“This has to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. Pete Shaughnessy, a great man and true friend is dead. The last month has been a daze. Christmas and New Year have passed, seemingly everybody rushing around enjoying themselves, whilst I’ve been feeling anger and extreme sadness, then shock and disbelief.”
(Simon Barnett, Mad Pride)
Pete Shaughnessy was a mental health activist, a founder of Reclaim Bedlam, and of Mad Pride. He died on 15th December 2002, after committing suicide, stepping in front of a train at Battersea Park station.
Pete was born in South London in a working class Irish family. After studying drama he worked in a children’s home and as a carer for people with disabilities, before becoming a bus driver in 1990 on London Buses, driving the no 36. In April 1992, coming to the aid of a conductor who was being assaulted, Pete was hit with an iron bar. Shortly afterwards he went on a silent hunger strike outside his bus garage in protest at the privatisation of the service, which was leading to more work for less pay: “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'”.
By the end of the year he was hospitalised, diagnosed with manic depression.
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! In 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.
In response to the 750th anniversary of ‘Bedlam’ – the asylum which was the precursor of South London’s Maudsley Hospital , where Pete was a patient – in 1997, Pete and others gathered under the banner of “Reclaim Bedlam”, seeing nothing to celebrate in either the original Bedlam (‘a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,’ in historian Roy Porter’s words), or the state of mental health care.
As Pete wrote: “Maudsley & Bethlem Mental Health Trust saw itself as la crème de la crème of mental health. In 1997, it was more like the Manchester City of mental health [This was written back when Man City were the shite end of Manc football… ho hum – Ed]. Situated in one of the poorest areas of the country, it put a lot of resources into its national projects, and neglected its local ones.
It’s history went back to the first Bedlam, the first institution of mental health. If you pop down to the museum at Bethlem Hospital, you will see a picture proudly displayed of the 700th celebrations in 1947, with the Queen Mother planting a tree. Well, not exactly planting, more like putting her foot on a spade. So, when some PR bureaucrat came up with the idea of 750th celebrations, it must have all made sense. An excuse for a year of corporate beanos. The Chief Executive could picture the MBE in the cabinet. There was only one problem: in 1947, the patients would have been well pleased with a party, in 1997 some patients wanted more. In the so-called ‘user friendly’ 90s, I thought ‘commemoration’ was more appropriate. So, a few of us went to battle with the Maudsley PR machine. It was commemoration vs. celebration. I think for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream. We spoke at Reclaim the Streets and political events. We would gatecrash conferences to push the message. I know we pissed users off by our style; personally I found some users more judgemental than the staff we talked to. They were even a few users who wanted to have their stall at the ‘Funday’ and cross our picket line. Frustrating. When that proposal was put to me, I lost my nut, which meant I threatened to bring Reclaim the Streets down to smash up their stall. Because of that remark, I had two police stations hassling me up to the day of our Reclaim Bedlam picnic and the picket at the staff ball, the appropriate opening event of the celebrations, had to be dropped. We had our first picnic at Imperial War Museum, one of the sites of Bedlam Hospital; Simon Hughes MP came and spoke. Features in Big Issue and Nursing Times, and we were afloat.
Our next event was to screw up the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s Cathedral which a member of the Royal Family was attending. BBC2’s ‘From the Edge’ got in on the act for that one, and it’s widely thought that because of our antics on the steps of St Paul’s – as well as stopping the traffic at 11am with a boat forcing Tower Bridge to open – that the Chief Exec didn’t get his MBE.
Our next event was to join up with ECT Anonymous and the All_Wales User and Survivor Group and picket the Royal College of Psychiatry. It was the first time Reclaim Bedlam had been involved in International Direct Action. Keeping up the pressure on the Royal College of Psychiatry we hijacked their anti-stigma campaign, ‘In Every Family in the Land’. The soundbite I used was: ‘the psychiatrist is patting you on the head with one hand, and with the other hand he /she is using compulsory treatment to inject you up the bum.”
Pete also re-invigorated a local mental health group, turning it into a legend of user-led self-help:
“Before 1997, Southwark Mind was essentially just a management committee accused by some of being a middle-class do-gooders consisting of Maudsley consultants’ wives and the like, who would meet up every month or so to decide which worthy causes at the Maudsley should get grants out of the money Southwark Mind is given from the shop in East Dulwich. Pete, with the help of Denise Mckenna changed all this by carving up the 1997 AGM and turning Southwark Mind into a user-lead charity. This led to a development worker – me – being employed to take ideas forward including Pete’s. I met him at my first day at work at Southwark Mind. He said that he’d just come out of hospital and was depressed, but nevertheless introduced me to the Lorrimore drop-in and Mary’s Caff. We got on immediately.
Pete had already built up quite a reputation for himself by this stage. He was being groomed by Mental Health Media to be a top ‘mad’ media spokesman. He’d started the group ‘Reclaim Bedlam’ who had organised a sit-in outside the original Bedlam site at the Imperial War Museum to protest against ill-conceived ‘anniversary celebrations.’ And he’d started the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe mental health Support Group, a local self-help organisation. In all these ventures, Pete gave of himself without talking very much.” (Robert Dellar)
Pete was involved with others around Southwark Mind organized a demo against SANE head-quarters in 1999 “opposing their support (at the time) for compulsory treatment orders being proposed by the government – to no small part because of SANE’s lobbying – things started to get serious. We managed to get 200 people turning up to the SANE march – which at the time was an unprecedented figure for a ‘mad’ demo. We had whistles, drums, a 7-foot long syringe together with a kitchen table, corn-flakes and milk, tridents (because we’re the devil), banners, flyer you name it – we pulled out the stops. SANE didn’t know what the fuck had hit them. They dropped their support for CTO’s and to this day, they’re still reeling from this event.”
Then Pete went on to found Mad Pride with Robert Dellar, Simon Barnett and Mark Roberts.
Mad Pride orchestrated a campaign of publicity and protest – holding a vigil on Suicide Bridge in Archway, to remember all of the people who’ve died there and all of the other people who commit suicide – ‘murder by society’; protesting against the pharmaceutical industry’s predominance over psychiatric services; organising a Mad Pride open-air festival in Stoke Newington in July 2000; the publication of a book ‘ Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture,’ which was highly acclaimed and successful… “we got user-led mental health issues into the media as never before, and we inspired many people. We also, without a doubt, moved the paradigm of the British ‘user movement’ left-wards.”
“Mad Pride has only ever been a small group, but what we’ve managed to do together has been tremendous, and this has been in no small part down to Pete – the ideas man. It was his idea to hold a vigil on Suicide Bridge in Archway, to remember all of the people who’ve died there and all of the other people who commit suicide – ‘murder by society.’ This felt particularly relevant to me as my friend Jo Crane had killed herself there not long before.
Pete’s networking skills ensured that radical clinicians joined with us to protest against the pharmaceutical industry’s predominance over psychiatric services in 2001. Pete offered endless good advice , calmed us and used brilliant conflict-resolution techniques to keep us together as a group. And if he hadn’t woken up in time that fateful day on the 15th of July 2000 ( after a drunken Nikki Sudden performance at a book-shop the night before), the famous Mad Pride open-air festival in Stoke Newington wouldn’t have happened, because the Festival Support Group would have assumed we weren’t turning up. Pete was also our most prolific and best media spokesman, appearing on telly and in Newspapers all over the place. I’ll go into more detail about some of this later, in a book.
I think that we (MAD PRIDE) over-reached ourselves during that summer of 2000, which also saw several indoor concerts, and the publication of a book ‘ Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture,’ which was highly acclaimed and successful, and for which Pete wrote one of the best chapters( ‘Into the Deep End’). The Mad Pride work was too intense, and none of us have ever been quite the same again. But we tried, we got user-led mental health issues into the media as never before, and we inspired many people. We also, without a doubt, moved the paradigm of the British ‘user movement’ left-wards.
Being a ‘survivor activist’ is hard work in a harsh world, and its not surprising that there is a large burn-out rate in this field. Pete burnt out in the most shocking way imaginable, but we must respect his decision whilst mourning his departure. I think Pete would have wanted us to carry on his work and stay alive and help change this obscene capitalist society so that it is not too awful a place for people like Pete – and us – to live in.” (Robert Dellar)
“He was a wild man, a howling wolf. In Mad Pride, Pete could be relied on to arrive dishevelled to our meeting place with always the most outrageous idea. He would have us lying down in the traffic at the Elephant dressed in doctor’s coats, he posed before pigs (real ones) in Parliament Square hoisted up next to Churchill with our monster syringe, he formed our anarchic identity with his polemic and unremitting message of no compromise. Everybody knew Pete. At festivals he fixed up discussion for us in canvas premises of politics and maverick groups. He worked as a volunteer for the Big Issue. He was our mouthpiece, the mouthy one, one step away from professional journalism, the one the media always asked for. It is unthinkable that such a bright flame should end his own life, not reach his own potential, take himself away from us. But the chaos set in, and at one drastic and crucial moment he decided to could not beat it. How any of us wish we could have been with him at that moment to argue him round or try and instil some optimism. He is gone. Our roaring boy, who shocked the establishment and made them love him, as we did. He goes with all his energy, passion and success lighting his path. He was totally committed, to inclusion, to the Survivor Movement for over ten years. As a man and as a star he leaves a huge void which will never be filled. We mourn with pain for a great personality who lit our way for so long. I’ve used the analogy with Pete verbally many times that its as if we were side by side in the fucking trenches in a war, in battle. That’s what it felt like doing all the MAD PRIDE stuff with him. I’ll never forget Pete: my friend, my comrade, a man brave and able enough to change the world through force of personality rather than power. It’s an incredible strength that he had. Hopefully some of us will have learnt something from this.” (Debbie McNamara)
There are many other memories of Pete Shaughnessy here
Check out Into the Deep End, Pete’s chapter for Mad Pride – A Celebration of Mad Culture, edited by Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online