Seminar series: Social Production of Mental Health

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This seminar series connects researchers interested in social and critical perspectives to mental health in Australia, New Zealand and nearby. Co-hosted by the ANU School of Sociology and the HASH Network, the series invites scholars and advocates across a diverse range of research areas to present new ideas and work in progress. This might include lived experiences of mental health; the relation between mental health and its social and cultural contexts; inequalities and injustice in mental health; theories of mental health and madness; alternative approaches to the ‘mental health crisis’; social and ethical issues in mental health care; and the politics of mental health. We welcome researchers from a broad range of disciplines and approaches including activist groups and studies, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, media studies, psychology, psychiatry, policy analysis, media studies, critical public health and other disciplinary fields. The series for 2021 hope to build on the momentum and connections of last year’s series co-ordinated by Baptiste Brossard, ANU.

If you would like to be added to the SPMH email list to hear about future seminars through to November, or to receive the Zoom link to join in a seminar, please email and

Upcoming seminars – scroll to see past seminars

Seminar #7: Lived Experience and Caregiving
Wednesday 3 November, 1PM-2:30PM

What’s the story? Finding the register for talking about madness now – Catharine Coleborne, Professor of History and Head of the School of Humanities and Social Science/Dean of Arts, University of Newcastle

In this paper, I discuss the evolution of thinking about mental health histories as outlined in my short book Why Talk About Madness? (Palgrave Pivot, 2020). I reflect on the final, suggestive chapter of this book which provokes readers to contemplate narratives of madness in the twenty-first century. The question of how we might write about the history of madness is now shaped by the presence of accessible voices including those of people with lived experiences of mental illness; those of activists and mental health advocates; by living memory of institutional confinement; and by contemporary representations of madness in public. What does this mean for historical scholarship? One area that remains under-examined is the history of extra-institutional care and transitional spaces for mental health. Drawing on oral history interviews from a current project funded by the Australian Research Council, this paper points to the way lived experiences of community mental health can tell us more about the evolving understanding of madness in the period between the 1960s and the present. The paper will also offer thoughts about the value of reflective writing, a poetics of madness in history, and the concept of ‘writing otherwise’.

Exploring the ‘carer’ in mental health support: ambivalence, co-option, and identity –
Amaya Alvarez, Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University

This paper will discuss the ‘carer’ in informal mental health support. It will do so by first unpacking the concept of the ‘carer’ – its historicity; its gendered-ness and its temporality. Revealing how the concept shifted from the (first wave) feminist urgency of its original articulation, to something other. And how, as a result, carers are co-opted as providers of community care in current mental health systems.
I will then dive into the lived experience of what it can mean to identify or be identified as a mental health carer in this context. Sharing glimpses from my own experience and the experience of others drawn from my PhD research. These stories illuminate the trickiness of the liminal space carers occupy – between informal and formal, between well and unwell, between private and public, between clinical and community, between the carer dyad and other relational identities – and the weight of this positioning, the pesada (Mendez-Luck et al. 2020).
In reflecting on this ambivalent space, I ​​​​finish the paper by posing a question: How do people that experience mental illness– the consumer (so 21st century) – and the people that attempt to (or are expected to) ‘care’ for them – the carer (so 19th century) – examine their relationship in a way that moves beyond the dialectical and the dyadic? (And why might it be fruitful and even necessary to do so?)
Mendez-Luck, C. A., Anthony, K. P., & Guerrero, L. R. (2020). Burden and Bad Days Among Mexican-Origin Women Caregivers. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences,75(8), 1719–1730

Previous 2021 seminars

Seminar #1: Social Perspectives on Suicide
Wednesday 30 June, 1PM-2.30 PM

Masculinities, emotions and men’s suicide – Jo River, University of Sydney

Men account for approximately 75% of the one million annual suicide deaths worldwide. Emerging research indicates a link between suicide and men’s active pursuit of hegemonic masculinity via emotional restriction. However, little is known of the continuum of suicidal men’s emotional practice, and particularly how men mobilise emotions to actively pursue or resist hegemonic masculine ideals. This theorised life-history study aimed to explore the emotional lives of 18 Australian men who had attempted suicide. Findings indicate that men in this study experienced a range of emotions. However, during childhood, they learned that expressing emotions such as sadness reduced masculine standing, whereas expressing emotions such as anger through acts of violence could enhance masculine status. Although the gendering of emotions offered participants multiple avenues of action to pursue or contest masculine ideals, they remained vulnerable to suicide. For some men, it became impossible to conceal escalating feelings of distress. For other men, displays of anger and violence resulted in job loss, relationship breakdown or criminal conviction. Many participants indicated that suicide presented a means of ending painful emotions. Paradoxically, suicide could also become an alternative means of demonstrating masculinity, whereby the body became both the vehicle and object of violence.

Organising for change: The progressive politics of lived experience in contemporary suicide prevention – Scott Fitzpatrick, University of Newcastle

The centrality of lived experience to ways of knowing and responding to suicide is widely acknowledged. Personal stories of suicide serve as important sites of meaning-making, power, and social identity with the potential to aid recovery, provide privileged insights into experiences of suicide, improve prevention efforts, and reduce discrimination and stigmatisation. However, forms of epistemic injustice that disable or distort stories of suicidality, together with the mobilisation of personal stories of recovery by peak suicide prevention organisations, demonstrate the need for further reflection on structures of power and privilege in shaping the discursive meanings of suicide. In this seminar, I will discuss the institutional embeddedness of contemporary stories of suicide and highlight their impacts on form and content, with a specific focus on points of erasure and silences.

Seminar #2: Social Perspectives on Depression
Tuesday 20 July, 1PM-2.30 PM

Time Crisis: Debt and Depression – Francis Russell, Curtin University

This research project draws together two distinct discussions of time and depression. On the one hand, the last few decades has seen a revival of phenomenological accounts of depression in the work of influential philosophers and psychiatrists. Figures such as Thomas Fuchs and Matthew Ratcliffe have attempted to return to, and build on, the early 20th century confluence of research between mostly Swiss and French psychiatrists like Eugène Minkowski, Eugen Bleuler, Madard Boss, and Ludwig Binswanger, and German and French philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, Henri Bergson, and Martin Heidegger. Such research explores depression through processes of desynchronization, both in terms of the desynchronization of the depressed person’s experience of past, present, and future, and in the sense of the desynchronization of the depressed person’s intersubjective relationships. While this research provides a compelling alternative to biological, cognitive, and behavioural accounts of depression, it is largely apolitical.

In order to extend such phenomenological approaches to depression, this project looks to produce an encounter between such aforementioned figures, and contemporary post-Marxist philosophical accounts of neoliberalism and time, as can be found in the work of figures such as Maurizio Lazzarato and Bernard Stiegler. For such thinkers, the period of neoliberal capitalism has greatly intensified an experience of temporal shock, insofar as cultural practices have not emerged to shield individuals and collectives against the asynchronous and arrhythmic quality of contemporary life. Accordingly, “mental illnesses” like depression feature in such works as a symptom of technological acceleration and capitalist accumulation. By exploring the phenomenological account of depression and time alongside the post-Marxist account of time and neoliberalism, this project seeks to contribute to the ongoing discussion of depression as a social and political phenomenon.

“I’m running my depression:” Self-management of depression in neoliberal Australia – Jo Antoniades and Bianca Brijnath, National Ageing Research Institute

The current study examines how the neoliberal imperative to self-manage has been taken up by patients, focusing specifically on Indian-Australians and Anglo-Australians living with depression in Australia. We use Nikolas Rose’s work on governmentality and neoliberalism to theorise our study and begin by explicating the links between self-management, neoliberalism and the Australian mental health system. Using qualitative methods, comprising 58 in-depth interviews, conducted between May 2012 and May 2013, we argue that participants’ practices of self-management included reduced use of healthcare services, self-medication and self-labour. Such practices occurred over time, informed by unsatisfactory interactions with the health system, participants’ confidence in their own agency, and capacity to craft therapeutic strategies. We argue that as patients absorbed and enacted neoliberal norms, a disconnect was created between the policy rhetoric of self-management, its operationalisation in the health system and patient understandings and practices of self-management. Such a disconnect, in turn, fosters conditions for risky health practices and poor health outcomes.

Seminar #3: Ethics
Monday 9 August, 1PM-2:30PM

Following Emma’s paper, we will open the follow for a group discussion about the ethical issues in critical mental health research

Formal Ethics Clearance and Critical Mental Health Research: Exploring Contestations in what counts as ethical and responsible research – Emma Tseris, School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

Critical mental health research involving fieldwork or data collection requires formal ethics approval by university ethics committees. This presentation will explore the complexities of navigating formal ethics requirements, while ensuring that research projects retain a commitment to survivor-led research processes and a critique of biomedical dominance. It will outline how critical mental health research projects often struggle to fulfil the expectations of ethics committees, demonstrating the need for a more nuanced perspective on mental distress, power, expertise and risk within formal ethics clearance processes. 

Seminar #4: Sex and technologies
Wednesday 1 September, 1PM-2:30PM

“Maybe I am addicted, but I don’t think it’s an addiction per se”: (Un)making Pornography Addiction – Kris Taylor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland

Over the last five decades the landscape of pornography as a medium, and the way that pornography is researched and discussed, have shifted. In the first instance, the migration of pornography to more powerful delivery networks has created predictable waves of anxiety about pornography’s ubiquity, content, and consequences. However, in the second instance, the focus of these concerns have changed over time, from protests against pornography on political and sociocultural grounds, to become a battle of the pathological individual. This shift represents a convergence of discourses, as old political agitation has given way to a sterile language of expertise and medicalisation. At the same time the unease which underpinned protests against pornography have remained, giving rise to an oxymoronic contemporary tension between pornography as both risky yet ubiquitous and largely unmoderated. I argue that the concept of pornography ‘addiction’ serves a reconciliatory function, as a way of delineating between acceptable and unacceptable pornography viewing. In turn, I argue that pornography addiction offers individuals – and society at large – a scapegoat upon which the excesses of pornography can be divested, while a widespread tolerance for pornography viewing remains intact. As I will explore, the actual experiences of viewing pornography rarely fit into the neat formula of addictive or not, leaving pornography viewers suspended in a discursive gulf between the promise of pleasure and the threat of pathology.

On the social existence of mental health categories: the case of sex addiction – Baptiste Brossard and Ben Hemmings, School of Sociology, ANU

This presentation outlines the preliminary results of a research project led in Australia and Canada about the social history and experience of ‘sex addiction.’ This project aims at understanding the social conditions under which sex addiction became a mainstream category to characterise sexual excess in most ‘Western’ countries since the 1990s. Two unexpected observations caught our attention. First, it was not the inclusion in a psychiatric classification (DSM or ICD) that popularized sex addiction. Quite the contrary, sex addiction was excluded from the DSM in 1994 after a brief 7 years stay, just before starting to be widely used in multiple social fields, from the media to cinema studios through law courts. Second, this category does not necessarily refer to socially sanctioned (or ‘deviant’) sexual behaviours, but can designate discretely problematized, mental and emotional experiences of sexuality. These two observations imply that the rise of sex addiction cannot be explained with the classical models of medicalisation, sociology of deviance or moral panic. We propose to turn to Ian Hacking’s theory of ecological niche to generate further avenues of understanding.

Jacinthe cannot join us in this seminar, but we’ve kept her abstract here in case you wanted to learn more about her research:

Problematising Sexual Appetite in Contemporary Psychiatry – Jacinthe Flore, Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University

In my monograph A Genealogy of Appetite in the Sexual Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), I trace the medical history of sexuality through the concept of ‘appetite’. I ask what kind of possibilities can be generated if we consider the history of sexuality not only through the question of ‘whom?’, but also, ‘how much?’ and ‘how often?’ In this presentation, I discuss the latter chapters of the book, which examine the pathologisation of sexual lack in contemporary psychiatry. Through an analysis of transformations in psychiatric nomenclature and the approval of Addyi (flibanserin) – the so-called ‘pink Viagra’ – I argue that the pathologisation of sexual lack is not only gendered, but it also reaffirms a mind-body dualism by positioning desire as a matter for the brain. The gendering of the psychiatric gaze on sexuality is well-known. However, recent changes in clinical nomenclature combined with the approval of the first drug claiming to treat low sexual desire in premenopausal women position appetite as central to modern enactments of pathologies of sexuality.

Seminar #5: Media
Tuesday 21 September, 1PM-2:30PM

Framing Mental Health in the Australian Online Environment – Mathieu O’Neil, Kate Holland & Xiaolan Cai, Critical Conversations Lab, N&MRC, University of Canberra

This project interrogates dominant actors and discourses in Australian online discussions of mental health: who are the most influential online actors discussing mental health? How do these actors characterise mental health issues? Do these characterisations convey stigmatising or positive judgements about mental health? Stage 1: Identifying influential mental health organisations in Australia. We compile an initial list based on our field knowledge and an online search of members of Mental Health Australia. The list includes key organisations in the field working across advocacy, service delivery, research, as well as peak bodies, such as Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute, Butterfly Foundation, Mental Health Australia, Headspace, Lifeline, etc. From there, we constitute a dataset of organisational websites using web crawlers such as VOSON and IssueCrawler. We measure the connections towards these websites (or indegree) to determine which are the most influential. Stage 2: Mapping influential mental health actors on social media. We search for the Twitter presence of the top-50 organisations with the most influential websites and collect hashtags and other connections in order to locate non-organisational influential actors (in terms of followers and retweets) connected to these organisations. Stage 3: Mapping formal and informal discourses on social media. We compare the discourses of formal and informal mental health influential online actors. We perform proximity analysis (collecting the semantic environment of key terms such as mental illness, mental health, depression, etc.) to assess what kind of discourses are being shared. Our starting assumption is to differentiate between: diagnostic-based terms e.g. bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, anorexia nervosa, etc; actor-based terms e.g. consumer, survivor, sufferer, etc; colloquial terms* e.g. nutter, lunatic, psycho, schizo, etc.

Seminar #6: Epidemics and Pandemics
Monday 11 October, 1PM-2:30PM

LGBTQ+ young people’s mental health support during and after COVID-19 lockdowns – Paul Byron, School of Communication, University of Technology Sydney

This talk presents findings from a national Australian survey of LGBTQ+ young people (16-25 years) conducted in late 2020. Data from questions about COVID-19 are used to trace the impacts of the pandemic and associated lockdowns on many LGBTQ+ young people, particularly those aged 16-17 years, and those with existing mental health conditions or concerns. We found that a large majority of the 660 survey participants were negatively impacted by COVID-19, yet some reported positive experiences of lockdowns, and many reported mixed experiences. I consider what survey responses about COVID-19 experiences and feelings tell us about the intersecting social, health, and mental health and wellbeing needs among LGBTQ+ young people in Australia today. A key issue relating to the experiences of school-aged LGBTQ+ people was the role of families and their varied levels of acceptance, understanding and support. Those without family support typically reported higher levels of mental distress and increased mental ill health. These data are considered alongside the survey’s findings about the support found and shared among participants’ friends and peers, particularly through social media. Finally, this presentation considers how providers of formal care and support must now respond to new and ongoing challenges among LGBTQ+ young people, and to do so, I propose starting with attention to how young people describe their mental health status and needs at this time.

The effects of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic on mental patients in New South Wales – David Roth

During 1919, 180 mental patients in NSW died from pandemic influenza. Many more patients fell ill, some seriously, and recovered. This death toll may be contrasted with the lower number of asylum deaths from influenza in Victoria in the same year (81). There were no patient deaths in Western Australia. My research indicates that some of the NSW patients recovered but appear to have suffered fatal organ damage or an exacerbation of their psychiatric condition. There is also evidence that sequelae of influenza were the underlying cause of admission and pre-admission physical morbidity in some cases. My preliminary results suggest that there were significant gender differences for mortality and infection rates, and that the case fatality rate for patients was much higher than for the general population of NSW. The age distribution for deceased patients also appears to be somewhat different than for deceased NSW residents. Death and infection rates varied significantly between asylums.
In this presentation, I discuss these preliminary results, explain my methodology and its limitations, and propose some hypotheses which might explain these significant differences. I also examine the prevention measures which were undertaken and discuss their efficacy in crowded asylum environments.

Examining hate speech through young queer perspectives: Surfacing the (im)possible worlds they want to live in – Dr Benjamin Hanckel and Dr Shiva Chandra, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

A critical concern about mental health across digital platforms is centred around hate speech, and the role of censorship in responding to this activity. Of particular concern is those who are subject to hate speech in social media platforms, and their experiences. In this work-in-progress paper we examine sexuality and gender diverse young people’s experiences of hate speech, and their proposed solutions as a way to make sense of the world(s) they wish to live in. We draw on qualitative findings from interviews and focus groups with 65 young LGBTQIA+ people conducted in early 2021 who reported varied experiences of trans/bi/homophobia and cisgenderism across social media platforms. Our findings indicate the complex ways that young people understand hate speech. Whilst acknowledging space for content censorship they report hesitancy about participation in ‘cancel culture’. Rather the young people in our study narrate alternatives – empathetic educative approaches – that seek to work through tensions with similar others in social media public spaces. Whilst they participate in this within their existing social media practices, this work is seen to have potential for design considerations, and platform interventions of the future. We argue these digital potentialities point to broader imaginings of the world for LGBTQIA+ young people. Our findings show the possibilities beyond ‘cancel culture’ – and the more just worlds that young people are enacting, and which they want to live in.

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