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A Cautious Welcome to the ‘Black Dog Tribe’

March 21, 2012

Before I start this post, I want to say outright that any community, online or not, which provides help, support and a safe space for people experiencing mental health problems is always a Good Thing. Therefore, I welcome Ruby Wax’s ‘Black Dog Tribe‘ project, a website which is a forum-cum-social network for people experiencing mental health issues, and especially depression. I personally found the US based website Crazy Boards incredibly helpful when I was at my lowest points with depression.

However, I’m worried about the wider use of the project. Firstly, aside from my personal concerns about the rhetoric of ‘stigma’ in mental health campaigning (see my guest post for NAMI Massachusetts on this subject), I think that ‘identity politics’ as a way to tackling the prejudice and discrimination surrounding mental illness is doomed to be ineffective. Very few people will willingly adopt the ‘identity’ of depression, in the way that they might an LGBT+ identity, since, although mental illness can be a large part of a person’s identity, it is very rarely a positive element. The Mad Pride movement has had some success advocating Gay Pride style approaches, and their direct action is important. However, the ‘Black Dog Tribe’ project equivocates on this, attempting to use one identity to mediate the negative effects of another. Marjory Wallace, Chief Executive of SANE puts it this way:

It’s easier to say that you have had a Black Dog time than that you’ve been away suffering from depression.

This is true, but is a result of discrimination and prejudice, so probably not an effective way to fight these issues. It’s important that depressed people can express themselves comfortably, and euphemism is a crucial element of this – but that’s not a reason to make a euphemism a campaign tool.

The second problem is connected to the first. Although the idea of a ‘tribe’ positively suggests mutual support, shared experience and solidarity among members, it also suggests more negative attributes. The word ‘tribe’ in modern, Western society, immediately implies a sense of ‘otherness’. Even in the strictest sense, a ‘tribal’ society is a pre-State society, and thus one opposed to (and possibly threatening) the structures of Western society. This can be seen from the term’s use as a contemptuous collective at least as far back as Shakespeare:

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

More recently, the term ‘tribe’ has been associated more explicitly with threats to the fabric of respectable Western society, being used, according to the OED, to describe ‘a group of hippies or drop-outs’ in the 1960s and 70s.

As a result of these associations, and of Marjory Wallace’s comments, I’m not optimistic about the use of the ‘Black Dog Tribe’ as a campaigning tool. It’s more a transfer from one set of problematic terms (those of mental illness and depression) to another (those of the threatening ‘Other’). This doesn’t mean  the project won’t be useful, and I sincerely hope that people experiencing mental distress can find mutual support, help and acceptance through the forum.

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