Is the personal (bio)political in the digital age?: Feminism, depression and the troubling of neuro selfhood by Professor Simone Fullagar


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Is the personal (bio)political in the digital age?: Feminism, depression and the troubling of neuro selfhood by Professor Simone Fullagar - a presentation from the symposium on social movements and their contributions to sociological knowledge on mental health at the University of Wolverhampton. Held on 13 June 2014.

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Is the personal (bio)political in the digital age?: Feminism, depression and the troubling of neuro selfhood by Professor Simone Fullagar

  1. 1. Is the personal (bio)political in the digital age?: Feminism, depression and the troubling of neuro selfhood Prof. Simone Fullagar Twitter @simonefullagar Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Bath
  2. 2. Questions • How does the feminist ethos ‘the personal is political’ play out within the biopolitics of depression and through digital spaces? • What discursive formations are shaping feminist debates about mental health/illness? • What might be the effects on how we come to ‘know’ women’s experiences & lives? • Points of tension and alliance exist between feminist and mental health movements? 2
  3. 3. The historical, political and cultural construction of gendered subjectivity. Women positioned as hysterical, emotional, hormonal & now neurochemcially unbalanced 3
  4. 4. Feminist Counter-Discourses • Early women’s movement – mind doctors as agents of patriarchal control (Freidan, Greer, Millet) • Medicalisation of women’s emotional distress (diagnosis) critiqued within medical institutions/practices (Appignanesi, 2009) • Exposing the power-knowledge relations of ‘scientific expertise’ that defined women as ‘ill or mad’ (Usher, 2000) • Women’s movement articulates social understanding of personal struggles 4
  5. 5. Gendered ‘mental health and behavioural conditions’ (ABS, 2012) 5 ‘Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women…(and) more persistent in women than men’ (WHO, 2014)
  6. 6. – Mental health literacy is a population problem as ‘people don’t understand’ they need expert help (Jorm et al 2007) – E-mental health promotion to educate women treats gender as a ‘variable’ not a social construct (Fullagar, 2008) – Rise of social media & digital communication enables dialogue about the intersectionality of women’s subjectivities 6 Depression is more than just a low mood – it's a serious illness that has an impact on both physical and mental health.
  7. 7. Cultural critique, Artist, Justine Cooper 7 Celebrity advocacy, Ruby Wax “It’s a brain disease. Depression has nothing to do with being sad. It’s not because you had a bad hair day or even that your husband left town,” she says. “I’m trying to break that myth as fast as I can. I can only say it a hundred thousand times.” Ruby Wax ‘poster girl for mental health, 2013’, positivenews
  8. 8. Rise of neurochemical selfhood (Rose, 2007; Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013) • Neuroscience as the new ‘truth’ about depression via hypothesis of chemical imbalance in the brain – Persists despite lack of evidence & critique, similar effects to placebo (Moncrieff, 2009) – Illness identity ‘legitimises’ emotional distress but can worsen social stigma (Lafrance, 2012; Buchan et al, 2013) – ‘Good women’ are urged to govern themselves as expert consumers to be responsible & restore normality (Stoppard, 1999; Trivelli 2014) – ‘Pharmaceutical imaginary’ (Jenkins, 2010) has a gendered history: hysterical, neurotic woman, unhappy housewife (valium), unsatisifed working mothers (SSRIs) 8
  9. 9. Digital spaces, fluid assemblages The Fementalists: At the intersection of feminism and mental health activism, Facebook and twitter accounts, forum and blog • This site was established to bridge the gap between mental health activism and feminism, and to provide a space for women to share their experiences of life at the intersection of womanhood and mental ill-health. We are committed to an intersectional feminist analysis and are firm advocates for patients’ rights. 7/10/2013 3:11 pm Women with severe mental health problems are 10x more likely to be attacked, less likely to report… @TheFementalists 1/02/2014 1:52 am How many of us have had our voices discounted because of our diagnoses? "Oh, you're upset? You must be off your meds." #NotHysterical
  10. 10. A Room of Our Own: Feminist tensions 10 @ThisisLauraS 1/02/2014 12:22 am A lot of the movement makes me feel like a failure for my struggles because I don't fit the "strong" narrative. #NotHysterical @UnusedPotential 31/01/2014 11:43 pm Mental health issues often make people incapable of advocating for themselves. We need the voices of wider feminism. #NotHysterical a-fairytale-black-women-and-depression/ This feels like a confession because while I am only admitting to having moments of humanity and vulnerability, I am a black woman, and for me these realities are oftentimes seen as weaknesses. We (black women) are supposed to be strong. We (black women) are not supposed to break down.
  11. 11. Blog - Feminism, Mental Health and Inclusion by @LUBottom mental-health-and-inclusion-by-lubottom/ 28/4/2014 • What I wanted to write about is my particular experience with depression and why I take issue with it being co-opted as a term to describe non-medical annoyance or frustration and why non-disabled feminists need to make more careful choices regarding the words they use… • On the one hand my instinct is to ignore the word “depressing” as something which has become deeply assimilated into our everyday conversations, but on the other I am aware of the hypocrisy of ignoring such terms whilst feeling offend by the use of other medical terms such as “schizophrenic” or “retarded” as adjectives for negative terminology. 11
  12. 12. How is depression rendered thinkable as a feminist problem? • Othering of MH difference: Feminist language can trivalise experience of ‘depression’ – ‘the use of “how depressing” is an insult’ • Feminist subjectivity normalised as strong in relation to the fight against oppression – emotional ‘weakness’ as a source of shame 12
  13. 13. Mumsnet: BBC report on NICE advice on AD risks for pregnant women • “You’ve got double the risk. And for women who are mild to moderately depressed, I don’t think that those risks, in most cases, are really worth taking” he said. “It’s not just when a woman who’s pregnant is sitting in front of you. I think it needs to be thought about with a woman who could get pregnant. And, that’s the large majority of women aged between 15 and 45″ • Prof Pilling, NICE SSRI-pregnancy-thing-as-reported-on-BBC-today 13
  14. 14. • “OK, I too fumed at this article, because of the assumption that women’s mental health was trivial and unimportant compared to that of their hypothetical unborn baby, thus making us seem like incubators on legs (once more)”. “Bafflingly, I have yet to see an article on the BBC warning pre- inseminating men who are suffering mild to moderate depression not to use SSRIs for this reason”. • I saw that this morning. Found it disturbing on several levels. Lets make women even more responsible for their own mental health. Let them make impossible choices through pregnancy so we can blame it all on them rather than actually looking at what is wrong with the society that this is actually so much of a danger for pregnant women. And don't get me started on the pre-pregnancy guff. Are women to be permanently in a state of pre-pregnancy when they reach puberty? It is controlling and sinister. 14 Women’s minds/bodies as the object of expertise:
  15. 15. The ‘right to choose’ neurochemcial selfhood but… • I completely agree with lots of the stuff on here about his comments being ill-judged, and seemingly anti-women. I am on SSRIs, have been for many years, believe they have sorted me out. Generally, I am a big defender of pharmacological agents for depression. I have practically rattled at times. However.... and I just can't shake this 'what if' feeling... SSRIs have been linked to higher rates of heart defects. Presumably the studies demonstrating this have been adequately controlled for other comorbid factors. • I'm on an SNRI. It works brilliantly for my anxiety and depression, but the withdrawals... I wouldn't recommend them to anyone on that basis (google FDA discontinuation syndrome cymbalta). • Paroxetine, the SSRI they mention in the report, is also known as Seroxat. It took years of dogged campaigning (and legal action) to make the manufacturers and the psychiatrists admit that Seroxat was actually linked to an increased risk of suicide in some patients, especially young people. 15
  16. 16. Digital civic actions of feminists: ‘troubling’ relations between ‘mental health’ discourses • sharing of women’s diverse experiences to reveal the interrelations between social, personal and neurobiological • Raise questions the inclusiveness of feminist politics (in terms of mental health identity /language that marginalises) • Facilitate critical responses to dominant truths (celebrities, policy, NICE) that shape public knowledge • Challenges from here; – understanding how the circumstances affecting mental health are social/gendered, – the normalisation of neurochemical selfhood & lack of alternatives – engagement of critical voices with mainstream mental health 16
  17. 17. • Fullagar, S., & O’Brien, W. (2013). Problematizing the neurochemical subject of anti- depressant treatment: The limits of biomedical responses to women’s emotional distress. Health:, 17(1), 57-74. • Fullagar, S and O’Brien, W (2012) Journeys, battles & feeling alive: Metaphors of women’s recovery from depression, Qualitative Health Research • Fullagar, S (2009) Negotiating the neurochemical self: Anti-depressant consumption in women’s recovery from depression, Health: An interdisciplinary journal for the social study of health, illness and medicine. 13(3), pp.389-406. • O’Brien & Fullagar (2008) Women’s recovery from depression, Social Alternatives, (special issue on mental health), 24(4), pp.6-13 • Fullagar, S. (2008) Sites of somatic subjectivity: E-scaped mental health promotion and the biopolitics of depression, Social Theory and Health, 6, pp.323-341. • Fullagar, S. (2008) Leisure practices as counter-depressants: Emotion-work and emotion-play within women’s recovery from depression, Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 30(1), pp.35-52. • Gattuso, S, Fullagar, S and Young, I. (2005). Speaking of women’s ‘nameless misery’: The everyday construction of depression within Australian women’s magazines. Social Science and Medicine. 61(8), pp. 1640-1648 • Fullagar, S & Brown, P. (2003) Everyday temporalities: Leisure, ethics and young women’s emotional well-being. Annals of Leisure Research. 6(3), pp.193-208. • Fullagar, S and Gattuso, S. (2002). Rethinking gender, risk and depression within Australian mental health policy. Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health. 17