who owns wellbeing?

Two different mental health events fell across my radar this week. They both arrived by email, in their different ways. The first landed in my inbox at work: a slick mass mailing with graphics and corporate logos and link buttons, leading to an even slicker website dedicated solely to promoting a full-panel plenary of high-ranking, primarily white male, mental health policy professionals and public officials. The second was a personal message from someone who had read my piece in the LSE Surviving Work blog series, inviting me to attend a small conference on wellbeing in which “the central concern is a question of whether the wellbeing policies of large organisations actually come to undermine the very people that they are designed to support.”

Mental health is a political issue: it boils down simply to power, that is, who holds the power to define what constitutes “normal” and “sane” and indeed what is meant by “wellbeing”. The Icarus Project has written an incredibly insightful (or should that be inciteful?) publication entitled Madness and Oppression, examining the critical factor of power in the context of mental health.

When I was growing up, mental wellbeing didn’t figure in any public discussion. The fact that there are now conferences of all types to consider our wellbeing is a welcome development of the new century. It is also a sign of how distressed we have become as a society. Pick up any paper these days and you’ll find headlines about the multiple crises facing our mental healthcare services as the need rises while the resources dwindle. I’m not convinced that the professional and political classes can solve this predicament; it is going to take a quiet and creative revolution on many levels to dismantle the powers which enforce a standard of normality upon the person.

I can’t help but think of Krishnamurti’s observation: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I know which conference I’d be going to.

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