A conversation with its creator about the progress of representation and the dubious classifications around outsider art.
Last year, PHD student Bethany Rose Lamont started looking for an outlet through which she could convey her experiences with suicidal thoughts beyond "depressing, unsettling" tweets and personal essays. So she posted a question on Twitter asking whether there would be any interest in a zine focused on mental health issues, examined through a feminist-queer intersectional lens.
A successful Kickstarter later, issue one launched in February and featured a broad range of contributors on a host of relevant topics: funny, touching comics about anxiety, personal essays about self harm and disordered eating, photo stories, interviews, poems, and an article about Kanye West's depression. It sold out within two days.
Earlier this month, Doll Hospital Journal launched issue two, which covers issues such as mental health in women's prisons and the relationship between mental health and physical disability. I got in touch with creator Bethany Rose Lamont to talk about compromising for a wider audience, tangible progress in mental health representation, and the dubious classifications around outsider art.
VICE: Making a zine is an interesting arrangement, because there's a real community angle, but by its nature it can be accessed by a wider audience; do you ever feel like you have to compromise between the two groups?
Rose Lamont: No, actually. Not that we don't care what people think, or anything corny like that, but rather because this is a journal created by and for people with mental health struggles. We all have the same motives, basically. Our staff is dealing with this stuff—so are our contributors, so are our readers—so it's not like there's some huge pressure for us to do an about face and start bullshitting people. We're all on the same page and that's cool.
Is there much thought of what reception the zine gets?
I had no expectations for the reception of Doll Hospital, either positive or negative. In all honesty, I had no idea that anyone was going to read it! It was just a tiny project I wanted to do with a few friends that got bigger than I ever imagined. I try not to be overly precious about this project as I see it as belonging to everyone, so I always welcome and encourage any feedback.
In terms of criticism, some readers who have not experienced mental health struggles themselves can be surprised that not all the stories within our journal have a "happy ending" or perfect solution. But really, what does? There's no point sugar coating this stuff. Mental health can be devastating—it can rip your world apart—and it can be affirming to just step back and be like, "Yeah, this really sucks."
Which contemporary mainstream figures would you say are doing important work for mental health issues, through campaigning, educating, and so on?
Bassey Ikpi, who founded the Siwe Project and No Shame Day is doing amazing work. We got to profile her in the second issue of Doll Hospital, which was a huge honor. Dior Vargas, a Doll Hospital interviewee for Issue Two, is another powerhouse in the landscape of contemporary mental health. I'd particularly encourage you to check out her "People of Colour + Mental Illness" photo project.
Another vital contribution to mental health advocacy is coming from Dr. Nadia Richardson, particularly her No More Martyrs campaign. What she's doing is so urgent and so important, everyone should know about her and the work she's doing.
What, to you, feels like tangible progress in the way mental health is treated and represented?
I think progress is being made within mainstream conversations on mental health. Experiences of depression and anxiety are very slowly entering a wider dialogue. And I'm incredibly grateful for authors like Matt Haig and public figures like Zoe Sugg for making that happen. However, it's important to be critically aware of when other social issues are being thrown under the metaphorical bus.
I always cringe when I see the language of physical disability and chronic illness being co-opted in an attempt to "rebrand" mental health. Don't get me wrong, mental illness has physical consequences too, but so often I see these campaigns fall into seriously dodgy territory. Catchphrases like "you wouldn't treat someone like cancer like that" or "you wouldn't treat someone in a wheelchair like that" totally fail to understand the discrimination and struggles people with chronic illness and physical disability are dealing with, and how that is actually likely to make these individuals more vulnerable to their own mental health struggles, especially in this current political climate in the UK.
What's your view on a term like outsider art?
The concept of outsider art is something I think about a lot. My work's been described as outsider art and I have a first from Central Saint Martins, so it's clear these ideas go beyond whether or not the individual has had formal training, you know? Look at Daniel Johnston: the man went to art school, was on MTV, hung out in the coolest circles and objectively did everything right, and he's still seen as an "outsider artist." If you're outside the ideals of what someone making work "should" be, it doesn't matter how many certificates you accumulate; people are still going to find ways to isolate and pathologize you.
It's also clear that this isn't just a question of mental illness; these issues exist in conversation with the history of colonialism. That general question of what's "art" and what is "craft," what's destined for the cabinet of curiosities and what's going in the White Cube. Plus, who's asking those questions and who's making those choices? Because it's not the people creating the work.
What would you say are good resources for people looking to get informed about mental health issues, or for those who suspect they may have mental health issues?
For those looking to learn more about mental health generally, I would recommend listening to those in your community who are dealing with this issue. Reading is a great place to start, as so many amazingly talented authors are writing on their experiences—you just need to take the time to find them. A few of my favorite writers addressing themes of mental health include Esmé Wang, Imade Nibokun, and Diamond J. Sharp.
If you are concerned about your own mental health, I would avoid hitting Google as a first point of action. There is so much misinformation online, particularly on more misunderstood mental health experiences, so it's easy to feel even more isolated and awful as a result of trusting, say, users on Tumblr for a coherent understanding of a multi-faceted and deeply personal issue. I would speak to someone you love and trust first, whether that's a friend, a family member, or if you're still in school, a counselor or a teacher. Laying out your concerns and talking them through with someone who knows and loves you is always a good first step to figuring out any big and potentially intimidating subject in your life.
What, to you, would be the ideal culture in which mental health is treated?
I think we need to nurture a culture where people struggling with mental health are able to advocate for themselves, a culture where they are listened to and believed. I have heard so many stories of doctors dismissing or undermining patients, and one bad experience may prevent someone from getting the help they need in the future—and that's wrong. This obviously goes both ways, and I'd like to see a future where the relationship between doctors and mental health patients is not one of fear and frustration.
This interview has been edited for length.
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