“I don’t see (mental health) as an illness within myself I see it as an injury from circumstances around me”
Watching Emma Paino’s Stories from Within episode I was struck by this line. How can mental health issues be anything but illnesses? How can ‘injury’ relate to psychology? For a long time, the mental health sector and society at large has framed disordered mental health as a fault of the individual. If you go out in winter without a jumper, you will get a cold; if you don’t protect yourself against harmful situations, you will develop a mental illness.
I had to know more about this reframing of mental health. I asked Emma if she would help me to understand this new way of thinking. So, on a rainy Thursday afternoon we jumped on a Zoom meeting and talked all things mental health, storytelling and industry revolution.
Emma has lived experience of trauma and works as a peer support worker providing aid to people with mental health trauma issues. She is green-haired, tattoo-adorned and seems to be constantly answering people’s inquiries for work. She was eager to answer my questions on her afternoon off. We started out by talking about the process behind her Woven Threads episode. Emma fondly recalls bringing in photos from her childhood to help with the hand-painted animation. She says that this added a nostalgic element to the process, and helped to reinvigorate her storytelling experience. A large part of Emma’s job as a peer support worker is to repeatedly tell her story. She says that storytelling can either be beneficial or detrimental to someone’s mental health journey. Within the mental health care system, workers often have to tell and retell their stories in order to create a platform for relatability and accessibility. Other people get to define and identify you through hearing your story. Emma recounted being written about in articles, where she was described only in relation to her diagnoses, rather than her personality or life story. Emma believes that a more productive method is to order and speak to your narrative in a way that makes sense to you. The more you tell your story, the more you unlock parts of your story for yourself. Emma highly recommends taking back control of your story as a form of justice.
When I asked her about what she meant by not seeing mental health issues as illness, Emma talked about wishing to “reimagine the ways we support distress”. Research has been emerging over the past couple of decades that suggests that what we call mental illness would better be described as trauma or injury. It is a response to hardship rather than an illness that lives within people. Of course, hearing the word ‘trauma’ can create barriers for people because of its sometimes violent and graphic implications. Breaking down this definition can allow for people to reimagine the way that they look at their mental health journey. For Emma, realising that she did not suffer from illness but rather from trauma was groundbreaking and transformed the way she saw and cared for herself. It led her to take “a much more open, inclusive, radical and sometimes activist-based approach” to her mental health journey.
This is where the revolution comes in. In Emma’s perfect world, we break down the hierarchy placing illness-based approaches to treatment at the top. Instead, there is a community oriented option that is designed by lived experience leadership. A variety of different treatment options should exist, and people should have the support and knowledge to pick out what works for them. Then again, says Emma, ever-cautious of inclusivity, “I don’t know if the world will ever be as radical or as redesigned as I want, that’s an individualistic view”. For now, Emma is happy knowing that little pockets of good exist all across the world. Individuals like Emma are revolutionising mental health care work in their own unique ways and completely changing the trajectory of their clients’ mental health journeys.
Watch a short clip from Emma's story here.
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