Women Listening to Women: An Oral History of the Bristol Crisis Service for Women

In April 1986 a group of women in Bristol who considered themselves both feminists and survivors of psychiatric treatment came together to found the Bristol Crisis Service for Women (BCSW). Organised as a collective and with scant funding, the group drew on the feminist practice of consciousness-raising to develop its work.

 It also took inspiration from the contemporaneous Survivor Movement, that rejected the medical model of mental illness, condemned the barbarity of much psychiatric treatment and campaigned for mentally ill people to have a much greater say in their treatment.

From very early on Bristol Crisis Service for Women was concerned with supporting women and girls who were using self injury to cope with their distress. A number of the founding and early members had lived experience of self injury and some had spent time in locked wards as psychiatric patients.

Bristol Crisis Service for Women was envisaged as a peer listening service, by women who understood for women who were suffering. In January 1988, therefore, it opened its first helpline from the back of a charity shop in a run down area of Bristol. Designed to be open when other services weren’t, the helpline initially took calls from 9pm to 1am on Fridays and Saturdays. It was staffed entirely by volunteers, who supported each other by offering ‘day after counselling’ by phone the morning following each shift.

The fascinating story of this DIY feminist listening service has recently been the subject of a two year oral history research project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Called Women Listening to Women: Voices of the Bristol Crisis Service for Women, on 1 March 2022 it launched a website, a podcast series, an 24pp illustrated booklet and two touring exhibitions called Voices of the Bristol Crisis Service for Women and The Power of Listening

Starting an oral history project in March 2020, two weeks before the Covid 19 pandemic broke, was not ideal. Once it became obvious that remote interviewing was the only way the project could move forward, and that it could be ethically achieved, we started investigating how it could be done. This was helped in no small part by the Oral History Society’s excellent video guides on the best kit to use to get an archive quality sound recording over the internet. We settled on using Squadcast podcasting software which was affordable and very simple to use. 

Recruiting and training volunteers remotely turned out to be quite straightforward. It also extended the reach of the project, with women volunteering from across the UK, although this definitely made the ‘community’ aspect of our community history project harder to achieve. 

We were also concerned that interviewees would not want to talk about very personal and potentially distressing to a face on a screen rather than a real live person, but actually the remoteness worked the other way, allowing women to feel relaxed in their own home without a stranger intruding in their living room. 

Interviews were probably shorter than they would otherwise have been, though, with Zoom fatigue typically setting in after an hour or so. After five months we’d recorded and transcribed 22 interviews with former staff and volunteers from the 1980s to the present day. These have been deposited at Bishopsgate Institute, where they will form part of the new Bristol Crisis Service for Women and Self Injury Support Collection in 2022. 

As a newcomer to the history of mental health services, I found myself repeatedly double checking dates to confirm that the archaic attitudes described in the women’s oral histories were not from the 1950s but from the 1990s, 2000s and even, sadly, the present day. Bristol Crisis Service for Women published research on women and self injury in the 1990s that was considered groundbreaking, for example, simply because it was based on the lived experience of service users rather than the opinions of their psychiatrists.  

Various themes emerged from the interviews. The importance that Bristol Crisis Service for Women was a women-only space because of the strong causal link between experiencing traumatic violence at the hands of men, often during childhood, and using self injury as a coping mechanism; the intense impact of the helpline training on the volunteers – many of whom went on to become psychotherapists and counsellors, while others finally felt brave enough to find their way into therapy for their own trauma; the extraordinary unwillingness from medical and psychiatric professionals to listen to their patients, which led many traumatised women being labelled as seriously mentally ill or personality disordered rather than profoundly distressed. The final, depressingly familiar, theme was of the constant struggle for funding, both of statutory mental health services and voluntary sector organisations which subsist on a patchwork of short-term project funding.

Bristol Crisis Service for Women, since 2014 called Self Injury Support, continues to support women and girls via phone, text and email on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Its support services are still kept going by trained volunteers, now managed by paid staff. Although its management structure has changed – it stopped being a collective in 2002 – Self Injury Support remains the only national helpline for women and girls using self injury 34 years after it originally started in the back room of a charity shop in Bristol. It is a fantastic example of how even the most marginalised and dismissed people in society can effect social change when they work together and never give up. Visit the project website and listen to the voices of the of Bristol Crisis Service for Women for yourself.

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