Divisive author and thinker Will Self delivered an impassioned critique of modern mental health treatment to a packed crowd at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).
Taking aim at branches of Freudian psychiatry, pharmaceutical industries and the healthcare system, Self spoke for more than an hour to a rapt audience at DMU’s Clephan Building.
The controversial intellectual – author of acclaimed books like Umbrella, Great Apes and The Book of Dave – was talking as part of this year’s Cultural Exchanges festival, organised by DMU students on the Arts and Festivals Management course.
After an introduction from Professor Jason Lee, Head of Leicester Media School at DMU, Self took to the floor and began by talking about his own mental illness, which developed in his youth.
He said: “As a young man I had bad mental health. I started self harming, using razors and knives, at nine, 10, 11-years-old.
“I started smoking, too and taking drugs. I sought them out and for me, they became a way of legitimising mental states I was already experiencing.”
He described reading the work of eminent thinkers like R.D. Laing, Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz and discovering the power they had to help him understand himself and his mental health.
He said: “I realised that being mentally ill was simply not being in sync with the rest of society and its described boundaries of normal behaviour.
“That is what these writers and these thinkers suggested to me.”
As he paced the front of the lecture theatre, Self – imposingly tall at 6’ 5” – spoke in measured tones, deploying his famously wide vocabulary as he described his early experiences in therapy.
“I would sit there,” he said, “in the chair and talk and (the therapist) would say nothing. He would completely blank-screen me and I would think, ‘I’m being cheated here, I’m being completely robbed’.
“There was more transference between me and the magazines in the rack in the waiting room than there was between him and me.”
Exploring the question raised by singer Morrissey in The Smiths’ 1984 track Still Ill – “Does the mind rule the body or the body rule the mind?” – Self looked at the history of mental health treatment and the difficulty of classifying sane behaviour.
He spoke about his experiences making documentary films about mental health for the BBC and his interviews with psychologists and leading figures from the pharmaceutical industry, before taking questions from the audience, discussing the treatment of mental health in different cultures and the role of state care.
He also covered the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and how it might help us understand sentience and reason.
“Does the mind rule the body or the body rule the mind?” he concluded. “I don’t know but perhaps it doesn’t matter, for we will all soon be superseded.”
Posted on Friday 1st March 2019