‘Swimming Against the Tide: Navigating your way through dominant cultures’
Jessica Pons (Synergi Project Manager) was asked to present Synergi at the ‘Love, Patience and Kindness: Working in Different Ways with ‘Psychosis’ conference. They reflected on what brought them to work at Synergi, the personal impact of speaking up and out about racism, and how they stay sustained when doing ‘the work’.
I came to Synergi after working as a racialised woman in the mental health charity sector for over a decade. I’ve done a range of roles – some that didn’t overtly use my lived experience as someone racialised and with experience of trauma/distress, for example as a Crisis House Project Worker – to those that asked me to draw on it explicitly, for example my work developing peer support groups with the Hearing Voices Network. I’ve also been a qualified pluralistic Psychotherapist for three years with experience in the NHS and the charity sector.
These experiences, have meant I’m ok holding a multiplicity of views, with a fair bit of flexibility. As a mixed-heritage woman, with one Black parent and one White, I have often existed on the margins, in liminal spaces. This is true in the world of the Hearing Voices Movement too, having dissociative experiences, not experiencing the true ‘hard/sharp’ end of psychiatry as an inpatient, not being a fully-fledged ‘service user’, having worked in mental health as well.
That said, I don’t bemoan my experiences on the fringes, knowing my privileges, I’m deeply aware of the issue of colourism within the Black community, and that not experiencing the trauma of a Section has been good for me. I’ve managed to avoid further pathologisation from psychiatry, and what I know has soothed me has been the emotional processing and research around ‘why’ other family members have ended up entrenched in trauma. The psychological basis to this, a critique of psychiatry, and the historical background of colonialism has allowed me to understand and empathise with the intergenerational trauma that fractured us.
I’ve been given an ability to know both the lived experience of madness, and the lived experience of appearing eloquent and being asked to speak at conferences such as this one. This range of experience, the sitting between, alongside the studying of the philosophy of mind, of relativism and constructivism, allows me to be with uncertainty of not being the expert, of being ok walking alongside people’s stories that others may find hard (for a depiction of me talking about this, see Micha Frazer-Carrol’s Mad World: The Politics of Mental Health. p. 176, 2023). An ability to hold difference and uncertainty is needed, indeed not everyone views themselves using the same frameworks, people hold different identities.
There is also a real need for reflection and relational working when it comes to racial justice at the intersection of mental health. The lack of a relational approach, is to other, make alien. Which again is an echo of racialisation, we’ve been told we’re not human. A lack of trust exists for a reason. We are not believed. The work has to free others whilst it frees us too.
From the outside, racial justice and mental health can seem like separate issues.
However, social politics are central when looking at social determinants of distress and therefore prevention and support. If the system is so broken, with a core which is the antithesis of working in an anti-racist way, do tweaks work? There are many who think it’s time to build outside of the system, to campaign for abolitionist responses in community mental health and the ultimate end to carceral systems that cause so much distress.
I have a real fervour to hold true to the values of Disability Justice, of allowing the most marginalised to lead the work. This, as well as embracing uncertainty, does not sit well with people who think they have the answers, and hold tightly to hierarchy. This makes sense, humans cling to certainty to make sense of the world. White Eurocentric values push up against the belief that there is no one reality, we all experience things differently, which is so inherent in the Hearing Voices ethos. Not being able to do this can be un-stabilising. This became apparent when those supposed to support me could not see my experiences of racism. The most painful of these have been from friends, clinical supervisors and managers. All have been White.
Something I do not waiver on, is the need for us as those that work in mental health, to hear the experience of racism in a relational way, aware of the defence it may bring up. If we can’t sit with this and process it within teams, how do we hear it from those we are paid to support?!
My experience shows how racism can be pathologized, made into a ‘me’ problem. These experiences made me lose faith in working even in the radical side of mental health. Some of my most painful experiences has been within the charity sector and the real defensive practice that abounds when its mentioned. Black workers look very good for organisations for as long as you agree with them, when you don’t, you can be positioned as ‘mad’; ‘angry’; ‘too focused on race’. Lived experience is not always valued, managers cherry pick what fits their organisation. This can lead to a feeling of being gaslit – your reality is untrue, your experience of racism isn’t real and doesn’t matter.
This experience of whether incidents really count as racism mirrors my relationship with psychiatry and psychology, leading to increased hypervigilance and what I began to term ‘systemically induced paranoia’, triggering the ‘what is real’ traumatic pattern.
The shared critique and analysis which places this pain intellectually within a wider political systemic context can help but does not remove the pain or consequences. So how did I cope? I learnt to pick my battles, to find allies and mentors. I also found my way to an organisation that focused on the intersection between madness and race, Synergi.
In Synergi we’re building collective, community care & support for those campaigning and changemaking. These communities of care outside of carceral systems, have been central to Black Liberation movements for centuries. They need to be well supported and sustained so we can harness the inherent community power, realising transformative alternatives and sharing what we’ve learnt with others.
When I began working in the charitable sector, racial disparities were well known (e.g. imprisonment in mental health hospitals; prisons; school exclusions; higher rates of antipsychotics etc), and reform was brought up often, ‘if only mental health services had more money…’; ‘if only we had more black staff…’ etc. However, there are many who don’t think change is possible and that campaigning for a ‘seat at the table’ is harmful. By this I mean personally harmful, but also that more funding will not stop the repetition of the same problems.
Psychiatry/psychology holds an underlying philosophy of positivism, eugenics, and reductionism. We need to be aware of this and be aware that institutions operate within Western models of wellbeing (in line with imperialist and colonial tendencies of individualism, neoliberalism, pathology and the enacting of both personal and institutional racism). Perhaps this is part of the reason why our communities don’t recover in systems that currently exist.
Radical spaces found at the intersection of mental health distress and social justice, can be very healing.
For me personally, the Hearing Voices world welcomed me and saved me from searching for answers within psychiatry, centring the pain within myself. It too could ignore race, but with Synergi we’re trying to shine light, centring healing and disability justice, at the intersection between my worlds – therapy, peer support, mad pride and racial justice – which is why I feel such a home here.
For those of us that do this building of alternatives, how do we do it in a way that doesn’t replicate harms experienced in White-led institutions? This is Synergi’s journey, we are in our infancy but have a real opportunity to develop in line with ethical practice and to be resourced enough to do the work. I’ve felt the real joy of working in community to create change. My body is political, and it’s when I embrace who I am, not disengaging or looking away, that I do the best work, putting my passionate self forward within a supportive organisation.
Coming back to the title of this conference, I’d like to paraphrase bell hooks’ and say:
‘Love is a verb’
We have to show up, to do the work, to take action, to speak up to power and to enact change. There isn’t a perfect language to talk about race, nor the social dynamics within the work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we can’t talk about it, and reflect on our own racial position, why do we expect others to open up? A relational approach is needed. Avoidance is not a long-term coping technique for fragility. Those who support racialised people need to develop a way of reflecting about difference in a way that models these difficult conversations. To end my talk today, I’d like to quote Audre Lorde:
‘…it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken’
Frazer-Carrol, M. 2023. Mad World: The Politics of Mental Health
hooks, b. 2016. All About Love
Lorde, A. 2017. Your Silence Will Not Protect You