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I’m very much public about my status as a prosumer in the mental health community. I’ve outed myself time and again. People ask me about my book series all the time, which is also very much congruent with my prosumer identity: ‘Max, what is so different about your memoirs than any other person with schizophrenia that wrote about his recovery?’ The difference isn’t just marginal; it’s a giant leap in the world of mental health affairs. To borrow the language of Neil Armstrong, it is an ironic summation of what is means to be the first or different.
To get right down to it, every, and I mean every memoir that has any lasting traction or is deemed valuable in the mental health community is overly technical and very hard to read for the average consumer, and even prosumer of mental health treatment.
To be honest, most of these memoirs are so technical I can hardly read them. I am a licensed clinical social worker and I’ve been hospitalised at the state hospital level. I also don’t have a clue what some of these memoirs are saying. Even their write-ups and reviews are so technical that I don’t know what I am reading either. This is a huge problem on many levels. To begin with, I would hazard to saying most people going through a psychotic episode aren’t going to be able to read or understand what they are reading.
This whole point of these memoirs is for the reader to gain insight into his illness or for the public to be more aware of mental health issues. Well, given these memoirs are so difficult to understand because of their highly, and I mean, overly technical style of writing, who is really benefiting from these books? The truth is very few people, except for the author, who has the privilege of appearing ‘smart, recovered, and insightful’. But the insights, the very benefits of reading these books, are small – and the audience pool truly gaining from reading them is even smaller.
This hurts me. This hurts me as a prosumer. This also hurts the mental health community and the world at large who needs to understand mental health issues a lot more than picking up on some esoteric jargon and buzzwords. I’ll explain just why right now: It’s down to stigma.
The reason I suspect the rise of the prosumer technocrat is gaining authority in the mental health community is the very reason I choose to be different when I wrote University on Watch. These technocrats are reinforcing the very stigma that is compelling them to write such esoteric, narrow-focused drivel. This is because we people with lived experience know what is feels like to not have a voice, to be disempowered, to be written off as crazy. Sure, I get it, the prosumer doesn’t want their book to also be written off as the writings of a crazy person. So, to overcompensate in a very, very, poor choice in judgement, the prosumer thickens his discourse until it is so dense, with over-meaning, and undervalue, that nobody benefits from picking up the book. If this trend continues it will be the death of the prosumer’s value to the mental health community, and a very sorry end for folks that have been through all of it, who have come a very long way, and given back nothing.
Like I said, I had a choice when I wrote University on Watch. I could have told people what happened in a very medicalised, overspecialised didactic style of writing or let people gain the truth of what is really like having a mental health disorder from reading a story, a narrative accounting with metaphor, similes, down to earth rhetoric in a compelling easy to read book.
My book isn’t just a story, either. The story, the narrative, is congruent with the mental health condition and symptoms of illness that I experienced, from first onset in my book Small Fingernails, to the crisis in the academy, University on Watch. That is the difference. If you think this was any easy feat you are mistaken. Before I was a social worker, before my illness, I was a student of the English language. I wanted to be a professor of the English language. I love language. I believe in the power of words. When I had my break and recovered I made a promise to my colleagues. I would never, ever, give up my passion to continue learning about language and teaching others how important language is when talking about and practising mental health. That promise to this day has been kept and I will never break it.
I am not asking other prosumers to follow in my path. I am asking, and calling upon other prosumers to re-read their manuscripts, take a look at what is out there and has been published in the discourse and think about what I am saying here. Did you write your book in the style you did because you felt people, the average person to the professional, or both would benefit from it? Or did you write it this way because you felt, in some way, like you had to because of stigma? I choose to rise above the stigma. I chose to be a bit different. People have to see us as individuals, and understand our conditions with the same person-centred eyes we profess to have in our peer connections and in our practices.
If we don’t walk the walk people aren’t going to listen to what we have to say. I don’t care how esoteric it is written. You don’t sound smart to me. You sound like the same naive person you were before and after your condition and certainly after your recovery. So, please, please, give something back, and I don’t mean anything, something lasting, something hopeful, because at this point, you are adding to crisis in mental health, and aren’t the enlightened saviour you claim to be in your circles.
Maxwell Guttman teaches social work at Fordham University. He is also a mental health correspondent for Psychreg where he shares his insights on recovery and healing.
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