The overall frame for the mental health narratives told here is 'recovery'. Why is this?
On meeting the four contributors and talking about wanting to create an archive of mental health from the perspective of the individual with lived experience, I suggested that we could frame it around the theme of 'recovery'. Undoubtedly, I was influenced by Jerome Carson's work in this area and his focus on personal recovery journeys. The appeal from my position was that recovery offered a positive lens into personal mental health experience. Recovery stories are inspirational; they offer hope; they focus on achievements, ways forward, self belief, finding meaning, and making a contribution. They look beyond symptoms and diagnosis. For me, that was the appeal that came with the label.
At the time when we were beginning to make plans (2011-2012), the label of 'recovery' was simmering and bubbling and weaving in and out of a number of discourses that I was picking up on. It was certainly current. It could be found in policy documents around mental health; it was present through the establishment of 'Recovery Colleges'; it was within the narratives of individuals with lived experience; it was also embedded in grass roots initiatives such as Recovery Devon.
At the time, Dolly, Andrew, Stuart and Peter were happy to go with this label. That is not to say they were fully supportive of all aspects of its use and application; it is not to say they endorsed 'recovery' as the way forward. Peter has said that 'labels are for tin cans'. Andrew talked to me about seeing recovery as one potentially useful strategy in a raft of initiatives that find prominence for a time before the discourse moves on. Dolly and Stuart both stressed the individual nature of 'recovery' and that it came from within themselves and out of their experience not from any formula, model, or suggested path that could be applied to them. Dolly and Peter also raised the issue that recovery is fundamentally too suggestive of a medical approach to mental health, it implicitly carries the suggestion that there is an illness to recover from. I talked with each of the contributors individually about how the archive could be used not to endorse a particular version of 'recovery' but to critically examine it from their perspective, to question it, disagree with it, challenge it if necessary.
During the process of creating the archive, the label of 'recovery' seems to have gained even more prominence within mainstream mental health service provision. It has become tied to a model; a formula of outcomes; and most worryingly to cost saving initiatives where 'recovery' is sometimes seen to be synonymous with the withdrawal of support. Over the summer of this year (2013), Dolly and I went to speak about her contribution to the mental health recovery archive at the Dragon Cafe in Southwark and the response from some of those with lived experience, some of whom were tied into NHS service provision, was that they felt distanced from the archive because of its label. Recovery in their experience had become a twisted and manipulative word used by professionals who are tied into a medical worldview. Recovery was not part of their self-definition, it wasn't part of their own vocabulary, it wasn't a label they would choose to apply to themselves. Labels are powerful because they are associated with ideas, strategies, and discourses. Where the word carries different potential meanings and is communicated with different connotations in different contexts there is a danger that the discourse of the mainstream and powerful will speak over other connotations.
Even if our use of the label 'recovery' seeks to distance itself from the application of 'recovery' by services; we are now in danger of communicating the wrong instant message to our audience. Can the archive be a way in which the label of 'recovery' can itself be 'recovered' and given back to individuals with lived experience? Or is it too problematic a term anyway, too pejorative, too medical? Perhaps the label was never completely right in the first place. Ideas of more appropriate labels from the Dragon Cafe community were 'mental health resilience stories' or 'stories of mental health metamorphosis' as non-pejorative alternatives.
Can we now step back and remove the label of 'recovery' and replace it with something else? I think not. The archive is a product of the decision to use 'recovery' as the overarching frame. The frame is now inter-woven and embedded in the stories - it is the concept that the contributors were pushing into and against when they structured their narratives. The label of 'recovery' is now too much a part of the context in which these stories have developed. I am grateful that woven into the four contributors stories is a critical questioning of the label itself; a challenge to the dominant application of the term; an exploration of the extent to which the label does or does not encompass the philosophy and perspective of the individual with lived experience.
One reading of the archive is that it collectively represents a rejection of the 'recovery' label. Another reading is that it represents an attempt to recover and redefine the term. Another is that it is yet another example of a 'professional' (albeit an archival one) forcing a frame onto the individual with lived experience rather than allowing one to emerge. Perhaps the archive is all these things.