Whynacht and Burke talk mental health

7 Mondays and Change Your Mind host themed spoken word event

Exploring the crossroads between spoken word poetry and mental health, 7 Mondays and Change Your Mind hosted a mental health-themed spoken word event last Tuesday at Bridge Street Café. Sponsored by the Campbell-Verduyn fund, the Mount Allison English department and the Mount Allison Student’s Union, the event hosted two guest speakers: Laura Burke, a playwright, performer, and mental health advocate, and Ardath Whynacht, a professor of sociology at Mt. A and interdisciplinary artist, each of whom delivered spoken performances.

After a brief introduction, Whynacht began the open mic by engaging the crowd with a short ritual designed to prepare the room for a speaker. She performed some of her pieces, which dealt closely with her areas of academic expertise: mental health and disability, the prison system, cultural criminology and their intersections. Whynacht’s poetry addressed the distress and fear directed toward people living with mental illness and the societal compulsion to institutionalize them where they are often abused and neglected.

Passages such as “All we can do is be angry, lock them up but not ask why” spoke to that fear, as well as the expulsion and isolation of vulnerable people with mental illness. While her themes evoked the sobering and violent reality that many people face, Whynacht’s poetry is a call for change, cognizant of the often painful conversations needed to challenge societal perceptions.

Burke’s performance followed Whynacht’s with some of her own poetry, as well as a monologue written from the point of view of an institutionalized young woman living with a psychotic disorder. Burke described how she preferred not to shape stories around diagnoses, but that in some cases it was necessary to refer to them because she feels it is necessary to resist conventional biomedical labels.

Between performances, Burke spoke about her fondness of what she called “night language,” which she said was a term used for language that is more affective than rational, and more subjective than unequivocal. Burke went on to revise popular notions of “recovery” and how she believes that the notion of “going back to the way things were” in terms of dealing with mental illness should be replaced with “moving forward.”

Students and other attendees were invited to perform poetry of their own or that of another’s, especially ones which convey personal experiences related to mental health.

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