Politics and the mental health consumer movement

changing minds

Polly Peek

As a socialist and mental health consumer, I was recently excited to discover ‘The C Word,’ a blog on the Changing Minds website.

Changing Minds is a consumer organisation based in Auckland. Engaging in systemic advocacy and activism, the group acts as a network of mutual support for people who have used mental health services and want to be involved in improving the health system.

What’s exciting about this organisation and the information they’re providing for mental health consumers, is that they seem to be taking an openly political approach to their work, recognising the impact our material conditions have on all other aspects of our lives – including health and wellbeing.

The first C word examined in the changing minds blog is Capitalism.

“Capitalism” the author states, “is bad for my health. And in my opinion, it’s bad for everyone’s health”. Issues related to low wages and systemic unemployment are raised, and the inability to maintain a work-life balance within the present economic system is related to the people’s needs for rest, particularly where someone is managing mental distress.

The article goes on to discuss how the polarities of full-time or over-employment and unemployment are legitimised through an ideological equation of full-time work with full citizenship – a status unattainable to many mental health consumers due to the demanding nature of work under capitalism.

It is interesting to consider this blog post in relation to the politics of the wider mental health consumer movement.


The beginnings of the consumer movement worldwide were politically radical. Forming in the 1960’s and 1970’s out of the atmosphere of the civil rights movement, the mental health consumer movement began as the Psychiatric Survivors movement.

Organisations formed with names like the Mental Patients’ Union and the Mental Patients’ Liberation Front, indicating their strong stance against the oppressive and alienating system of psychiatric confinement and care.

The psychiatric survivor movement at the time was in many ways linked to a new theoretical approach to mental health and illness. Anti-psychiatry challenged the medical model of mental illness, seeing distress as something very much tied up with a person’s social environment, not merely a case of brain chemistry.

With its new conception of unwellness, anti-psychiatry also made new demands of treatment – to understand people and their symptoms in a social context of the family or community, and to support people within society rather than isolating people away in institutions. It also made demands of wider society to no longer disadvantage, oppress and marginalise the mental health community.

In the last few decades, the psychiatric survivors’ movement evolved, becoming the consumer movement. The consumer movement has reflected the politics of its time, being more individually focussed, seeing legislation and policy establishing patient rights as a major way forward, and reframing people who experience distress as active consumers of services, rather than passive patients.

Informed choice has been a central pillar of how this movement sees the lives of service-users improving. If everyone has access to full information about the treatment options available, we can be considered more personally responsible for our wellbeing and are thus more empowered.

Radical critiques of this movement find its obvious flaws. Situated within the political context of neo-liberalism, the consumer movement over-emphasises individuals’ rights to ‘shop around’ for good mental health care, while neglecting to develop a more systemic analysis of the disadvantages faced by people with mental illness.

Such a systemic analysis might take into consideration the poverty faced by many with mental illness, which creates real, structural barriers to the informed free-market consumer ideal of recent mental health movements.

Along with poverty, the mental health community also anecdotally reports structural barriers to attaining education, engaging in work, having our physical health needs met, finding secure housing and maintaining social connections due to societal stigma and discrimination.

With these significant issues illuminated, further limitations of the consumer movement, with its predominant focus on mental health care options, become apparent. In fact, even the approach to health care options is problematic when we consider how these options are created – usually in the interest of established corporate powers such as the pharmaceutical industry.

Despite the general shift in politics over time, there has never been one blanket ideology of the mental health movement, and it is arguable whether we can even refer to a singular movement of people with lived experience at all. There have always been different priorities for different groups, often impacted by the local political context and the ideals of members involved.

What I hope is happening at the moment though, is that the pockets of radicalism that have existed in organisations like the Icarus Project and Mad Pride, are growing, and flavouring the broad collective of mental health movements, and mental health discourse on the whole.

What makes me excited reading The C Word, and recently talking to consumers involved in VOX a Scottish network who are actively protesting welfare reforms, is that I sense, and hope, that consumer movement is evolving again.

The global political context is one of recession and austerity, of uprising, refusal to accept the status quo and community action. A mental health movement that reflects the world we are living in is needed, and the possibilities for this kind of movement are extensive.

Let’s continue the conversation that Changing Minds has boldly started, and consider how radical politics can be a focus for people involved in mental health, and vice versa.


  1. Unionist says:

    Here’s an equally interesting perspective from the the other side of the clinical encounter: “Paradigms lost: NIMH, McGorry & DSM-5’s failure”

  2. Unionist says:

    “The British Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology (DCP) will on Monday issue a statement declaring that, given the lack of evidence, it is time for a “paradigm shift” in how the issues of mental health are understood. The statement effectively casts doubt on psychiatry’s predominantly biomedical model of mental distress…

    Dr Lucy Johnstone, a consultant clinical psychologist who helped draw up the DCP’s statement, said it was unhelpful to see mental health issues as illnesses with biological causes.

    “On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that people break down as a result of a complex mix of social and psychological circumstances – bereavement and loss, poverty and discrimination, trauma and abuse,” Johnstone said.


  3. Excellant article. Taking a holistic approach to mental illness and the stigma society places on it and the burden that places on individuals should be more understood by all.

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