In 2008 I squatted for 6 weeks in Slab City – an off the grid itinerant camp in Southern California, home to the mentally ill, addicted, societally rejected and bravely non-conformist. I was confronting my own experiences with these problems. Silenced by the shame and stigma surrounding mental health, I felt unable to express the most important events in my life. Instead I pretended to be a journalist, took photos and made a story about “others”. It was therapeutic, and the work eventually allowed me to discuss these problems in more personal terms. Eight years on I have continued to learn about and deal with mental health and addiction both in my own life and through my photography.
While there are many communities all over the world affected by addiction and mental health crises, Slab City is unique, and warrants further examination. Its isolation from mainstream society has allowed a unique culture of acceptance and freedom to emerge. Slab City would easily qualify as one of the most marginalised communities in the developed world, yet it’s residents feel more at peace here, than in mainstream society. Lack of interaction with punitive governments, and judgemental societies means they now live with their problems, but without the stigma. Photographing this particular angle to the mental health story should stimulate discussion around the negative effects of stigma on these peoples’ lives.
Scientists’ are now doing their part too. New epigenetic research is giving further insight into the psychological debate of nature vs nurture, proving that our genes can switch mental illness on or off, depending on life experience. This new research allows science to lead a more compassioned approach to mental health issues, and invalidates the common assertion that these are problems of the “weak willed” or problems of choice – two of the most harmful, yet persistent assertions around mental health. The stories I gathered from the residents at Slab City are of immense hardship, unfathomable to most. By framing their lives in light of this new scientific discovery we can present a logical argument for eliminating the harmful stigma people with mental illness experience.
Addiction and mental health is finally being viewed as a political problem. Obama called the addiction epidemic in the USA a bipartisan issue, and many candidates in the 2016 USA election have made addiction and mental health policy platforms. Is the time finally coming for people with mental illness to have their social and political revolution?
© Claire Martin – Text and images