More on Recovery & Liberation: Oppression & Resilience

Jack Carney, DSW
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Just a few days ago, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, perhaps the foremost legal advocacy organization for persons with disabilities in the country, issued its “vision of community integration” for the disabled, listing the “key principles” that should be utilized to achieve that aim. Very reminiscent of SAMSHA’s recent “definition of recovery.” Bazelon stated that it felt obliged to issue its statement in view of the relative lack of progress on this front twenty years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ten years after the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, both of which mandated that all services for persons with disabilities be delivered in “integrated” or “least restrictive” environments. Bazelon explained, “Within public mental health, there are abundant slogans concerning ‘Olmstead compliance,’ ‘person-centeredness,’ and ‘recovery,’ but overwhelmingly people with psychiatric disabilities remain on the social margins.” As if on cue, New York’s Governor Cuomo, in his new year’s “State of the State” address, pledged to develop an “Olmstead Implementation Plan” to guide provision of the State’s disability services. After all, “Olmstead” is referenced in the Obamacare compliance regulations.

So it would appear that “Olmstead” has joined “recovery” as the day’s shibboleths or watchwords. And while it’s evident that the provisions of the ADA have not been enforced, the only explanation that readily presents itself is that government compliance agencies don’t have the stomach for it. I had blogged about this back in late June of last year, when Senator Tom Harkin, the foremost champion of the ADA and Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was reduced to cajoling private industry to hire persons with disabilities, whose unemployment rate stood then and stands today at 80%. To paraphrase the late Barry Goldwater, not one of my heroes, “you can’t legislate morality;” and when you try, as with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legislation Goldwater was alluding to, you’re left with a bunch of folks who spend the rest of their lives trying to overturn it. As for the ADA, who’s hated and feared more these days – on a lengthening list that now includes African-Americans, gays, immigrants and Muslims – than persons believed to be seriously mentally ill?

Bazelon also spelled out what it believes to be the principal barriers to community integration of the disabled: out-dated notions of effective services and service delivery by state and local governments; stakeholder – read “provider” – resistance to change; and lack of awareness of their civil rights by persons with disabilities and their families. Yet, why should State and local governments and individual and agency providers treat persons presumed to be seriously mentally ill any differently, i.e., as persons with legally mandated civil rights, when they’ve been incarcerating them with impunity for over one hundred and fifty years? And, why, for the very same reason, should these same persons and their families believe they have any civil rights? In Bazelon’s final analysis, the issue boils down to denial of the civil rights of persons with disabilities; but, if the Federal government has failed to protect those rights for the past twenty years, why should it begin to do so now?

The answer is political and is to be found in the powerlessness of the affected individuals. While a legal remedy might be pursued by advocates such as the Bazelon Center, a political solution, a reordering of the power relationships of the stakeholders in the public mental health system, must be sought by the inmates or survivors or peers, the stakeholders that have been disempowered or oppressed. In my last blog on this site, I defined oppression as theft of a person’s self-identity; I contended, further, that the recovery of one’s sense of self is an act of political empowerment and equivalent to an individual’s personal liberation. The liberation of all inmates/survivors/peers will, as per my logic, require the formation of a civil rights movement analagous to the civil rights movement of African-Americans subsequent to World War II, the paradigm followed thereafter by women and gay Americans with much success. As I also wrote in that last blog, the various peer organizations operating across the country appear to lack a unity of purpose at this point in time to form such a movement. They also appear to lack the militancy that a political movement invariably requires.

One of the largest and most effective peer-run organizations, the National Empowerment Center (NEC), seems intent on following a strategy proposed by Judi Chamberlin, demonstrating the competence of peers in helping one another rather than banging heads with the mental health system. Shortly after I mentioned the peer respite center run by Voices of the Heart in upstate New York, NEC advertised a webinar about respite centers that I logged onto yesterday. Several presenters spoke about the respite centers with which they were involved – in Santa Cruz county in California and Lincoln, Nebraska, to name just two – re-traced the steps each had taken to establish the particular center and encouraged interested webinar participants to consider established respite centers in their locales. All part of a concerted effort endorsed by SAMHSA and various state and local governments. Up to this point, thirteen peer-run respites centers have been established in eight states, with several more in the planning stages. The Lincoln program sounded particularly ambitious: up and running for three years; accredited by the Center for the Accreditation of Rehabilitation Programs (CARF); overseeing a supported employment program in addition to its respite house; in line to expand with county funding, as the county seeks to reduce the size of its community mental health center. Additional information about crisis alternatives and resources can be found on NEC’s website, http://www.power2u.org.

There are pitfalls to this approach, particularly co-optation by government and by public funding; but it certainly would be instructive to see how effective these peer-run programs are over the course of several years. New helping models might well evolve out of these efforts. This approach might also serve to buy time for peer-led organizations to mature to the point where the issue of oppression in the public mental health system could be confronted head-on. It’s a dicey issue, one which raises hackles in government and private agency and professional providers, most of which view their efforts to help their clients and patients as beneficial if not benign. To inform them that their interventions, no matter how well intentioned, can still be experienced as oppressive is to invite denial and provoke sharp disagreement. Inmates/ survivors/peers can more readily acknowledge the harm the system has done them and they can discuss this with one another, but to whom else in the system can they talk about it? Not very readily to the government officials and professionals who control it.

Back in May of last year, I wrote a blog wherein I proposed dumping the biomedical model and replacing it with one rooted in trauma. My own seventeen-year long experience as director of a case management program serving all of New York City put me in contact with hundreds of persons who had suffered sexual or physical abuse from childhood on. I regarded sexual and physical assault as acts of oppression, invariably replicated in the public mental health system, and spent a good part of the blog discussing oppression. Given the controversy that the word provokes, I’d like to reproduce what I wrote over six months ago immediately below. It’ll provide you with some idea of why I give it such importance. That discussion concludes with one that concerns “resilience,” which I offer to explain how inmates/survivors/peers manage to survive “a public mental health system that cannot help or protect them and is often a prime party to their oppression.”

To begin.

“I was re-introduced to the notion of oppression when I read, about ten years ago, Franz Fanon and the Psychology of the Oppression, published in 1985 by Dr. Hussein Bulhan, a Sudanese psychologist teaching at Boston University. This was at a time when we were working with parolees who had received diagnoses of serious mental illness, and I was seeking to understand why mental health practitioners and community-based programs were so reluctant to help them. Was it something about the parolees or was it the mental health system itself that presented the greatest barriers?

“I had originally read Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth thirty years earlier. Fanon was a Martinican psychiatrist who wound up in Algeria treating the torture victims of the French secret service as well as their torturers during the Algerian revolution of the 1950’s. He was witness to men and women so brutalized that they had surrendered their very identities, their social and personal sense of self, to those who had brutalized them; and he came to believe that the brutalized could only regain their sense of self, their lives, by taking the lives of their oppressors. One might remember that the Black Panthers analogized Fanon’s formulations when they spoke of racism in this country as domestic colonialism.

“Accordingly, “oppression” is a very loaded term. Bulhan defines it much more broadly than Fanon, viz., as an interactive social phenomenon involving more and less powerful persons, wherein the former, via acts or threats of physical or psychic violence, projects his/her more loathsome aspects of self onto the less powerful and the latter introjects them as her/his own. In short, the more powerful gains a sense of self at the expense of the latter who loses it, a process also outlined by Goffman in Asylums. These acts of oppression and violence can be structural or societal and institutional, as well as inter- and intra-personal. In Bulhan’s inclusive taxonomy, structural or societal violence can take the form of poverty, racism, patriarchism, homophobia, unemployment, the death penalty; institutional violence can be seen in police violence against persons of color, the incarceration of persons of color and poor persons for serious mental illnesses, the tracking of children of color and poor children into special education classes; and personal violence can consist of violence against others and against self, including suicide, self-mutilation, anorexia and bulimia. The principal consequence for those being oppressed is a sense of general alienation – from self, others, including the oppressor, from their own culture, and from creative and meaningful social practice or social roles.

“In sum, oppression and its violence impede the development of an individual’s self-identity and must be regarded as risk factors that increase an individual’s vulnerability to [psychosis].

“What can offset the adverse impact of oppression is an individual’s resilience and the extent to which the environment in which the individual resides is facilitative or supportive or not. Werner and Smith define resilience as a person’s constitutional or characterological resources that assure that an individual’s personal development will not be blocked even under adverse environmental circumstances. They emphasize that a person’s resilience is not a universal constant but waxes and wanes and is dependent on a series of variables … the person’s life cycle stage; gender; cultural context; the severity of the stressor the person is experiencing; and the accumulation of stressors over time. The key factor in enhancing a person’s resilience and in reversing the downward trajectory of a person’s life, no matter the person’s age, is what they term a “facilitative environment”, viz., one that provides nurturance, support and validation, as well as learning and vocational opportunities. They cite as examples, in a number of studies published largely in the 1980’s, effective nurturing, particularly by the person’s biological or surrogate mother; the father’s esteem and respect for the mother; an accessible support system, including supportive teachers and religious figures; and military or volunteer service that served to remove the person from a toxic or unsupportive environment.

“I concluded then, as I do now, that persons presumed to be seriously mentally ill possess a great deal of resilience. How else could they have survived what all have gone through? Indeed, in the powerpoint presentation I developed ten years ago to persuade mental health practitioners of our clients’ innate potential for recovery, I posed “oppression” and “resilience” as poles of a dialectic that could only be resolved by our “clients” themselves. Specifically, I believed, and still do, that persons presumed to have serious mental illnesses need to organize themselves as a civil rights movement whose objective would be the reclamation of what I termed their community citizenship, viz., meaningful social roles and participation.

“I had been struck in the description of the resiliency studies by the absence of psychotherapists and other “professional” helpers as members of the facilitative environments that promoted the study subjects’ resilience and successful outcomes. It appeared to me that the helpers – as opposed to the “professionals” — in those studies were able to negotiate two difficult dialectical dilemmas: social control versus social change, or to whom were they really accountable? and nature versus nurture, or could the individuals they were trying to help really change? In my estimation, they did so by remaining true to their mission, viz., to help those whom they were helping free themselves of the limitations that their family and community and larger societal environments might have ordinarily imposed on them.

“I believe, in accordance with Bulhan, that mental health practitioners have a third to address, one which Bulhan terms the “pathology of the self” – [presumed] mental illness; loss of personal functioning; assumption of the powerless patient role — versus “pathology of liberty” – loss of ability to self-actualize via meaningful social praxis or functioning; loss of a valid social role. My many years of practice experience have persuaded me that most mental health practitioners have little appreciation of the latter, i.e., pathology of liberty, and have no training appropriate to the task [of effectively addressing it]. In other words, it has never been posed to them as their mission. Rather have we all been trained, particularly over the course of the past thirty years, to tell the persons with serious mental illnesses we presume to help that they are sick, will be sick, probably for the rest of their lives, and will be better off to accept their roles as patients. Now that’s oppression!

“That’s why I prefer the trauma paradigm. How much more effective and rewarding to tell a person undergoing a psychotic episode, when she/he is able to ask, that she/he is the victim of probably lifelong abuse; that she/he can learn skills and strategies that will prevent or mitigate future episodes, should they occur; that, over time, she/he will be free to make life choices regarding roles and relationships, much as we all do. That’s known as self-determination!”

That’s it! Hope you found it helpful. Our collective task is to fight our way through the slogans and the rhetoric and get to the core of what our mission really is and means. As always, don’t mourn, organize!

References:

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, “The Bazelon Center’s Vision of Community Integration,” January 23, 2012, http://www.bazelon.org

Bulhan, H.A., Franz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression, Plenum Press, New York, 1985

Carney, J., “Sexual Abuse of Men & Women Caught Up in the Public Mental Health System: Assessment & Treatment,” powerpoint presentation, January, 2007 & January, 2012, revised

Carney, J., “Oppression & Resilience: A Dialectic with Crucial Implications for Persons Caught Up in the Public Mental Health System, “ powerpoint presentation, September, 2001 & January, 2012, revised

Carney, J., “Helping Consumers Add Years to Their Lives, VI & VIII …”, May 28 & June 27, 2011, www.behavioral.net

Carney, J., “Recovery & Liberation: One and the Same?”, January 17, 2012, www.madinamerica.com

Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York 1968

Goffman, E., Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York 1961

National Empowerment Center, “Building the Foundation for a Successful Peer-Run Respite: Creating Connections with the Local Community,” January 25, 2012, second in series of three webinars, http://www.power2u.org

New York Times, “Cuomo Commits to NYS Olmstead Plan,” January 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

7 COMMENTS

  1. To advise a vulnerable and highly suggestible population that they are victims of oppression may do more harm than good. Fostering a sense of distrust with professional supporters and helpers and replacing it with an “us against them” mentality disguised as empowerment is indeed a disservice.

    Furthermore, to suggest that a new cast of stakeholders in the chinese menu of mental health supports are the real “good guys” or enlightened providers is disingenuous. Most are latecoming turf builders with a hidden agenda fueled by anecdotal evidence and faulty social science. The messianic portrayal of Olmstead will indeed not bring freedom to the chronic and persistently mentally ill but will gradually cut them adrift as community based policy becomes co-opted by cost cutting opportunists.

    The entire mental health provider and support system needs a carefully engineered overhaul, free of legislating judges, overzealous self-appointed advocates, “will-do-anything-for-a-funding-dollar” contractors and playing to the cheap seats politicians and journalists.

    For once, the money needs to be spent on a design which will empower recovery and dignity in the patient (and yes, they are patients — there are no cancer or cardiac “consumers”).
    I realize that this concept is not politically correct nor does it have sexy buzzwords, but it has never been tried in the history of mental health. It might even stand a chance to succeed if we can clear the room of the breast beaters andnoisemakers.

    • I couldn’t help but think of this quote by C.S. Lewis when I read the above:

      “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” -C.S.Lewis

      And having been on both sides of the couch for many years I feel I can say something about how those who are vulnerable might be treated. Honesty and respect and a belief in their inherent wholeness and resilience works very well.

      We are in agreement that the entire system needs an overhaul.

      • Monica, thank you so much for offering that very germane C.S. Lewis quote in response to the person whose very nickname “SPMI Therapist” is indicative of how they think about people with psychiatric histories. Anyone that feels the need to dismiss people as “the chronic and persistently mentally ill” is not anyone I would trust getting services from.

        “Oppression” is an apt description of how the system treats those under its control.

    • If mental health professionals want our respect they need to earn it and I have yet to come across any that can earn it. Lying to me about some fictional chemical imbalance in my brain, telling me I need to take these drugs for my own good and that they will keep me well is not protecting me, and it is very repressing. There is NO science in ANY mental health services or treatments and the sooner mental health professionals acknowledge that the better.

      Are there times when we need people to be with us, yes, but there are NEVER times we need things forced onto us. If you need to WAIT and then we will join in when we are ready to. Simply nurturing us is all that is required and if you could actually consider trauma for what is really is you would be able to provide that.

      The mental health system is not broken or under funded, it is dead and something that is dead cannot be fixed. The whole thing needs to be thrown out and I personally am not aware of any of it that I would consider keeping. There is and never will be a place for hospitals. There is and never will be a placed for forced treatment. And above all else there never will be a place for the lies that are told to us about our broken brains.

  2. “To advise a vulnerable and highly suggestible population that they are victims of oppression may do more harm than good. Fostering a sense of distrust with professional supporters and helpers and replacing it with an “us against them” mentality disguised as empowerment is indeed a disservice.”

    But they are victims of oppression and they should distrust the professionals because the professionals aren’t working for them, they are working for “society.”

    I’d rather the seriously mentally ill confront things for what they are, even if it means that some trouble will ensue. Maybe if psychiatry would have spent all these years championing the lives and rights of the mentally ill instead of locking them up, drugging them, labeling them and passing laws that drug them in their own home then we wouldn’t have this problem. And it’s definitely a problem that we should have, considering that we’ve got hundreds of thousands of people in this country, if not more, who are essentially being tortured for social control.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I’m gratified that what I wrote prompted such thoughtful responses.
    Two points in reply: the individuals caught up in the public mental health system don’t need me or anyone else to tell them they’re oppressed … They know they’re being mistreated and often abused in the great majority of their transactions with the professionals and provider agencies. They might not use the term “oppression”, a polite if controversial euphemism for “fucked over”, and they might act out rather than articulate their outrage at the treatment they receive, but I chalk that up to their
    powerlessness and their experience that no will listen to them.
    Point 2 — I wrote what I did to validate persons caught up in the public mental health system and to give them language, which they are free to use or reject or adapt; and I wrote it to remind my fellow professionals that unless they are clear that their mission is to help and be accountable to persons in the public mental health system, they will unfailingly oppress them. No in-betweens here.

    Thanks for the opportunity to exchange views. Absolutely crucial.

  4. I think it’s useful to both rattle the cages of the psychiatric system and to provide alternatives. For the battle is not against individuals but a challenge to institutionalised thinking.

    Being non-conformist has served me well, in terms of recovering from serious mental ill health and getting off all the psychiatric drugs, for it required determination and resilience as you mention. But I wasn’t a ‘victim of lifelong abuse’. Going mad was more about an escape valve in times of great stress, hormone imbalance or pain – following childbirth and at the menopause. And yet it was traumatic but not to do with abuse. Going mad seems to run in my family but that doesn’t mean I think it is biological for we are high achievers and take on risks, so I believe it’s more to do with that.

    I agree with you that the peer led groups should unite for there is strength in numbers. It’s all about good leadership and organisation rather than competition and croneyism. And yet the latter can sometimes be the case in the mental health world. Or so I’ve observed.

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