“Labels are used to try and understand things, but we often get them quite wrong”

Performance poet and writer Daniel Goodwin was halfway through his studies at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts when he was mugged in a park. Afterwards, he experienced psychosis for the first time.

“I went to London thinking I would study representations of queer theatre, and after three months I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Things change right.”

His experience with the UK mental health system was “pretty horrendous really”. He remembers seeing a doctor every couple of weeks for seven minutes at a time. Because of the time pressure on services, intense and invasive questions would be asked, leaving little time to digest or respond to them.

“The term ‘schizophrenia’ was tossed around me, but never discussed. I’d hear doctors and even receptionists having conversations about me, but I was never included.” 

Looking back, Daniel now thinks it was strange that a doctor who had spent so little time with him would have enough information to diagnose him with schizophrenia.

New Zealand’s mental health system was wonderful in comparison, he says.

“The services were really goal-orientated. I was included in the process, which was amazing. Past diagnoses were stripped away, which allowed me to start from scratch and understand my experiences on my own terms. Language or labelling was added after.”

While schizophrenia is on his file, having the ability to disclose his history and get to the underlying causes has led to the realisation he may have been misdiagnosed in the UK.

“It’s been the biggest revelation to have happened this year. After years of work and support, I’d say PTSD and psychosis are the closest things to ‘diagnostic language’ I would use.”

Daniel thinks the term schizophrenia is widely misunderstood.

While Daniel clinged to the word at first, reclaiming it through art to make it his own, he now chooses to use psychosis instead.

“Schizophrenia is a word that carries a stigma. People are scared to use it because it’s a label we use to describe a wide range of symptoms that we don’t understand. Psychosis describes an experience.

“Labels are used to try and understand things, say you’re gay, or straight, or a man or a woman, we use these words to make understanding more efficient. But often we rush that process and get things quite wrong.

“Some people have hallucinations or hear voices, but in a positive way,'' he says. “That’s a very different scenario than what you see in the media or from what most people think.”

Daniel had one experience where he believed he was in a romantic relationship while in London.

“His name was Chris, and I’d met him in an intensive mental health unit. He had stage four cancer. I had a lot of memories of us spending time together and comforting each other. In a lot of ways it was a beautiful delusion and I look back at it fondly.

“It was hard coming out of it. I was at a party talking about having a boyfriend and people asked to see photos. It was only when I scrolled through my phone that I realised the relationship wasn’t real.”

Daniel has questioned why his mind went there, thinking that perhaps he felt disconnected and yearned for that connection. His most recent play, Chrome Dome and Schizo, explores this experience.

In fact, his mental health has often informed his work. It’s helped him explore and understand those experiences and he’s used them to process and reflect on the world.

Since his first diagnosis, Daniel says he’s grown as an artist and a creator. 

“It’s changed how I connect with people going through similar or peripheral experiences. It’s been invaluable, really.”

Chrome Dome and Schizo questions the discourse around representations of mental health in the arts, something that Daniel says films like The Joker need to do more of.

“It’s funny, The Joker experiences a similar delusion. He has a romantic connection with his neighbour, and later realises he imagined the connection. We see the neighbour terrified in her apartment. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying at the same time.

“It’s an important (read: old) device - throw rocks at your character to evoke sympathy. The message in this case being: the violence that comes after is somewhat justified. But we don’t look at the rocks. We rarely question the experiences. It’s hard to, without using exposition.”

But there’s no mention of recovery, processing trauma, subplot development or the incorrect assumption that mental illness translates to violence, he says.

“I’ve seen analysis after analysis, commentaries of the film relating to free market economics - and they’ve all been very intelligent. But it took weeks before I saw a review mentioning mental health or psychosis. 

“I don’t want another old white man telling us his views about American society. Psychosis is not your metaphor for something falling apart. You’re having these discussions on top of people like me, not with people like me.

“It’s the same as the NHS; labels are tossed around, affect you dramatically, but rarely are you allowed to be involved in the discussion.

“The framework and the craft need to be discussed before the content.” 

Nowhere in the film industry is Daniel seeing these experiences talked about in an ethical way, so he’s made it his mission to include these discussions in his work.  

“I have a privilege through my profession to step into the discussion. And I will use it.

“Art should never be prioritised before people.”