Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pete Shaughnessy, ten years gone

Back in October, Alex from Past Tense Publications led a group of us on a Camberwell radical history walk. Pausing by the Maudsley hospital, he recalled the life of mental health activist Pete Shaughnessy. It is ten years this month since Pete died at the age of forty - on 15 December 2002, he stepped in front of a train at Battersea Park station. The inquest concluded that he had killed himself.  On Christmas Eve 2002, more than three hundred people packed into St Thomas More Church in East Dulwich for his funeral service.

Pete was born in 1962 and grew up in a working class Irish family in East Dulwich. In 1990 he started work as a 36 bus driver in Peckham, and while working on the buses he also began his journey through the mental health system. Pete wrote an account of this period in a a text called  Into the Deep End, published in the book 'Mad Pride - A Celebration of Mad Culture', edited by Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson (Spare Change Books, 2000).

Going through a difficult time at home and at work, Pete wrote that  'my road into 'madness' began with direct action. I worked on the buses at Peckham, south London for three years, and had to put up with some shit there. So, when the company announced longer hours and less wages to a group of drivers at my garage, enough was enough. I went on a hunger and speech strike at the bus stop outside the garage. Most drivers at the time said that this was when I went 'mad'. Others put it down to iron bar assault I experienced earlier, going to the aid of a conductress I was working with. She got kicked in the face at 10am, because a guy wouldn't show his pass, and I got cracked with an iron bar by his mate. Nice bit of sanity!! My shrink reckoned I got good value at £3,000 criminal injuries for that "nice bit of sanity". My sanity for 3K. Cheers Doc. Anyhow, back to the strike. It lasted from 4.18am to 19.30pm'.

Signed off sick for six weeks, Pete went on a journey to Glastonbury via the road protest at Twyford Down before being declared 'fit for work': 'Back at work, they made me sit around for a day before giving me my first job on the road. At 8.20am on the 4th of January 1993 I went to pick up a bus in Peckham. I spotted the brake light wasn't working, so I should've got the engineer out to fix it, but instead decided to drive the bus as far away from the garage as possible. At Harrow Road Police Station, I booted the last two remaining passengers off, told the police about the defects i..e. no brake light, no fare chart, dummy video and a cold bus, as said 'PC Harrow Road'. I rang the engineer and he choked in his tea when I said 'No fare chart.' That was the end of his career as a bus driver - though not the last time driving a bus. As a 2003 obituary in The Big Issue recalls 'Last summer, when his illness was at its most florid, Pete chanced upon a bus with its keys in, at a depot in south London. He drove it all the way to Worthing. Realising he wasn't well, he headed to the local A&E. After several hours unsuccessfully waiting see a psychiatrist, he returned to the bus and drove it back to London'.

Pete's depression was exacerbated by further violence in his life - his sister was murdered by her boyfriend in Brixton, and Pete was then sectioned in Guys after hitting a policeman.

Reclaim Bedlam and Mad Pride

In 1997, the Bethlem and Maudsley NHS Trust decided to hold a series of events to mark the Bethlem hospital's 750th anniversary. Pete and others involved with Southwark MIND felt that commemoration rather than celebration was in order, given some of the terrible experiences of mentally ill people at Bedlam through the centuries, so they launched 'Reclaim Bedlam' with a series of actions including a picnic at the Imperial War Museum (location of the original Bedlam).

Pete wrote that with Reclaim Bedlam 'for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream'. Out of this experience, Pete went on to be one of the founders of  Mad Pride in 1999 putting on gigs and publishing texts that not only demanded better treatment for 'the mad' but argued that 'madness' was sometimes an understandable response to an intolerable situation - and that in the spectrum of human life, madness can offer insights as well as suffering.

Sadly Pete's life, like so many others in his position, ended in suicide. Mad Pride contested the idea that suicide was just a personal tragedy and saw it as a direct result of the lack of real support for people with mental health problems. A few months after Pete's death they issued a press release that argued:  '6,000 people a year in Britain are recorded as having committed suicide, though the real figure is probably far higher. New Labour is currently intent on pushing through a universally-criticised new mental health bill aimed at forcibly medicating psychiatric patients in the community and incarcerating people with "personality disorders" in case they become dangerous. This concern for public safety is based on wholly inaccurate stereotypes about the mentally ill. The fact is that violent acts by the mentally ill are extremely uncommon and we are far more likely to be dangers to ourselves. Where is the legislation that will help prevent us killing ourselves by improving our social conditions and treatment options? Mad Pride founder and media spokesman Pete Shaughnessy killed himself by jumping under a train at Battersea on December 15th last year. What is there in the new mental health bill that will protect people like Pete? F*ck all, that's what. Suicide is murder by society: we say STOP THE SUICIDE'.

Ten years after Pete's death, has anything changed?

(More about Pete Shaughnessy here, including his article about being a Dulwich Hamlet FC. supporter).

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