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Peter Campbell: The pleasure madmen know

Photograph of Peter Campbell

Peter Campbell. Photograph by Hilary Porter

Joe Bidder profiles survivor poet and activist Peter Campbell and gives a potted history of the movement, through his achievements.

There is a pleasure madmen know is the opening line of the first poem in Peter Campbell's first poetry collection entitled Brown Linoleum Green Lawns but this phrase is not an idiosyncrasy or merely a clever literary sleight of hand with a line taken from John Dryden. Campbell is a mental health system survivor, writer and poet who has devoted his life and considerable talents to the pursuit of survivors' rights and justice. He is proud of his identity. “I am a survivor but I don't feel that this is an impairment”, he says.

In 2006 Melvyn Bragg presented Peter Campbell with the MIND Diamond Champion Award for the person who has done most for users of mental health services in England and Wales in the last 20 years. It is noteworthy that this award was made based on a survey of survivor/user opinion. It wasn't until the end of a 60 minute interview that I was able to extract this from him: a fact which would surprise no-one who knows him well. Shy, self effacing and highly intelligent, Peter Campbell has spent 25 years battling with the government and the mental health system for survivors' rights.

Raised in the Scottish Highlands, Campbell's early years were spent confronting mental distress. Long stays in hospital, which curtailed his academic career at Cambridge, also prevented him from maintaining continuous paid employment. Consequently, in 1980, he changed his life and began an involvement with mental health activism coupled with poetry and performance which has lasted until the present day. By the 1990s he was able to construct a professional life as a freelance writer, consultant and trainer.

In the 1980s he participated in CAPO (Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression), was a member of Camden Mental Health Consortium, a co-founder of Survivors Speak Out in 1986 and a co-founder of Survivors' Poetry in 1991. He is a gifted poet and performer, writes extensively on mental health issues, and trains psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and other health professionals.

All his adult life Peter has been a mental health system survivor, cumulatively spending many years in asylums. He expresses deep anger, rooted in feelings of helplessness and the incompetence, indifference and callousness frequently displayed by psychiatrists and other health workers but has been able to convert his anger into constructive action.

Until 2004 he never considered himself a disabled person because he doesn't consider a mental health problem to be an impairment. Campbell readily concurs that society discriminates against people with mental health problems but for himself he refuses to accept that he has a mental illness and debates whether there is such a thing as mental illness.

Since 2004 Peter Campbell has become progressively deaf and uses a hearing aid, lip reading and induction loops (when they are available and in working order!) and now regards himself as a disabled person. “My deafness is a real impairment and I find immense difficulties making adjustments”, he says, then adds reflectively, “I don't feel part of the deaf community, and accept that there is an enormous chasm between those born deaf and those who acquire deafness in middle age”.

Peter Campbell: Poetry and rights

CAPO, organised by poet Frank Bangay (later to be a co-founder of Survivors' Poetry), was vociferously prominent in the early 1980s. Uncompromising in its opposition to the medical model, psychiatric power and the callous mistreatment of survivors, it organised poetry and music performances to raise profile and fighting funds. Peter Campbell became a regular performance poet at CAPO events, particularly those held at The Troubadour in Earls Court, London, a bohemian venue which had previously attracted impromptu performances from Bob Dylan and Paul Simon before they became famous.

CAPO events had that addictive mix of art, inspiration and mayhem that is typical of emerging arts and political movements. It was able to generate solidarity amongst survivors along with the resolve to fight for justice. With so much in common it is surprising that CAPO and the disability arts movement, spearheaded by LDAF (London Disability Arts Forum), never made contact with each other in the 1980s. It wasn't until Survivors' Poetry was founded in 1991, that the two movements finally became acquainted.

Survivors Speak Out, independently from national mental health charities (which were controlled by non-survivors) enabled survivors across Britain to network, to campaign for rights, for advocacy, for better conditions in hospitals and in the community. Ironically its work was aided by Margaret Thatcher's market economy; the ideology of consumerism meant customers of health services had to be heard! Campbell played a pivotal role in this organisation: writing for its newsletter, as a board member, managing its office and giving speeches. When asked about his disappointments he responds “Survivor groups have often failed to deliver all they expected to. Individual survivors frequently lacked committee, fundraising and business skills which were essential for the growth of user-led organisations” (This fact, unfortunately, is a parallel experience in the disability arts sector.)

Revisions to the Mental Health Act and the beginning of Care in the Community resulted in the closure of most Victorian asylums, about whose passing he is ambivalent. There is a wistfulness for the beautiful landscapes, the tranquillity and security, but that aside, Peter knows that living in the community is much better for users of mental health services.

Much of his professional life is devoted to writing on mental health issues, expressing the views and preferences of survivors. Since 1990 he has been a professional trainer working with psychiatrists, housing officers and other health professionals, always emphasising the service user viewpoint, hoping to eliminate discrimination and poor practice. He is closely involved with curriculum development for mental health professionals and never turns down work on financial grounds. When conducting a short workshop at a regional university, he will sometimes spend a whole day away from London, unable to charge more than £100. However, the chance of changing lives for the better is precious to Peter who believes that educating psychiatrists and clinical psychologists offers survivors a great opportunity for long term beneficial change.

“It is regrettable that disabled people's organisations and survivor groups have not worked together and have not participated fully in each others' campaigns”, he acknowledges and agrees that this has enabled politicians and society at large to delay productive change as they pick off impairment groups individually. He is particularly concerned that proposed changes to the Mental Health Act are regressive with their concept of control and forced treatment. He would like to work together with disabled people's organisations to campaign for improvement in the Mental Health Act.

Although he wrote as a child, bouts of illness meant Peter only started writing poetry seriously in 1982, joining the Camden Voices Workshop. Led by the poet Dinah Livingstone, Camden Voices Workshop contained at that time a number of future prize winning poets, including Mimi Khalvati and Jane Duran. Inspired equally by landscape and survivor issues, Campbell has developed a distinctive style based on rhythm, sound and music. He rarely writes down the draft of a poem on a sheet of paper. He composes a poem in his head, often taking several weeks to formulate the final version, before putting pen to paper.

He prefers performing poetry and performs for 30 minutes without paper in hand, a dynamic and captivating experience. He has performed for LDAF, Survivors' Poetry, at conferences, in training sessions and in Trafalgar Square. Poetry and performance are an integral part of his life and the publication of his first collection is an important milestone.

For a précis of a talk by Peter Campbell on the Survivor Movement go to Mad Pride

Publications (partial list)

Brown Linoleum Green Lawns

By Peter Campbell

ISBN: 1-905082-04-5

Published by Hearing Eye Price

Price £6.00

Read the review by Joe Bidder in the express section.

The Madness of Our Lives: Experiences of Mental Breakdown and Recovery

By Penny Gray

Foreword by Peter Campbell

ISBN-10: 1-84310-057-6 ISBN-13

Published by Jessica Kingsley

Price: £17.99

Beyond the Water Towers: The unfinished revolution in mental health services 1985-2005

ISBN: 1 870480 64 3

Published by the Sainsbury Centre

Price £10.00