I want to begin by thanking Bob Whitaker for the invitation to blog on this site. I am honored to find myself amidst this fascinating cast of characters. I hope to be something like a cultural emissary from the world of the Icarus Project, a community of mad activists and artists and paradigm shifters that I’ve been actively working with since 2002. I’ll begin by republishing some articles and interviews that lay the foundation for an understanding of our work and vision, and you can check it out and see what you think and how it resonates with your world view. This coming Fall will be the Icarus Project’s 10th anniversary and we’re hoping to do some good reflecting and celebrating. I’ll keep you updated! Mad Love, Sascha
To begin, here’s a short interview with me from a magazine in Stockholm, Sweden from last Summer:
Sascha’s European Tour Interview in Stockholm, 2011
In June 2011, Sascha Altman DuBrul, co-founder of the Icarus Project, embarked on a European tour to present the project on the continent. We had the pleasure of catching up with him as he was about to set out.
Can you tell us about the Icarus Project? What’s your role in it?
The Icarus Project is a network of radical support groups, an arts and media project, and a creative activist platform for re-visioning the language and culture around ideas of mental health and illness. We named the project after the boy in Greek mythology who has wings that melt when he flies too close to the sun. Basically, we started the work by proclaiming that we have dangerous gifts that need to be taken care of, like Icarus’ wings, rather than seeing ourselves as having “mental illnesses.” We have a lot of respect for our stories and how we tell them.
I co-founded the Icarus Project with my best friend Jacks McNamara in 2002 and it initially began as a website for people to be able to find one another and raise the level of dialog around experiences in the mental health system. As it grew it became a magnet for the brilliant and mad.
What motivated you to found the project?
Initially: loneliness and alienation. I was diagnosed with what these days is known as “bipolar disorder”, and I desperately wanted to find others like myself who were interested re-visioning the sterile and capitalist language I found in my mouth. “Disease”, “disorder”, “dysfunction”…fuck that shit! We wanted a bunch of friends who could understand us and appreciate sensitivity and difference. We wanted to make art and music and write stories about our madness and visions for a new world.
I also saw within my community of activists that there was so many unhealthy ways we treated ourselves and each other. A really good friend and fellow activist committed suicide and there was no healthy space to talk about our feelings. So part of the motivation was to create space in the activist community to talk about our emotions and evolve our culture and people committed to changing the world.
Were there any individuals, groups, movements that you drew particular inspiration from?
Definitely. What made us different than all the other mental health advocacy organizations out there was that we came out of the anarchist movement, meaning primarily: the punk scene and the Global Justice Movement. In our language and culture we drew from many influences: from ecological metaphors and strategy from Permaculture, the Harm Reduction Movement informed our understanding of medications and drugs, from the LGBTQ Movement an idea of embracing our “queerness” and “madness” as cultural outsiders shaping the larger society and claiming our power as freaks. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were walking in the footsteps of the Anti-Psychiatry Movement with its radical critiques of society. The American Beats, the European Situationists, we have a lot of interesting ideological and artistic roots.
How has the Icarus journey been so far? What are your expectations for the future?
It’s been quite a journey: from two people’s crazy vision to a national collective organization, an office in mid-town Manhattan organizing listening spaces on college campuses, an international network of support groups, a series of beautiful publications, a website with 12,000+ members, a whole bunch of incredible people who’s lives have been changed for the better, and we’re just getting started! I’m very excited about this trip to Europe because I think there will be a lot of people who find our language and tools useful for their local communities. There is a lot of room for collaboration and growth.
What is “radical” about your approach? How does the Icarus Project distinguish itself from the various self-help groups in the field of “mental illness”?
I suppose what’s “radical” about the Icarus Project in our current social context is that not only do we completely reject the biopsychiatric model (the idea that problems originate in “chemical imbalances in the brain”), we dare to create actual community that celebrates difference and steps completely out of the tired paradigm of “reducing stigma” against people with mental illnesses. We actually have language to talk about individual and collective trauma and the roots of “mental illness” through social, political, and environmental lenses. We recognize that many of us suffer with psychic pain and extreme states of consciousness that are very real, and we do what we can to heal and support one another.
At the same time, we create listening spaces in our workshops and support groups and web forums where lots of different people can feel comfortable talking about their issues even if they disagree on some issues.
We create space for people who use diagnostic categories to describe themselves (like “clinical depression” and “social anxiety disorder”) and people who reject those categories, to speak to one another. We create space for people who take psychiatric medications and people who don’t to collaborate together.
So basically, we just changed the rules of the conversation and that, I suppose, is radical.
Would you say that the Icarus Project is an anarchist project?
In as much as the Icarus Project is a network of autonomus local collectives and mutual aid groups, and uses consensus-driven, non-hierarchical, transparent decision making processes for our organization, and champions direct action in the mental health area, I would say yes, we are an anarchist organization.
Do you think that there is a lack of awareness in the anarchist movement when it comes to issues of “mental health” and the medical/psychiatric industry? What kind of developments would you like to see?
I can’t speak for Europe, but here in the USA, the anarchist movement attracts a lot of people who’ve been traumatized by the world and are fighting to make the world a better place, but often at the expense of their own health. We often have an easier time struggling and fighting against others than we do practicing mutual aid with one another. Often our very language betrays us, and having spaces for conversations where we practice and begin to use new language can be so helpful. Better language, more safe spaces for dialog, clearer communication, more accessible wellness tools.
How does this translate into your vision for anarchist communities? Will psychiatric diagnosis be a thing of the past? You are familiar with the concern most commonly raised: “But people have psychological problems, and they need help!” How do you respond to this?
If you’re trying to treat a problem, diagnosis is really important! The question is: who’s making the diagnosis and what tools do we have to work with? There’s a great saying that applies to psychiatry: “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Psychiatry has a very limited set of tools to work with and a very limited set of diagnostic criteria. We’re saying: expand our minds and expand the toolbox!
Finally, you are about to set out on a European tour. The Stockholm Anarchist Bookfair will be your first stop. What’s your further schedule like? What are your hopes for the tour?
After Stockholm I’ll be facilitating Icarus workshops in Berlin and then Barcelona, and then making my way through the Balkans, visiting the town in Greece where my Jewish family came from at the turn of the last century. I hope to make lots of new friends and plant the seeds for an Icarus support network in Europe. It’s my first time traveling overseas and I’m ridiculously excited! Thanks for asking!
Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness: An activist writes of The Icarus Project, which is a network of radical support groups, an arts and media project, and a platform for re-visioning the language and culture around ideas of mental health and illness.