In mental health education, there is a powerful attraction in the promise that scientific explanation will allay our confusion, suffering and pain through the tips and strategies that follow from it. This, allied to the advice to depersonalise lessons, for example by using case studies and scenarios, helps to create an appropriate educational distance and a safe space for learning. However, the danger is that we distance young people from the very experiences that are of interest to them, effectively silencing their voices. Instead, I would like to consider the value of a particular kind of philosophical writing - one that has close affinities with literature – for the conversations that are needed in mental health education.
In mental health education, there is a powerful attraction in the promise that scientific explanation will allay our confusion, suffering and pain through the tips and strategies that follow from it
The American philosopher Stanley Cavell spoke of the importance of seeing human speech – human language – as capable of expressing ‘what matters in a human life, what counts for it, which inescapably puts at stake how much something matters, how deep or permanent or partial or unreflective our interest is in a given case’ (Cavell, 2010, p. 85). The conventional language of mental health education is not so far away from our interests. However, the risk is that such teaching deprives us of a voice in our experience. In Cavell’s words, we have to learn to trust our experience; by carefully attending to it, examining it, consulting it, giving it authority and ourselves a voice.
Without intimacy there can be no revelation, but there can be no intimacy without allowing things to touch us.
Cavell’s own philosophical writing reflected this, speaking to us in the first person, in the intimacy of conversation, captured in his claim that “to write your own words, to write your own inner voice, is philosophy” (Cavell in Borradori, 1994, p. 126). Ed Mooney speaks of ‘a voice trued to its experience in a world we can recognize as our own’ which points to an authority which is ‘thoroughly first personal, avowed, and does not rest on appeals to abstract reason’ (Mooney, 2009, pp. 25-26). Cavell is not alone in this tradition of American philosophical writing. The writer to whom Mooney refers is a little-known American philosopher, Henry Bugbee and his book The Inward Morning (1958/1999). It takes the form of a journal written over a number of years. Bugbee interlaces philosophical reflection with responses to poetry and literature, to music, observations on the weather and his own evocative recounting of events from his life. The journal seeks to capture the flow of the day to day through a cultivated intimacy with daily experience. Bugbee speaks from an intimacy with things, not a detached expertise. Without intimacy there can be no revelation, but there can be no intimacy without allowing things to touch us.
Bugbee’s work may be exemplary in one sense but is rather remote in time and place for young people today, but the value of reflective journal-writing can be seen in recent films like Freedom Writers (2007) where journals were kept by students in the 1990s in race-torn, inner-city Los Angeles, after their teacher Erin Gruwell had introduced them to The Diary of Anne Frank.
What matters is to encourage a writing attuned to experience in which tone, colour, rhythm, and timbre are not simply part of the packaging but are integral to a personal struggle for insight and understanding. Managed sensitively, such writing can be shared, and experience opened up for discussion, received as well as given. In writing, no matter how hesitant, ‘if we take the words as such, as personal address, we can respond accordingly, intimately, in testimony of our own…This is the moment of mutual recognition’ (Mooney, p. 100). Such intimacy thus opens us up to a better understanding of ourselves and the possibility of a better self.
What can teachers do? First, they can help the young to find the words that express their reality.
What can teachers do? First, they can help the young to find the words that express their reality. In finding words for our experiences, we can learn how to hear and listen to the words of others. Creating a space of healing alongside the teaching of strategies for coping is the second task. It is in the balance and interplay between distance and intimacy that effective mental health education takes place.
Dr Adrian Skilbeck is Lecturer in Education at the University of Winchester.