Many of us feel at a loss to fight back against the tidal wave of negative opinion against us. We are wasting our breath arguing that the vast majority of us never commit acts of violence, that the medical model fails everyone and coercion drives people away, etc. The more radical argument that labeling a person with a psychiatric diagnosis is hate speech and an excuse for repression, that the NRA and politicians together with most leftists are all cynically scapegoating a population that is politically ignored, that disability profiling is never an acceptable answer… that’s just not on the radar of anyone outside our own circle (“preaching to the choir”).
The radical arguments are related to the social model of disability. We are saying in essence, “something” is there – whether an extreme mental state, or a different way of processing information, nonconforming behavior that no one else understands, or just a misunderstanding – but that we’ll approach it non judgmentally and question any assumptions, particularly anything that demeans a person’s dignity or treats the person as an object for others.
If we can read the overwhelming run of articles as expressing general public opinion, the public is not aware of the social model of disability as applied to madness/”mental illness” and is furthermore not receptive to views that separate “mental illness” from violence. “Mental illness” is seen as a “disease” of behavior and will, so that people to whom it is attributed are imagined as not meriting either the usual rights associated with treatment for an illness (particularly to exercise free and informed consent to accept or refuse treatment) or the rights associated with consequences for socially undesirable behavior (particularly to be judged according to the same standards as everyone else as defined in the criminal law and the law of civil liability).
Public opinion sees violence, instability, madness, hearing voices, rage, depression, social withdrawal, as all being on a spectrum that warrants mistrust and scrutiny and intervention to bring the person back into the fold. The interventions being called for from such a perspective are fear-based and inevitably objectifying and non communicative, by which I mean that it’s impossible to be receptive to what a person needs if you are approaching them as an annoyance or menace to be contained.
Pat Deegan in a video made in response to the Newtown killings talked about the practice of elephants to make a circle around one of their members that was enraged, both containing and giving way until the distress was spent. She suggests that we humans could do likewise. I wonder about our mutual resilience but believe it is possible if we remember both parts – giving way and containing. And if we approach this task with humility and each acknowledging his/her own vulnerability and capacity for violence.
A two-pronged solution is necessary in these debates: one, to reject fear-based policymaking as eloquently argued by Melissa Harris-Perry in her Nation column Sister Citizen; and two, to actively create peace (as imagined by Denise Levertov in a poem posted by a friend of mine on New Year’s Day).
As Levertov says,
A line of peace might appearif we restructured the sentence our lives are making,revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,questioned our needs, allowedlong pauses. . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weighton that different fulcrum;
It’s the same patience I learned to not be afraid of when looking into the eyes of a relative who has dementia, letting him hold my hand till he could form the words he wanted to say. And to turn aside anger or what felt like anger from a friend, that may have been her own irritation, pain, sadness or annoyance that is not meant to start a fight and does not need to end the friendship.
For me, “mental health” language and concepts get in the way of making peace, as does any prescriptive “right” way to communicate or develop mindfulness in oneself or in a community. Mental health services in particular cannot lead us in peacemaking, as they continually enact violence through seeking to control and contain human suffering without giving way, without humility or acknowledgement of our mutual vulnerability and power. These services need to clean their own house of violence before trying to teach the rest of society, and they need to acknowledge they have a lot to learn, and they need to make amends for the harm done if they want to be worthy of our trust.
I’m wary of the fine line that can be blurred, between acknowledging the link between being traumatized and committing an act of violence, and creating mental health policies that try to tie up all loose ends and not let anyone “slip through the cracks”. It’s not only by abrogating civil liberties that we can lose our freedoms, though that also has been placed on the agenda; it’s also by creating mandatory or quasi-mandatory health and social service networks that surround an individual with bureaucracy, rules and scrutiny of their life choices while providing some “perks” (the convenience of a case manager who keeps track of appointments) or necessities (like housing). Services, though they are sometimes valuable or even necessary in a person’s life (according to his/her expressed needs), are not a substitute for care or community, and services in themselves cannot make peace.
We also need to remember as we confront the calls for further abrogation of our civil liberties, that we are starting from an already unequal and discriminatory legal position that needs to be redressed and pushed back. Not only are there laws in every state allowing us to be locked up based on a psychiatric diagnosis and prediction of vaguely-defined “danger to self or others” and treated with mind-altering drugs against our will (in institutions, and in the majority of states, also extending into the community), we already have a national FBI database (for the purpose of preventing gun ownership) of people who have been labeled as mentally ill through a commitment or guardianship proceeding, though not all states participate and the criteria are not uniformly applied. These and other discriminatory laws, in addition to the danger of increased state repression and discrimination in the wake of the Newtown killings, are the subject of a complaint to the United Nations by the Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (CHRUSP) and other organizations.
I believe that every crisis is an opportunity. Sometimes it can be turned around immediately and made into a victory; other times it might mean that we stand firmly centered in our own truth and create a beacon for the future; or it might be something in between, we never know until we are doing it. This is the “warrior” aspect of peace (or maybe it is better to say this is a necessary “warrior” activity that complements peace making), and it requires paying attention simultaneously to inner and outer reality, to intuition and criticism, like making art or poetry.
I originally titled this piece “More Grief in the New Year” because my heart and mind are still heavy, and it’s hard to be optimistic in the short run. We may be in for a time of greater repression and suffering, and will have to struggle to maintain our equilibrium and compassion. Peace making (and its “warrior” aspect/complement) is even more needed in that case, it doesn’t seem to matter where we start, only that we do, or recognize we have already begun.
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.