Musings on mental health & democratic social work
Met with my friend, Dave Harper, the other evening (to see the film Northern Soul – highly recommended!). Dave is the programme director of the clinical psychology course at the University of East London and on the editorial collective for Asylum, the ‘magazine for democratic psychiatry’. Asylum was founded by Alec Jenner, among others, a professor of psychiatry in Sheffield, whose lectures on mental health were among the highlights of my time as a social work student. At that time I wanted to head into a job in mental health, inspired by the radical ideas that flowered in the 1960s and were undergoing a renaissance in the late 80s, as evidenced by Asylum and service user groups such as Survivors Speak Out, and I was youthfully impressed to hear Prof. Jenner talk about the work of his friend, Ronnie, who I had known up to that point (through his books) as R.D. Laing.
Dave informed me that Alec Jenner had died in July, so it seemed appropriate that an article had appeared around the same time on Franco Basaglia, the Italian psychiatrist who led psichiatria democratica, the movement that inspired Alec and others to found Asylum. The article, by John Foot in Critical and Radical Social Work (Vol 2, no 2) is fascinating and a corrective to the negative (and unfair) appraisal of Basaglia’s work and influence that has dominated commentary on it within the UK. Foot points out that part of the difficulty for the English-speaking world has been that Basaglia’s most significant writing was not translated into English, which seems unfortunate. Foot describes Basaglia’s work leading up to the passing of the ‘Basaglia Law’ in 1978, which eventually led to the closure of all of Italy’s asylums and the creation of alternative services, and concludes that, “for all its limitations and inadequacies, (this) remains one of the great examples of reform linked to radical practice and theory from the 1960s and 1970s”.
For anyone interested in critical and radical ideas in mental health today I would recommend having a look at Asylum, which is still going strong after nearly 30 years – http://www.asylumonline.net. Another great place to look is a textbook written for psychology students – Psychology, Mental Health and Distress – by a collective including Dave Harper, and if that immediately seems like a plug for a friend I should add that this book, published last year, has recently won an award from the British Psychological Society, and richly deserved too. A sizable enterprise that is enormously informative about mental distress from a critical position, it is notable for its inclusion of service user and survivor perspectives, including having parts written by service users. Such collaborations are both necessary and inspiring, it seems to me, and something perhaps for an association of social workers to emulate. Democratic social work – I like the sound of that.
 See an obituary at http://www.asylumonline.net/alec/