The National Survivor User Network (NSUN), a charity, is currently hosting a survivor researcher network (SRN) comprised of prominent academics and service user consultants who have been active in researching on or collaborating with service users. It also aims to foster the development of service user-led studies. Quite understandably, it is helpful to form a network of this kind for all sorts of reasons. My aim here is to comment some of its objectives as set out in a document (SRN, 2018).
Although the authors of the document admit there is no agreed terminology for people who experience (or have experienced) ‘mental distress’, they use the word ‘survivor’ in two ways, namely, survivors of the experience of distress and survivors of the mental health system and societal oppression. Presumably, this refers to oppression occasioned by a state of distress rather than all forms of oppression.
Some survivors have become activists who have sought to challenge a psychiatric system based on a biomedical model of distress. According to the SRN document, survivors can make a claim to possess different forms of knowledge based on their experiences. Researchers in the network have studied the effects upon an individual of being treated or coerced within current mental health services. Their reason for doing so is presumably to strengthen their case for what is, essentially, a political and cultural campaign. However, it is worth pointing out that the objectives of this campaign are also shared by people who have never identified themselves as ‘distressed’ or ‘survivors’.
The phrase different forms of knowledge presumably refers to knowledge gained by direct experience of distress and survival of a system viewed as oppressive. In this sense, it is a type of knowledge (first-hand experience), rather than a form of knowledge that would be considered new by philosophers of science. In response to this direct experience, survivors have experimented with ways of dealing with distress that represent alternatives to the present mental health system. As such, this aim is also shared by many non-survivors, mental health professionals, and social theorists. One problem linking the political campaign with being a ‘survivor of distress’ is that the term ‘distress’ is often used as a euphemism for ‘mental ill-health’. If the aim is to propose alternatives to the present mental health system, it would seem preferable to remove all reference to mental health. The political campaign could then become more inclusive and be seen to cover all kinds of social problems.
It therefore is difficult to understand why the SRN wishes to establish an independent discipline in its own right. The fragmentation of efforts (within social science and, more generally, in campaigns that challenge oppression) does not sound very appealing. Its purpose may, of course, be designed to define a voice within the highly competitive chorus of researchers who seek funds. The authors of the document are keenly aware that their funding has often come through collaboration with the kind of services they would like to overthrow. It is acknowledged that service users in this environment often perform a tokenistic function, in effect having little real power over research questions and methods.
One of the aims of SRN is to broaden mental health research. As already noted, this might best be achieved by abandoning the concept of mental health. Another aim is to promote experiential evidence as fundamental for the knowledge base on mental health, human rights and social justice. It cannot be gainsaid that the experience of oppression provides a fundamental impetus for fighting it, but human rights and social justice must draw on other forms of argumentation as well. Experience doesn’t seem to be more fundamental than other ways of approaching the subject. In this regard, the SRN document questions the idea that academia is the only place for ‘valid’ forms of knowledge production. This is undoubtedly true but a rather surprising position to be taken by a document, six of whose nine authors are either academics (including professors) or have strong academic links. The SRN wishes to lobby funding bodies for the commissioning of studies which reflect the research priorities of people with lived experience of mental distress and are user-led. The sad reality is that funding bodies are weighted down by academics who support research done by other academics. In practice, there is nothing to prevent the SRN conducting research on whatever subject it likes. The constraints are money, time, and certain skills of logical reasoning and methodology. Perhaps the resources for research are best sought through voluntary efforts, public appeals, or wealthy benefactors.
SRN (2018) Survivor Research Network Manifesto. Available from: https://www.nsun.org.uk/news/survivor-researcher-network-launch-manifesto