In my last post, I mentioned Susan Schellenberg as having experienced mental illness, but I prefer to talk of “emotional pain.” I use “emotional pain” to refer to psychological difficulties that
- Cause substantial distress.
- Interfere with ability to achieve important life goals.
- Interfere with ability to enjoy caring and mutually respectful relationships.
Emotional pain is pervasive. Who among us has been untouched by it? Emotional pain makes prominent public appearances usually under the name “mental illness” and “mental health care.” Millions live with serious mental illness; mental health problems are among the leading causes of disability in terms of productive years lost (see for example, the Out of the Shadows at Last, Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada.
So why not just talk about mental illness? Because names matter and experiences named as mental illness can actually be named in many ways – as stress, heartache, wounds, demons, voice hearing, being strung out, being freaked out, a melt-down, a breakdown, a dark night of the soul, the shadow, grief, obsession, terror, shot nerves, apathy, jitters, despair, and so on. Each of these names implies a particular understanding and response to the experience. Because names matter, I want to keep in mind that “mental illness,” specific diagnoses, and “mental health care” are ways of naming and responding to emotional pain, but are not the only ways of naming and responding to emotional pain. For example, hospital physicians diagnosed Susan with Acute Schizophrenic Reaction, but Susan eventually named her own emotional pain in other ways, e.g, as a raging blue nun and a Nazi-like faceless priest (as explained in the Shedding Skins exhibit and Committed to the Sane Asylum). Physicians recommended medication for Acute Schizophrenic Reaction, while Susan took different steps in response to rage and self-criticism.
I talk about emotional pain so that I can stay open to the many possibilities for naming and responding to such pain. Part of what excites me about arts productions are the myriad of ways in which those creating the work choose to name and respond to emotional pain. So from here on, I’ll be mostly speaking of emotional pain, and referring to mental illness only in situations where a diagnosis of mental illness has some bearing on the artistic production.
Production: Shedding Skins, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Clarke site, 250 College Street (College and Spadina), Toronto. The exhibit is in the hallway outside of the auditorium at the back (north end) of the main floor. Shedding Skins and other work done by Susan can be seen at her website.
Now on or upcoming: Transformation by Fire, February 7-April 8, 2013, 111 Queen’s Park, Gardiner Museum, Toronto.