental health entirely generated by the imagination of its writers?  Or is it reflecting the misapprehensions and prejudices of society in general?  I would suggest that it is indeed reflecting common prejudices, but it is also reinforcing them.

In a previous post in which I wrote about some of the intentions behind my book, Delivered Unto Lions, I said that mental health problems, even today, still carry a stigma.  This stigma will not go away as long as society’s misapprehensions and prejudices go unchallenged.  As I see it, TV drama should represent these prejudices (and this may involve characters using derogatory language), but it is lazy writing that depicts a false representation of the reality (i.e. that those with mental health disorders are dangerous).

Needless to say, a small number of widely reported incidents may persuade us that many people with mental health problems are a threat to us, but the facts say something different.  Violence (for example) is proportionally less common in suffers of such problems than it is in the general population.  Indeed, sufferers of mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of violence than they are perpetrators.  According to Heather Stuart of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, the mentally ill do not contribute significantly to the prevalence of violence in wider society.  If all people with mental disorders were removed from society, violent crime would be reduced by less than 5%.

The writers of television drama are, of course, mainly operating in the sphere of fiction, but surely that fiction would serve viewers better if it displayed a better understanding of the reality.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press.
For more information visit

Monday, 22 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Psychiatric Unit of Cadaverous Misfortune

People often ask me about the striking similarity between my book, Delivered Unto Lions, and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  Actually, that’s a lie.  I don’t think anyone has ever asked me about this striking similarity, because it simply isn’t that striking.

What we have, however, are two narratives which follow the story of a boy who is something of a misfit.  The boy ends up in a rather unusual school environment where he is subjected to various threatening experiences.  However, the similarity ends there.

The celebrated fantasy writer Terry Pratchett has questioned certain aspects of the Harry Potter mythos.  In particular, he is critical of the (perhaps) derogatory attitude portrayed in relation to ‘muggles’, i.e. ordinary people without magical powers.  Ordinary people are looked down upon in the Harry Potter stories, and yet, Pratchett argues, ordinary people have skills and abilities of their own.  An ordinary person can be a skilled fisherman, for example, while a particularly gifted wizard might not be able to tell one end of a fishing boat from the other.

I agree with Pratchett to a large extent.  But I also suspect that he may be missing the point of the Harry Potter books.  When we first come across the character of Harry, he is a child in very unhappy circumstances.  He is living with an unsympathetic family who force him to deny the person he is.  But he is special and they are ordinary.  And his special nature is eventually recognised and rewarded by admittance to Hogwarts, a unique school where his talents can be fostered and where he can work towards reaching his potential.

This is all in stark contrast to the character of the 12-year old Daniel Kinsley in Delivered Unto Lions.  He too – as a sufferer of depression – is living in very unhappy circumstances.  But there’s no reason to think that his family aren’t sympathetic; indeed, they are loving and caring.  But his depression – the thing that is ‘special’ about him – is ‘rewarded’ by admittance to Oakdale Children’s Unit, a residential psychiatric institution which, if anything, stunts his potential and makes his unfortunate condition worse.

For children whose lives are unhappy, dreams of being special in some way may be the only things that keep them going through the darkness.  So, in a sense, the Harry Potter stories encourage hope in those children who may feel like misfits, hope that they can rise above the unhappiness and be something more.  It may be just a dream, it may not have any basis in reality, but it is supportive.  With the right support and encouragement even an ordinary (or problematic) child can flourish and grow up to live a worthwhile life.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press.
For more information visit

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Should We Forget the Trauma of Past Mental Health 'Care'?

I recently came across a very interesting comment from a former child psychiatric patient.  This woman had been admitted to children’s mental unit back in the 1950s, and she was responding on an Internet forum to various posts from other former patients.  Many of these other posts had referred to various horrific ordeals, including physical and psychological abuse, all of which had been experienced while in the ‘protection’ of a supposedly caring service.  But this particular woman, now in her 70s, advised them to try and forget their experiences: ‘[Y]our only hope is to put [it] out of your mind and never let them win.’ By ‘them’, of course, she meant the perpetrators of the suffering these people had known.

Is this the best approach to the trauma of past mental health ‘care’?  Is this something that those concerned should forget?  Is forgetting the only way to ‘defeat’ the institutions and individuals responsible for such awful memories?

The answers to these questions will be different for different people.  It is certainly the case that people need to move on in their lives and live in the present, not in the past.  But does this mean they must forget the past?

My book, Delivered Unto Lions, tends to answer these questions with a definite no.  I wrote it from the assumption that the past needs to be remembered, that lessons need to be learnt.  Needless to say, for some people past memories will be so painful that it would not be a good idea to deliberately call them to mind.  But for many of us, we can use our memories in a constructive way as we move forward and live our lives.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press.
For more information visit