Sister Meets...Doll Hospital Journal
In aid of Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, we will be featuring a different mental health activist right here every day.
Firstly, we introduce Doll Hospital Journal which is an art and literature print journal on mental health. Doll Hospital Journal aims to be an alternative to the limited narratives that are focused on mental health in the mainstream media. They want to offer a platform for firsthand experiences, written by those in their own words, on their own terms. We spoke to editor-in-chief and founder, Bethany Rose Lamont.
Hi Beth, how would you describe Doll Hospital Journal to someone who has never read it before?
Doll Hospital is an art and literature print journal on mental health. It was created specifically for and by those with mental health struggles, with a particular focus on the multiplicity of marginalised mental health narratives in connection to race, gender, physical and developmental disability, chronic illness, class and LGBTQ+ experiences. After all, mental health does not exist in a vacuum, and the way we conceptualise and define ‘mental illness’ is rooted in these systems. In this sense, Doll Hospital Journal exists with the intention of exploring and articulating mental health challenges in all its complexities, and seeks to open up a conversation that we may not see in mainstream media, or may not feel able to express on our social media feed.
Do you use Doll Hospital Journal as a personal and creative outlet for your own mental health problems?
I don’t like to centre myself in this project, as that simply does not do justice to the importance of our readers, contributors, designers, editorial team, everyone who makes this project a reality. We’ve published hundreds of different poets, essayists, advocates, artists, photographers and all round awesome individuals, so I don’t want to prioritise my own bullshit in this! But yeah, I’d be lying if I said that I was not coming from a background of mental illness myself, or that these experiences did not drive me to create Doll Hospital Journal. I founded Doll Hospital four years ago now, in May 2014 when I was a student at Oxford. The zine came from two experiences in my own path to figuring out mental health expression.
The first was publishing a piece on my experiences as a CSA survivor and feeling this pressure to ‘perform’ a particular role. I started to question what my own position was in what Laura Bennett would later define as the first person industrial complex, a subject I still think about so much - I’m even writing one of my PhD chapters on this subject and its history!
The second was the fact that during that time I was going through a particularly bad time of suicidal ideation, and lacking a support system, a therapist, or even a tangible language to express this pain I was feeling. I ended up posting all these weird self deprecating, 3am tweets about wanting to kill myself which were shrouded in like…doge references, because it was 2014 and I wanted my mental breakdown to have mainstream appeal or something. I got some messages from friends being like ‘What the fuck are you doing, and can you stop?’ and I (mostly) did, but I realised I needed an offline platform to deal with this crap, and I suspected that others did too. So instead of tweeting out another self deprecating suicide note, I posted a call for submissions for a mental health zine project that eventually became Doll Hospital.
Has this helped?
I mean I was severely mentally ill before I started Doll Hospital, and I still am, a zine isn’t going to cure that. This is a long term struggle. But I have made enormous progress, I think connecting with so many different people whose life has also been so deeply impacted by these experiences has made me recognise that I am not alone in this horrible thing, even if it feels like it sometimes, and in the same way that I believe that those around me with mental health conflicts are owed an awesome future, I came to realise that I was owed one too.
Mental illness can make you incredibly nihilistic and isolated, which isn’t just corny, as no one wants some cringe-worthy Rick Sanchez wannabe at their party, it’s also the antithesis of what you need to get out of that black hole. Doll Hospital has helped me challenge the isolation that mental illness, and the systems that create mental illness, had trapped me in.
By challenging this isolation I was able to both cultivate a sense of hope, a belief that there was a world beyond this, but also a realisation that I was not some unique weirdo, that my experiences with mental illness had not just happened to me and me alone. So many others are feeling this way, as a result of wider issues such as unemployment, difficulties accessing treatment, failure to address and prevent sexual violence and the UK housing crisis - they're just a few issues that come to mind here. By coming together we can work to address, and overthrow the roots of these psychic pain, which aren’t just coming from ourselves, they’re coming from our living conditions, working conditions. In this sense, challenging isolation is not just about individual relationships, it is also about structural change.
I think what you're doing is amazing. As someone who has struggled with mental health for the majority of my life, coming across something like Doll Hospital makes me realise I'm not alone. How do you want people to feel when reading Doll Hospital?
Thank you so much, that means the world to me! I definitely think with creative projects it’s easy to overhype things, but I just hope that this small zine project series that I founded and edit can be one of many places to provide comfort, education and affirmation for those who are hurting. I think books can be friends in the same way people can, like that quote from the movie Matilda 'Matilda's strong mind continued to grow, nurtured by the authors -who had sent their books out into the world, like ships onto the sea. The books gave Matilda a comforting message: You are not alone.' I love that quote, and I love that movie.
What has been your highlight of making Doll Hospital so far?
The messages I have received from readers has definitely been my highlight, like when you said Doll Hospital makes you feel less alone, messages like that is what make it worth it. Doll Hospital is a lot of work, I’ve been doing this for free in my spare time for four years, it’s totally time consuming and it can be hard to keep up, especially as every new issue we struggle to raise funding for printing. When I get burnt out it’s like ‘Why am I doing this again?!’ But then I get a message from a reader saying how Doll Hospital had helped them through a difficult time, and I remember ‘Oh yeah, that’s why!’
People who don’t experience bad mental health on daily basis can sometimes misconceive how it really affects peoples lives. Do you think there needs to be more education out there?
Absolutely, I never intended for Doll Hospital to be an educational resource for those unfamiliar with the subject, as my priority was, and is, those who were struggling with mental illness. Also, in all honesty I only expected like three people were going to read it so I wasn’t really thinking long term. But I’ve realised how resources, including, but obviously not limited to Doll Hospital, can be used as a tool for those who seek to expand their understanding of mental health experiences. For instance, I know people have used Doll Hospital as a resource to share with their parents who didn’t exactly ‘get’ mental illness, or what they were dealing with, and I think that’s beyond awesome.
Also, when we talk about education we must also talk about privileges, prejudices and power, just because we might experience ‘one’ mental health struggle does not mean we understand another. Besides mental illness is deeply personal, and our internal experiences are shaped by our experiences in the ‘outside’ world, so it’s not like one person has the ‘final word’ on something. We all need to be listening and learning. Because psychic pain is inherently interlinked with everyday oppressions, how a person is treated in this world, on the streets, by the criminal justice system, the police, immigration centres, the benefits system, mental health staff and more. To educate about mental health we need to consider our position in terms of wider world systems, that we are either benefiting from or suffering under, such as capitalism, racism, colorism, colonialism, ableism, homophobia and transmisogyny.
What do you think about the current climate in the UK for those with mental health issues that are needing help from the NHS? For example the waiting time for people to access the correct help?
NHS mental health care is a tragedy with a rising body count. I actually tried to access mental health support via the NHS when I was in a relatively stable place. I was just aware things could be better, but going through that system destroyed me. It’s incredibly weird to go from detailing your plan of suicide to a therapist to being discharged with no follow up and no aftercare because you have to miss an appointment to attend a funeral. I can’t afford private therapy right now so currently I’m not receiving help, which isn’t ideal, but it is what it is. I’m always hesitant to admit these negative experiences as I don’t want anyone to put off seeking help, but the more conversations I have the more concerned I am about the so-called help people are receiving.
An important example I’d like to draw attention to in my own city of Bristol, is the case of 15 year old Becky Romero, who died by suicide following her treatment by Bristol youth mental health services and whose passing was ruled as death by neglect. You can parallel it to other systems here, particularly considering what the benefits system has done to so many disabled people. Here we must remember the 2013 death of David Clapson, who left this world with no food in his stomach, a pile of CVs next to his body, and £3.44 left in his bank account.
When we talk about issues within mental health care in the UK we also need to centre the issue of race, particularly anti-black racism and the lives that have been lost under the intersection of anti-black racism in medical spaces and police custody. We must remember the death of Olaseni Lewis following his admittance to Bethlem Royal Hospital in 2010 and the push for Seni’s Law to prevent such a death ever happening again. We must remember the death of David 'Rocky' Bennett in 1998, following his restraint in a Norwich mental health ward. And we must, must, must remember the death of Sarah Reed, who died in her cell in Holloway Prison in 2016.
"How can people feel safe to speak out in this world, the same world that traumatised them, made them so ill in the first place?"
Why do you think in 2018 we still struggle with being open and honest about our mental illnesses? The stigma just doesn’t seem to be disappearing.
The stigma is not disappearing because the stigma is so tangled with issues of racism, classism, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, misogyny, interconnected ableism and LGBTQ+ discrimination. We need to question what people and what qualities we are taught to value. We need to look closer at who is given shelter in this country, who is given food, work, a city to walk within without fear of violence. How can people feel safe to speak out in this world, the same world that traumatised them, made them so ill in the first place? People are shamed because the circumstances that gave them such pain in the first place are seen as shameful. Consider the treatment of the homeless and the circumstances that produce homelessness for instance.
Having said that do you think over the past few years social media has helped shine more of a light on mental health issues?
Social media, like pretty much anything involving large groups of people, is obviously going to be a mixture of good and bad. I think because Doll Hospital is a print journal, and I’ve been open about the fact that a few sub-sections of online mental health narration haven’t been particularly helpful to me personally, people think Doll Hospital is like anti-internet or something, which is definitely not true. Doll Hospital wouldn’t exist offline if it wasn’t for the dynamic conversations that was happening online, conversations that simply wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere.
I do however, think the performative elements of social media certainly can shape how we express these experiences. When I write about a difficult subject such as suicide or trauma on like twitter or whatever, I feel a pressure to coat my experiences in like 100 different layers of irony. I get so self-conscious that anything I say is rendered basically meaningless. I also worry that when someone shares their experience of mental illness, even if it is in kind of a depression meme tone, the first impulse is to be like ‘LOL SAME’, to insert yourself into their experience, like a tag yourself meme, instead of being like ‘Are you ok? Is there anything I can do to support you?’
I love that you say 'We don’t care about success stories, we care about surviving.' Could you expand on this more?
When we talk about a difficult subject such as mental health we can feel so much pressure to spin it a certain way, to make it neater, or cooler, or funnier, or more inspirational or impressive than it actually is. Now narration is always going to involve editing, but I just wanted for people to know they didn’t have to produce some kind of elaborate inspirational Ted Talk to have a space in Doll Hospital, that everyday survival was something to be both documented and valued.
This isn’t to say Doll Hospital does not celebrate healing, we do, but I’m especially interested in celebrating the little victories that might not get a lifetime movie, that might not necessarily be recognised or valued in popular mental health narratives. I just want people to shape their journeys on their own terms and not feel like they have to prove something to an audience.
In this sense, I created Doll Hospital to cultivate a slightly less scary platform for discussion, somewhere which was less focussed on your brand or your CV, where people who were trying to figure things out, but didn’t necessarily have a creative writing degree, or a book deal, or million follower vlog or whatever, could stake out a space.
How do you cope with, and manage your mental health - if you have any tips for staying positive, we’d love to hear them.
I often feel like I’m good at managing a mental health publication, but not so good at managing my own mental health, which is an unfortunate irony. I struggle to be positive, and can often fall into this cycle of edgelord nihilism which is annoying and unhelpful. Don’t get me wrong, mental health healing involves honouring all emotions, good and bad, sometimes trying to be relentlessly peppy when you feel like shit is just as damaging. But that particular brand of ‘fuck everything’ isn’t going to keep me on this earth, or keep me sober. So to avoid death, accidental or intentional, I have to consciously cultivate some kind of positivity.
One simple thing that helps is forming a kind of positivity propaganda in your surrounding area, tangible evidence of all the good times you’ve had, all the times you’ve actually been happy. There’s a kind of insomnia, a kind of object impermanence, surrounding positive emotions when it comes to mental illness, like if they’re not there right now then they’re gone. Like it’s the movie 50 First Dates and you’re Adam Sandler and you have to make yourself fall in love with being alive each day. I literally have Post-It notes telling myself Killing yourself is a bad idea - you fuck!’ As if I’m the guy from Memento and I have to leave myself reminders about this incredibly obvious stuff, but I always end up forgetting so I need the notes and the pictures.
On really bad days I view not killing myself as a sort of video game, you know like those survival games, Outlast, Until Dawn, when the goal isn’t to be incredible, or extraordinary, it’s just to not let the monsters murder you, to survive the night.
From reading Doll Hospital it’s clear that including experiences of people of colour and other minority groups is important to you.
It’s not just important, it’s urgent! You can’t talk about our current conception of ‘mental illness’ without talking about power, without interrogating race, class, colonialism, capitalism, ableism, homophobia, the treatment of trans people, particularly trans women. We need to ask the question, who defines mental illness? Who diagnoses mental illness? And how? On which people? Within what context? We can’t get anywhere until we have these conversations.
Within the context of Doll Hospital, and my own experiences as a British Syrian from a working class background, I was especially inspired by the history of women of colour led anthologies. When I founded Doll Hospital I was in love with the anthology ‘This Bridge Called My Back’ by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, I return to that collection often. I’m also really excited about a new mental health collection coming out called ‘The Colour of Madness'. It looks amazing and I can’t wait to read it.
I love the mixture of comics and illustrations you use in Doll Hospital. Is this a conscious decision in helping talk about mental health as it's quite a juxtaposition?
Yes absolutely, stigma aside, conversations on painful, potentially traumatic subjects such as mental illness are always going to be difficult. I think it’s important to recognise this, and utilise art, design and illustration in thoughtful ways to make these conversations not just possible, but positive and productive. Like we could think of a mental health publication or an article spread as a room, we want that room to be somewhere people want to sit down and to stay in, in order for these conversations to happen in the first place.
Often, when conversation are held about image and aesthetics in relation to mental illness it’s deeply derogative, for instance chiding teenage girls for ‘aestheticizing mental illness’ on tumblr, complaining that certain strands of self-care are ‘too cutesy’ and so on. Now, I’m not saying we need to reinterpret Kirsten Dunst on a unicorn as a radical vision of mental health advocacy, but the power in the popularity of this stuff is revealing! If we go full iconoclast, we ignore the fact that images have such a dynamic potential to open up these conversations, something I think we need to explore and understand, rather than react against.
"You can’t talk about our current conception of ‘mental illness’ without talking about power, without interrogating race, class, colonialism, capitalism, ableism, homophobia, the treatment of trans people, particularly trans women."
Who is inspiring you at the moment?
I’ve been immersing myself in the history of Marxist feminism, particularly the work of Clara Zetkin. There’s a stereotype that conversations about class and capitalism is a bit of a boys club but that totally ignores all the incredible women who have been a part of this history. For instance, did you know Clara founded the original International Women’s Day as a celebration of working class women? How cool is that! She was born in 1857, and even in her seventies, in 1930s Germany, she was standing against the Nazi party and the rise of fascism. She’s a huge inspiration to me and we all have so much to learn from her!
What's next for Doll Hospital and where can our readers buy the latest issue?
We’ve just released the print edition of our fourth issue, which is available at our shop all sales go towards printing our issues and making it possible to donate them to community mental health spaces. We always end up giving away more copies than we sell, so sales really help making donating those copies possible. All five of our issues are also available to buy in digital form on a pay as you wish basis (as low as 1p), so you can read them on your phone when you’re stuck on the bus, or print the issues off yourself at a local library or whatever.
I’m also thrilled that our fifth issue is now out in the world in digital form, at 300 pages it’s twice the size of our previous issues and I’m so proud of it! The hard copies of that should be out late summer, and I can’t wait to see them.
Beyond our fifth issue we’re looking to translate all our previous issues to screen reader form, that’s something we need to focus on, making our collection accessible in different forms. I’m also interested in translating some of our work to audio, as in contributors reading their pieces like an audio book or something? That could be cool.
I’ve also been thinking about a Doll Hospital book, zines are pretty niche, I feel like most people don’t even know what a zine is. I’m interested in exploring mediums that reach more people.
Lastly, where can our readers keep up to date with all things Doll Hospital?
You can follow us on Twitter , Tumblr , Facebook , Instagram and find out more about our work at our website. Oh and you drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to say hi, or find out more about us!