By Kerri Mackenzie, Arts Editor.
One in Four people in Britain will seek professional help for their mental health throughout their life. That is ¼ of 64.1 million people. I’m no mathematician but going by my calculations that is a heck of a lot of people. Every single one of those people thinks and feels differently and from a scientific point of view every single person’s brain is wired differently and makes different connections. So how is it possible to standardise them?
On the 14th of October I went to the Arches to take part in The Assessment, a social experiment conducted by Vacuum Cleaner (a one man artist and activist). The performance space was laid out with rows of wooden tables, each one with a brown folder and a pencil on it. I began to have flashbacks to exams and a feeling of extreme nervousness swept over me as I sat down at my table. What if I failed my Assessment?
Over the course of the evening the “audience” made their way through 250 questions taken from standardised mental health exams. We were unified in what we were doing but this was very much an individual experience; we would all approach the questions differently and have different answers. Once you had completed your assessment you were free to leave, after collecting your diagnosis from Vacuum Cleaner who sat at the top of the hall in the place of an invigilator.
Going through the questions was a very personal experience and there were many questions that got me thinking about my own mental health and what it meant to be truly “healthy” in that respect. But the main thing that struck me as I made my way through was how many of the questions were so subjective yet demanded yes/no answers. An example of such a question was based on dressing up to look nice and get attention. Now, when I come in to uni I really couldn’t care less about attracting attention based on how I look but when I go out at night I like to dress up, do my hair and make-up nice and yes that probably is for attention. There is no way you can answer that question as either a yes or a no because it totally depends on the circumstances. There were so many questions where all I could do was put a question mark or write “it depends”. Other questions asked for specific time frames such as when you noticed you were feeling depressed or when the last time you ever felt happy was. One of the main issues with depression is that you can lose track of how long you have been feeling that way or when it really started so I found it ridiculous that such specific time frames were needed. As to the questions about feeling happy; I managed to have a brief existential crisis on what it meant to be truly happy and if I, in fact, had ever felt that way. So many of the questions were based on things which were so subjective and it made it impossible to answer in a standardised way.
The main thing I took away from this event was just how ludicrous it was to standardise the un-standardisable. When everybody has had different experiences in life and thinks in such different ways how can you use the same questions to try and diagnose everyone? The symptoms of mental health rarely appear in exactly the same way, it’s not like tonsillitis where the symptoms are always similar. It is a much more complex issue and one which needs much more understanding.
At the end I was presented with my “diagnosis” and this came in the form of a letter written by Vacuum Cleaner. It said that everyone was unique and diverse and that we were not the labels that were assigned to us. We are all people, we have thoughts and feelings and names we are not “Bipolar”, “Anxiety” or “Schizophrenia” we are all unique and wonderful. The Assessment was such an enlightening experience and made me understand more about mental health and the process of diagnosis and also made me call into question the way mental health is diagnosed. If I had one tiny criticism it would be to say that I would have really enjoyed it if there was a post-performance chat. I went to a bar a friend afterwards and we had a great discussion about the show but it would have been nice to talk to more people and get a broader range of perspectives on it.
If Vacuum Cleaner comes back to Scotland I highly recommend that you check out his work, as I will definitely be doing so myself.
You can follow him on twitter: @vacuumcleaner or visit his website www.thevacuumcleaner.co.uk