Gender and the Psych Ward

By Lindsay Riddoch

The psychiatric acute ward is a place that most of us don’t spend much time thinking about, and definitely attempt avoiding ever having to face. As a microcosm simultaneously of society, and of what we deem unacceptable within it, it provides a unique and powerful insight into what we’re getting wrong. We know that more women appear to suffer from mental health problems than men, and that the system incarcerates a disproportionately high number of black men. Both of these topics have lately been often discussed both in the health system and across broadsheet journalism. While we have these discussions in theoretical and philosophical terms, however, real people’s lives are playing out behind the locked doors of psychiatric wards up and down the country.

Much as the psychiatric ward attempts to place ‘madness’ firmly outside the realms of society, there’s something you realise very early on if you ever come to inhabit this micro-world. No individuals ‘madness’ is individual. It did not grow outside of a society, but instead found its very roots in it. The reality of this is constantly played out before your eyes on wards. People express their anger with rampant racism — more uses of the ‘N’ word than you could imagine. People are paranoid that the government is spying on them — using the very real situation of the snoopers charter as evidence. Women are terrified that the doctors are going to rape them. You can track the biggest fears associated with OCD through homosexuality to paedophilia — whatever is given the spotlight as the worst thing someone could be, is what people start to fear. People’s pain takes the form of the society in which it was created. And it was created. Human beings are not born in this level of pain, some sort of interaction between an individuals psyche and the world which they are inhabiting explodes into a cacophony of psychosis, mania and depression.

If madness expresses itself in line with society — or against it — then surely those who are most frequently held in its grips will be those that society pushes to the brink. As a white girl, I will not try to take this argument any further with regards to black men, as it is not my area. However when it comes to women there is a very disconcerting trend. You find a certain kind of women in psychiatric hospitals. Women who have been abused, usually by a vast array of people, and who therefore desperately try and hold onto control in whatever way they can. They are labelled crazy, manipulative, attention seeking. Yet these women are, potentially, reacting in the most sane way possible to the insane circumstances they find themselves in. Yet, they wind up locked in a psychiatric ward while the men that did this to them walk around freely. These women are told they are maladaptive, unsafe, out of control, and once again have their very basic freedoms taken away from them.

There are so many of these lost women who have never found their voice because their reaction to the power that is taken away on a daily basis landed them in locked psychiatric wards. They scream every day for someone to hear their voice, and we as a society either berate or pity them. We either tell them they’re badly behaved, or that they are ill. We don’t stop long enough to hear their stories. We give them therapy to change the way they approach the world but don’t give them the housing or jobs that they need to change the world.

This is all part of placing the root of their emotions squarely inside them — and outside of society. We blame women for their emotional reactions — labelling them over-emotional — when in actual fact our emotions are the expression of the often powerless situations we find ourselves in. This fact is intensified in the volcanic atmosphere of the psychiatric ward. It is terrifying to see so many victims of (much as I hate to use this phrase) the patriarchy be re-assaulted by the controlling power of (predominantly) white male psychiatrists. Constantly screaming to gain one ounce of power back, they have their basic freedoms taken away all over again.

I am not a believer in the fact that the whole psychiatric system is an assault on human rights. It is my opinion that the Mental Health Act and its ability to treat people against their will, is a bastion of our belief in humanity. We will not let people drive themselves to their own death, no matter how much we may dislike their way of being. In accepting this, however, we must also accept the power that our ability to ‘diagnose’ emotion creates. To see ‘mental illness’ and our ability to label emotional suffering within the medical model as part of our forward thinking intersectional liberalism is dangerous. The labelling of emotional reactions is not as simple as validating someone’s suffering. It becomes a way to demean, control and restrain usually the most vulnerable. It is not, therefore, something we should take lightly.

Over the last few months, the micro-world of the psych ward has become my world, and on my journey I have met so many inspiring women. People who have been knocked down time and time again, and yet continue to fight to survive. Their fight for survival looks strange from the outside — it looks like cuts on arms or rageful fits at three in the morning. It looks like shrieks of terror at the mere sight of a doctor or threats to kill oneself yelled at the top of voices. It is, nonetheless, an inspiring fight. Mental illness cannot be a panacea for all of the worlds problems. We must understand that these women are survivors of whatever has happened to them. We must continue to treat them, but we must do so while acknowledging the injustice that has been done to them. If we are so intent on medicalising emotion and behaviour then we should seek to treat the perpetrators before they can create any victims — rather than treating the survivors when it’s already too late.

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Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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