Interview by Anna-Claire McGrath
Bethany Rose Lamont is the founder and editor-in-chief of Doll Hospital, a biannual art and literature print journal on mental health. The first issue, backed by Kickstarter, was released in February 2015. Issue three comes out this August.
THE FEM: Tell me a little bit about Doll Hospital for our readers. What is it, how did it come about?
BETHANY ROSE: Doll Hospital is an art and literature journal for and by people with mental health struggles. It’s not just for those of us with fancy liberal art degrees or some kind of “established” art or writing career or whatever. It’s a space for everyone who has a difficult time with mental health to share their story in whatever medium they feel most comfortable expressing themselves in.
I founded Doll Hospital in May 2014, I was a 22 year old student and struggling with thoughts of suicide. I had no place to express these always overwhelming, and sometime terrifying, thoughts and found myself reduced to self deprecating tweets and 3am shitposting on tumblr. I’m 25 now, Doll Hospital has turned two years old and we’ve just completed our third issue. I of course still have mental health struggles (those things don’t miraculously disappear sadly!) but in cultivating a space to safely express myself and seek out a community with others who are also grappling with these issues, I feel more confident in managing my own mental illness, less ashamed to actively express when I’m having a bad day and more emboldened to advocate for myself and for my loved ones.
I think it’s so important to get those voices out there. I wonder if you ever worry about the stigma surrounding mental health issues that still exists. I know I blog about my own struggles with mental health sometimes, and I’m always worried like, “What if a future employer sees this, and then they think I’m a total crazy person and don’t want to hire me?” How do you reconcile yourself with the fact that some people still have a very negative view of people who open up about mental health?
BETHANY ROSE: The limits of seeing mental health advocacy purely through the lens of mental health awareness fails to realise that different people face different stigma for speaking out. The top priority of mental health work shouldn’t be about a byline on a think piece it should be about personal safety. Whilst mental health advocacy pushes for reform against mental health discrimination in the work place, no one person should be expected to shoulder this burden or risk their livelihood, day to day survival should be the priority. We publish many of Doll Hospital’s contribution under pseduonyms as a result of this, and for those who are concerned about the practical problems that may come from speaking on mental health this allows a positive alternative.
Of course, to erase the stigma of mental health, speaking out is required, but I don’t think that pressure should rest on those who are concerned about getting fired, whilst equally not becoming disproportionately favoured towards the privileged who do not have to worry about such practicalities. My worst experience of this was when I’d just graduated from university at 21 and was thrilled to get my first proper job in a field I was interested in. Upon signing my acceptance form I realised they had it in their power to request my full medical records from my doctor, and I was so terrified that I’d be rejected upon realising that I was in treatment for mental health. Thankfully they did not follow up on this but that is a great concern for me that they had that power, a power that could also discriminate against trans employees, the disabled and the chronically ill.
The issue of personal safety also comes about for those of us who risk isolation from one’s family if speaking out on mental health or personal trauma, for instance the importance of anonymity when it comes to writing on experiencing rape and sexual trauma. To speak out on trauma and mental health you should prioritize your own mental health, especially on the internet which can be such a hostile environment.
So that’s the practical side of things, in regards to general day to day folk who might think what I do is kind of weird or are intimidated or even a little scared about the prospect of creative spaces for mental health….well in all honesty I don’t think about them one bit! My priority is creating a nurturing environment for and by mentally ill people, mentally ill people are my priority I’m not particularly bothered if someone from a neurotypical background finds it peculiar, this project isn’t for them or their personal prejudices.
FEM: I think that’s great, and I totally agree. One thing you say on your website is, “We don’t care about ‘success stories’. We care about surviving.” I love that. Could you talk a little about what you mean by “success” versus “survival”?
BETHANY ROSE: Absolutely! When I say we prioritise survival over success stories I don’t mean that we fetishise suffering or believe life with mental illness is a hopeless one. Rather I feel that the success story model of mental health has the somewhat paradoxical power to make you feel worse about yourself. It’s about a public presentation of togetherness rather than a personal honesty of what you need at this particular time. Success stories are a sales pitch, a ted talk, they’re not real. True healing, true survival, is ugly and messy, not clean and aspirational.
To be truly honest about mental health, and to come to terms with our own needs and struggles, we need to accept that healing is not linear and that bad days happen to everyone. Furthermore, not all mental health experiences are ‘cured’ in the traditional sense, so many of them, such as mine, are managed over one’s life time. If I get complacent, and think it’s a binary between ‘sick’ and ‘cured’ I will fail to acknowledge that even if a person is in a good place they still have mental health needs to manage. So if I’m in a positive productive period I may mistakenly think my mental health is done and dusted, that I’m somehow ‘better’ and then ironically end up relapsing. This has happened to me before and it’s an unsustainable attitude to have when it comes to managing long term mental illness. In a capitalist system it’s easy to think of mental health as a camp divided into winners and losers, ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ but real life doesn’t work like that and to support that model of story telling (because that’s all it is, a story) has the potential to do real harm.
FEM: Yes, definitely. I think that’s very true. I also admire the way Doll Hospital aims for inclusivity across races and sexuality. In attempting to hear everyone’s voices, have you ever been surprised by the experience of mental health struggles from someone who’s background is different from your own? What do you find to be universal, and what do you find to be most unique across the board?
BETHANY ROSE: I think one of the reasons mainstream mental health dialogues and popular prejudices get mixed up is because they fail to realise that the truth that anyone can experience mental illness and the reality that the more marginalised, the more brutalised in our world are more vulnerable to these struggles can exist simultaneously. Mental health is not a ‘check your privilege’ moment where one can arrogantly suggest that someone’s comforts or social advantages protect them from mental illness, but equally we can understand that mental health and trauma (and equally important the construction and treatment of these experiences) do not exist in a vacuum. Mental health is not politically neutral, how we construct, articulate and diagnose these experiences are inherently tied to issues of race, class, disability, nation and gender. Furthermore, our inner working of our brains, our most frightening thoughts and secret traumas are inherently personal and individualized, they can only reflect our own experiences, and it would be reductive to suggest that one story, one experience is reflective of a whole group. It’s important for those of us from marginalised backgrounds not to feel that pressure.
FEM: Completely. Lastly, I want to talk you about issue three, which comes out August 5th. What can we expect from it? What do we have to look forward to?
BETHANY ROSE: Oh my gosh yes!! I’m so excited to say that both our digital launch of issue three and pre-orders for print copies of issue two go live on our Big Cartel on Friday August 5th on 9am UK time!
So not only will that mean our readers (and also our team of contributors) will have the chance to hold our second issue of Doll Hospital in their hands (something I’m beyond excited about!) but we will be sharing a brand new issue of Doll Hospital that day too!
Issue Three is 162 pages of mental health artistry and reflection from some of my fave humans, including, but not limited to, Krystal Monique Reddick, Anne Boyer, Wishcandy, Amaal Said, Haejin Park, SBTL CLNG, Ambivalently Yours, Angelica Jade Bastién, Valentine Gallardo, Sara Lautman, Akujixxv, Doodlemancy, Kailey Flyte, Hannah Eaton and Yuta Sakakibara.
Subjects we explore include young men’s mental health in prison spaces, unlearning the shame of crystal meth use, representations of mental health in Bollywood cinema, pregnancy and mental health treatment, toxic parents, psychosis and delusions of grandeur, navigating the intersections of Islamphobia and black girlhood, the stigma of schizophrenia and that one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which is set in a mental health ward. Mediums range from playful playlists, detailed collages and Twin Peaks inspired comic spreads to long form personal essay, journal excerpts, cultural criticisms and open conversations.
Beyond that we are currently working on screen reader translations of our digital issues for readers who are blind or visually impaired as it’s important that Doll Hospital can be accessed and enjoyed by all. And of course we are already getting to work on issue four! There is so many stories to tell and work to share, it feels a great privilege to be a small part of these creative conversations.