Service use, Sockwashing and Making Movies

That is the unlikely title of my chapter in a soon to be published book co-edited by Russell Hogarth Honorary Fellow at University of Central Lancashire. It explores what mental health and making film have in common.

So are they an unlikely pairing? This is the story of how I started a career in them. And I’ve been trying to work out ever since what their areas of cross over and co-influence are. I remember being very clearly told by Tex, my now husband, when we were dating that it is in the interdisciplinary areas that the most interesting things happen.

I never intended to be interdisciplinary though. But when I first started freelance directing for Mental Health Media in 1999, they advised me to call myself a service user film maker. I scoffed and said “You might as well call me a service user sock washer, the two have nothing to do with each other.” But Mel Herdon, their brilliant producer, said that it would make the people in front of the camera feel more comfortable if they knew that the person behind the camera shared their experience, so I agreed, slightly reluctantly, to do it. But only for their productions, and only in confidence, and I would never (I thought) appear in front of the camera as a service user. So I thought. And the ‘sockwasher’ comment went round the office and a few days later a pair of new, crazily patterned socks appeared in the post from David Crepaz-Keay, deputy director of Mental Health Media at the time, who obviously thought it was a hoot.

So I started styling myself a service user film maker, and what I found, slowly over time, was that it opened up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of documenting service user stories and recording their individual and collective histories. I filmed with service users up and down the country, at conferences, in secure units, in the community, for research pieces for the Kings Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, always being open with them about my service user status.

What I found was that the experience of documenting and authenticating your story was one that a lot of service users seemed to find therapeutic, that there was a benefit in reframing your experience and recounting it to the watching eye and the listening ear of the camera. Like the frame in an art gallery, the camera puts a box around your experience and calls it art, separated from the fabric of your life. This allows examination and self reflection, and a sense of empowerment and entitlement to your story. But in addition, the fact of having a service user director meant that my interview subjects knew that the camera, adjudicator and judge, was not in fact impartial, nor was it critical. It was in fact, in the hands of a service user film maker, deeply sympathetic and attuned to their experience. And my sharing of their label and understanding of their experience opened up the door to a secret history, a sub culture and a shared language.

Back in 1999, there was much more resistance to going on camera as a service user than there is now. And a lot more hostility and suspicion among service users as to the stigma they might experience if they went public about their experience. Many people lived in service user ghettos, where all their friends were service users and they felt uncomfortable around non service users. It was like the sub culture of smoking, where the smoker feels a kinship with other smokers and feels a slight sense of itchiness and discomfort in the company of non smokers, where they fear judgement and know that if they need a light, none can be offered.

I think now that era has passed. People don’t necessarily request to be anonymised or filmed backlit so that their faces can’t be identified when filming a documentary on mental health, as two of the service users from my student film, Great Psychiatric White Elephant, did. In fact, there has been a proliferation of mental health selfies, from Mind and other organisations, of service users holding the camera and recording themselves. The issue is that of control. At all points in that process, whether it is of recording themselves, or having a service user film maker record them, the service user subject has the feeling of empowerment. The camera in these instances isn’t the old feared story stealer, it is the medium of documentation and empowerment. He who holds the pen wields the sword. And she who washes the socks… I never did wash those socks. They were so crazily patterned I never wore them. But I hung onto them for a good long time. They made me smile.

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