“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” — The Buddha
Our life and career trajectories are largely driven by our predominant thoughts. If we are consumed by feelings of powerlessness and negativity our lives tend to manifest those feelings. My belief in these statements leaves me with an uphill battle against the realities of the field I work in. I am constantly around people who build their lives around negative beliefs. More specifically, I am around people that build their lives around being “broken” because of something they identify as being a “brain disease.”
It breaks my heart to hear the way people view themselves. In my advocacy class recently a man said that “once he accepted that he had brain damage his life became more manageable.” I asked him if he had been in a car accident. He said that his “mental illness” was his brain damage. Brain damage? That was a new one for me. I was on an employment panel at a conference recently where someone said they could “not work full-time because they were bipolar.” Responding to a question I posed, this person said they had never tried working full-time but they just knew it was impossible. I saw a young woman’s “treatment plan” the other day and it said her goal in life was to “control her anger.”
These experiences are just a small sample of the heart wrenching tales I hear on a daily basis. These concerning and erroneous beliefs have little to do with emotional experiences and a lot to do with the mental health system fostering “brokenness.” If one is told and believes that part of who they are, will always to some extent negatively influence their life and that this negative influence is largely out of their control – they inevitably forfeit ambitions and dreams to complacency. Once someone believes their suffering is a permanent pre-disposition to be wary of – and doesn’t entertain hope of suffering being a transient experience – they often surrender personal agency and resolve.
When someone receives a mental health label it is common for them to internalize and reinforce the idea that it is in their best interest to lower their life expectations. The accompanying advice is often to avoid stress and to seek federal disability assistance. Many people have called me wanting to share their excitement about being given federal assistance. Receiving government disability benefits has been distorted into a cause for celebration and a source of pride. Getting entitlements is inappropriately seen as an end in itself, not a means to an end. I simply cannot share their enthusiasm for getting on a program which statistics show is usually lifelong.
I wish I could believe that people being told to avoid stress and get on benefits was becoming a thing of the past. That people being encouraged to frame their lives around being sick was also becoming a thing of the past. Sadly, these devastating lies are still being conveyed. About eight months ago, I hired a man in his twenties named Greg Benson to work as a human rights advocate. At the time I hired him he was working in a peer specialist role at a mental health provider. He came to my attention because – well, frankly – he had a big mouth in meetings. Greg had been an all-state athlete and a top student in high school. Upon graduation, he had his choice of elite colleges to attend. During college he dealt with what he identifies as intense emotional experiences. He spent some time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. During this period he was told to avoid stress and to lower his life expectations. He was told the goal should be to get on SSI. He was also told that any efforts he made to be well that did not include medications would likely fail.
Fortunately, Greg did not listen – at least not for very long. His presence in my office is a constant reminder of why I need to never stop fighting for change. The young man who was told that he should aim for being on disability responded to the tragedy in Newtown with incredible passion and strength. Not only did he excel in a high stress situation, his energy pushed the rest of our team. I remember many days basically making him go home at night. What if he had been “compliant” with his “treatment.” Would he have been on a path that would have seen his life end at 53 – the average year of death for people accessing public mental health services? Would he have the joy he now has with his family and friends? Would he be free from medication “side effects” as he currently is?
I am deeply grateful to have people like Greg and many others in my life that inspire me to keep pushing the envelope in advocacy. People whose mere presence demonstrates the failure of biological psychiatry. In some ways the stories are a double-edge sword for me. I am constantly inspired by the likes of Greg Benson. But it also makes me hurt even more for the people that spend their days waiting for the next “episode.” I think of the great things they could be doing with their lives. I also think of all the people who died way too young believing that they were getting all they could out of life.
I wonder if acceptance of the idea that one cannot work full time because of a “brain disease” or that one should limit their exposure to stress, really ensures that one will maintain a “limited baseline stability” and never “relapse” into “acute” suffering? Or does it exclusively ensure that one will never incorporate more rich texture or enjoyment into their life? Why not try to build our lives around seeking fulfillment and joy instead of detaching from life and gradually accepting desensitization to dissatisfaction and a dulled spirit and sense of longing and yearning – as immutable components of reality.
Life can be hard and unpredictable. Belief in one’s abilities and in the ability to manifest some of life’s outcomes does not guarantee an avoidance of suffering. But for me, I do know that my years of negativity, lack of personal agency and embracing my diagnosis led to destruction. I gave the world negativity and it gave it back. I decided to try something else.
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.
I read from Stephan Chorover’s book From Genesis to Genocide this incredible lie from Plato’s Republic. Sociobiological determinism.
Socrates: How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke — just one royal lie which may deceive the (present) rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?
Glaucon: What sort of a lie?
Socrates: Nothing new: only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places (as the poets say, and have made the world believe) though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an even could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable if it did.
Glaucon: How your words seem to hesitate on your lips!
Socrates: You will not wonder at my hesitations when you have heard.
Glaucon: Speak, and fear not.
Socrates: Well then, I will speak, although I really know not how to look you in the face, or in what words to utter the audacious fiction, which I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the wind of the earth where themselves . . . were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks. . . .
Glaucon:You had good reason to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.
Socrates: True, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. “Citizens”, we shall say to them in our tale, “you are bothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore they also the greatest honour; others he has made of silver to be auxiliaries; others again who to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. And God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, that above all else, there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard . . . as . . . the purity of the race. They should observe what elements mingle in their offspring; for if the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks. . . . For an oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the state, it will be destroyed.” Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe it?
Glaucon: Not in the present generation . . . but their songs may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.
“Mental patients” have good reason to be negative. A psychiatrist would call the patient paranoid for believing everyone is out to get them, but the reality is the world runs on money, and everyone is out to get money. If you have any money or are preventing another from getting their money, there is going to be trouble. The landlord wants his money, you don’t pay and you are homeless. The soft-drink company is out to cheat , charging $1.00 for a drink that cost 1 cent for them to mass produce. You co-worker or your boss doesn’t want to lose their job (to you) and will stab you in the back if you are better than them (threatening their job).
Yes, one of my biggest complaints about our mental health system is that it trains people to be disabled, i.e. the system doesn’t believe in recovery. They seem to want well-behaved and obedient cattle shuffling in for their antipsychotic injections and waiting for their next disability cheque. I’m angry at the system, sure, but I also get angry at some patients for not having the courage and insight to see beyond.
Very well stated. You’e put into words all of the frustration I’ve got from working in a state hospital for two years. I’ve never once run across a resident who doesn’t believe the lie that they were told that they would never amount to anything because they have a permanently broken brain. What I should say is that this is what they all profess to believe; I don’t know how many of them are playing the game in order to get out and away from here. I think that I’m probably seen as consorting with the enemy even though I’m a peer worker. I work in Admissions. Granted, I don’t have contact with every person who is admitted to our facility but I contact a lot and I can count on one hand how many people I’ve met who’ve actually worked or who had a job before they were forced into the hospital by family or the law system. Many of the people I meet came into the disability payment system as children and know nothing else. They’ve never worked one day in their lives. They don’t know the satisfaction of being able to provide for themselves and their needs. They’ve always had to exist (I believe there is a huge difference between actually living and having to exist) in substandard conditions and have been taught that they deserve nothing better and that it’s good enough for the likes of them. Let’s face it, disability payments do not make it possible for you to live at the same standards as everyone who have never been in the system.
We’ve created a cadre of permanent patients who know all too well what learned helplessness is. We are not into rehabilitation and recovery, no matter how much our mission statement or slogans may state otherwise. We are into controlling, maintaining, and warehousing people and we don’t want them making any decisions of their own, on their own. They have no say so in creating their treatment plans, there is no informed consent as to the drugs, and they are constantly pummeled with the idea that they will never be able to achieve anything outstanding or worthwhile.
I keep writing in the hospital newsletter that the “patients” must be allowed to drive their own car and their own care. It falls on deaf ears of the staff but the most deaf to my message are the so-called “patients” themselves. They seem to be frightened of thinking about the possibility of there being more to life than existing the way that they do now. It is so frustrating.
“Many people have called me wanting to share their excitement about being given federal assistance. Receiving government disability benefits has been distorted into a cause for celebration and a source of pride. Getting entitlements is inappropriately seen as an end in itself, not a means to an end. I simply cannot share their enthusiasm for getting on a program which statistics show is usually lifelong.”
As someone who has lived on SSI since age 18, I can assure you it is a huge source of stress. $700 a month is nowhere near enough to live off of. Even with it I am forced to have to live off my parents and even more so if I want to enjoy any level of luxury at all, such as this computer and a connection to the internet. In my late teens and early twenties I tried applying for other services like supported employment and subsidized housing, but they wouldn’t work with me if I weren’t in treatment (on drugs) and the re-traumatizing effect of that was that it was/is mostly the drug induced brain damage I developed as a child on those drugs that disabled me, not any “mental illness” that I was supposedly born with. It has been years since I’ve had the opportunity, but whenever a mental health professional would try to blame “my illness” for anything, I’d remind them that mental illness is supposedly genetic, and then inform them of the rest of my family. Five siblings, all successfully working full time and four are married with children. Parents are both as stable as can be, as are my 7 aunt’s and uncles. My family couldn’t be a better model of normalcy and functionality, and yet here I am. Diagnosed with ADD at six years old because he wasn’t paying attention to a teacher that half the kids weren’t paying attention to, had bad reactions to drugs, wound up in state mental hospital, had more bad reactions to drugs, dropped out of school at age 11, more time at mental hospital, rotted in his parents attic from age 14 to 18, went on SSI. If the drugs aren’t responsible, as so many professionals claim, and my genetics surely aren’t responsible, and surely I don’t choose to be this way, then… Either the professionals are wrong, or this is the twilight zone.
One way or another, I’m sick of being financially broke and having to worry about being hauled off to be drugged in a group home because my parents die or decide they want their house back. It’s a constant source of stress.
If our nation hadn’t descended into this crap:
there’d be a lot less ‘Diagnosis’ stressing consumers out to start with: perhaps even None.
“The approach was soon applied to the way various legal actors–judges, lawyers, police officers, and expert witnesses–play their roles, suggesting ways of doing so that would diminish unintended antitherapeutic consequences and increase the psychological well-being of those who come into contact with these legal figures.”
Does Anyone Want to live in a world where Judges, Lawyers and Police Officers have become Therapeutic/Psychological Quacks who believe that it is not only at their Discretion, but their Paid Duty to do exactly as they Damn Well Please, under the rubric that it’s “Therapeutic”?
Oh, we’ll just dispose of You at the Looney Bin, because it makes Our job that much easier.
What a great article.
Thanks for this, Deron. I resonate with the experience and sadness you describe and experience similar situations on a nearly daily basis. I’m glad you (and Greg, and a growing number of us) have ‘tried something else.’ 😉
Just found this site. I agree completely with your post, Deron. I’ve had a number of episodes of chronic depression in my life (I’m 55), and believe that each was situational. Yet my current psychotherapist tells me that depression, like diabetes, is a disease I will always be prone to, and must therefore stay on antidepressants for the rest of my life. I disagree with him.
The “like diabetes” analogy was cooked up by the pharmaceutical industry, I think. My med-checker (a 70-ish psychiatrist) was also in agreement on the biological foundation of my depressions. I switched from him to a nurse practitioner who seems less dogmatic, more open-minded.
The talk therapy is helping, despite my therapist’s belief in biological causes. At some point, I will end therapy, and get off the meds (Effexor). I’m weaning off Clonopin, which the first psychiatrist put me on, and have just gotten off Viibryd, which he also had me on. I take Holy Basil and a few other natural supplements, along with fish oil, which really seems to help a lot.
I began receiving SSDI payments a few years ago, and don’t work, though I am attempting to write my first novel. I worked for 20 years in offices, and was miserable. I believe I am not suited to that environment. I’m a happy househusband now, and I volunteer at a food bank, growing vegetables at a community garden.
Just wanted to share my story. Thanks for the post.
Thanks for the feedback, links and pieces of personal narratives. I learn a great deal from the comments. I spent a fair amount of time over the weekend captivated by The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware. She talks about her experiences as a caregiver for people in their last weeks of life. She also spent a couple of pages writing about a young man she worked with named “Anthony.” Anthony ended up in a nursing home because of unspecified injuries (seemingly not life threatening). The author tells how Anthony assimilated to the home and became like the elderly people and subsequently died at a young age. “Anthony’s biggest failure lay in becoming a complete product of his environment, lacking any desire to challenge himself and hence, improve his life. It was such a waste of a good and intelligent person, and of natural gifts he had been born with.”
Anthony’s story really resonated with me. I think it is even worse in the mental health system because I think many people, unlike Anthony, have a desire to challenge themselves but are encouraged otherwise. I think in many ways people do become like their surrounding environment so it is really important for activists to keep fighting to change the current “mental health” environment.