Top Ten Reasons Alternatives 2013 is the “Cannot-Miss” Event of the Year


As you may know, the annual Alternatives Conference is the largest peer-run conference in mental health in the country and will take place December 4-7, 2013 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Austin, Texas (for more information you can go to

You may not know that this year Alternatives is truly a cannot miss event, for several reasons, the top ten of which are outlined below.  But first, perhaps a little background on the conference would be helpful.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funded Alternatives Conferences beginning in 1985 with the conference in Baltimore, Maryland.  Since that time the conference has met in states all across the country.  However, it should be noted that our movement began to host national conferences well before we received any government support, with the first such meeting happening in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan.  These were days full of grassroots activism where the conferences sometimes took place at campgrounds and many people would backpack or hitchhike great distances to get there.

It is important to not forget these days as we still have much to learn from the pioneers of our movement, some of whom will be at this year’s Alternatives.  Without their activism, there would be no Alternatives Conference, and the National Peer-Run Technical Assistance Centers that administer them would not exist either.

Currently, three National Peer-Run Technical Assistance Centers rotate the honor of organizing the Alternatives Conference: Peerlink, the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse, and the National Empowerment Center.

Going in to my third year with the National Empowerment Center, this is my first year as the lead Alternatives organizer, and it has been quite an experience.  Which leads me back to why this year in particular is a can’t miss event:


Top Ten Reasons Why Alternatives 2013
is the “Cannot Miss” Event of the Year

10.  Location, Location, Location

Austin, Texas is famous for its lively artistic scene and progressive social climate.  Austin’s friendly accepting culture of individual expression has made it a vibrant and eclectic creative center and haven for people of all walks of life.  The Hyatt Regency is right in the middle of it all, and walking distance from all the action on 6th Street that includes live music, clubs, and great restaurants.

9. Health & Wellness Fair 

For several years running, Alternatives has included a Health & Wellness Fair.  This year it will take place all day December 4-5.  With help from our friends at Peerlink, we will again have Peggy Swarbrick and the Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey offering free basic health checks that include blood pressure, glucose, and allergy tests.  In addition, the Health & Wellness Fair is sponsoring early morning activities such as yoga and meditation.

8. A Tuesday Night Welcome

With many folks arriving on Tuesday, December 3, the Arts Committee thought it would be great to give a spectacular welcome and an opportunity to network.  From 7:30 to 9:30 in the main ballroom, we will have a Mariachi band, bracelet making, refreshments, conversation, and … dancing?  Should be a perfect way to wind down a bit after a long day of travel.

7. Arts Carnival

Another event before the conference even officially starts, we will again have the popular Arts Carnival from 8 to 11:30 am on Wednesday, December 4.  We are planning five amazing interactive arts projects, including the return of the pillowcase project that will literally help to color the entire conference.

6. Open Mic

One of my personal favorites at Alternatives is Open Mic night, this year slated for Friday, December 6.  Miss Altered States herself (a.k.a. Mark Davis) will be there to host the event, which always includes unbelievable talent right here in our own community.  There will be poetry, singing, dance, film, and always a surprise or two.  You have to see it to believe it.

5. Film Festival

For the first time in Alternatives history, we will be hosting a multi-day film festival Wednesday and Thursday, December 4-5.  Featured films include KINGS PARK by Lucy Winer, Official Selection of the Woodstock Film Festival, and WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? by Brenda Vezina and P.J. Moynihan, which received Honorable Mention at the 2013 VOICE Awards.

4. Dance Night

Instead of our usual dance that we have inside the conference, we decided to take advantage of our location and explore some opportunities to experience music, comedy, and dancing right in downtown Austin.  To this end, the Diversity Committee is co-sponsoring with the Arts Committee a Dance Night out in Austin on the night of Thursday, December 5. Stay tuned for a list of suggested venues.

3. The Lineup

Our Advisory Committee and Selection Committee did a wonderful job with our lineup this year.  Our keynote presenters are Paolo Delvecchio, Chacku Matthai, William Kellibrew, and Marty Hadge.  Click here for more information on each of our speakers. With experiences ranging from being on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to working with some of the strongest peer-run community organizations in the country, we are quite fortunate to have these speakers to teach and inspire us.

Our workshops, institutes, and caucuses are exceptional as well as diverse.  It is safe to say that many of the leading experts in mental health from across the country will be on the schedule, which will make for quite a mutual learning experience for us all.

2. Theme

Our theme this year is “Building Inclusive Communities: Valuing Every Voice.”  These are rough times for many of us.  We have endured several tragedies as a nation, and, indeed it seems we are a country in crisis.  Many of us feel that we have lost a sense of community, and that to create a better life for us all, we need to build communities back up.  We have made an extra effort to make this conference inclusive and diverse.  We think this will be reflected in the presenters, attendees and throughout the conference.  As a symbol to this commitment to inclusive communities, our goal is that every single person connects to our Multicultural Room, which is centrally located.  We then hope that folks can bring back what they experience and learn at Alternatives to make their own local communities stronger and more inclusive as well.

1. YOU

Alternatives almost didn’t happen this year and it was your voice that helped to make it happen.  It is also your attendance and participation that will make the conference itself great, whether you are a volunteer, a presenter, an attendee, a supporter, etc.  A big thank you to those who have been involved in the planning so far.

Convinced yet?   Please consider joining us in making Alternatives 2013 the “Cannot Miss” Event of the Year by registering today.  The conference is open to anybody: peers, professionals, family members, neighbors – Anybody.  See you in Austin.



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.


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  1. There are a lot of things that need to be said here. Yeah, we had a conference that we controlled, and when SAMHSA/NIMH started funding this, ours was wiped out. One of the main people who got NIMH to fund this monstrosity came to our last conference in Vermont and deliberately disrupted a large number of our workshops, thus completely demoralizing the activists we used to have.

    Before the first “Alternatives” conference, our movement was thriving. Dozens of groups throughout the country were confronting the psychiatric system, and because of that visibility, we were reaching the general public. This was reflected in the access we had to the mass media. I myself probably was on national television fifteen or twenty times, and this was also true of Judi Chamberlin, Janet Gotkin, and a number of other people. I don’t say this to boast, but to point out that we were in the public eye. We were even able to get the voters in one city to ban shock treatment, and because we were visibly fighting for our rights, the media paid attention.

    In a democratic society, if we want to change things, we have to change the way the public thinks of our issues. That’s why media exposure is so important. Now E. Fuller Torrey appears on network TV with his message of hate, and our side is completely ignored.

    Since SAMHSA/NIMH has taken over our movement, forty-four states have passed laws allowing people to be forced to take drugs on the grounds of “need for treatment.” How is this progress?

    And now, there will soon be a national database of everyone who has ever been committed to a psych ward. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out the ways it could be used against us. As Tina Minkowitz and I have pointed out on MIA, this database was actually SUPPORTED by one of the system-funded groups that claims to be our leaders.

    This is outrageous. Putting on a circus is not advancing the cause of our movement. One big problem here, of course, is that there are few people left who remember what our movement was like before it was taken over by the federal mental illness system. But at least everyone ought to be able to see what other movements like ours, started at about the same time, have accomplished. Gays, women, disabled people, African-Americans, all know there is a movement for them. No television network would dare put on a program where their interests were attacked without even having a representative of their group.

    Don’t be fooled, people. When you attend this conference, you are cooperating in your own oppression. We need a movement that is controlled by us, not the mental illness system that has abused us and ruined our lives. We should disown this fraud, and become a real liberation movement once again.

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  2. Thanks Ted,

    I don’t know much about the conference and the issues that you have raised here, apart from what is posted. I aim to look more into this.

    Recently I was at a conference where this was presented as part of Jacqui Dillon’s presentation. For me it is important to really keep in mind the points below.

    • The crisis in the profession of psychiatry has been looming for a while, as discussed in a series of articles in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
    • Traditional psychiatric response to threat:
    • Ignore
    • Attack
    • Assimilate 

    (Johnstone, Users and Abusers of Psychiatry, 2000.)

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  3. My proposal for a workshop was approved. Considering that I was rejected by TED Talks, I was quite suprised at being accepted. I mean, if SAMHSA is open to listening to what I’ve got to say, then things must be changing…I´ve pasted the details of my workshop proposal below. It would be a shame to see people from MadinAmerica turn their back on this conference simply because it’s sponsored by the government.

    Presentation Title: The bipolarORwakingUP Project: Using Transpersonal Psychology as a basis for Validation & Recovery.

    Presenter: Sean Blackwell

    Learning Objectives:
    1. To Introduce Sean Blackwell’s bipolarORwakingUP video series as a psycho-educational tool which helps people validate their own anomalous experiences.
    2. To introduce a series of techniques originating in transpersonal psychology that could be useful when working with people in anomalous experiences.
    3. To share key aspects of Sean Blackwell´s healing program, as well as insights gathered from six years of both live and online support.

    Session Description:
    Join Sean Blackwell as he shares his experience in providing psycho-educational support to thousands of people around the world with his online video project, bipolarORwakingUP, as well as his deeply personal experience of working with friends and family in his country of Brazil. Part of the workshop will introduce techniques which Sean has found to be helpful in supporting people through various anomalous experiences, along with his plans for a healing center.

    Since 2007, Sean Blackwell has been producing videos for his YouTube channel, bipolarORwakingUP. With over 6,000 subscribers and over one million views, Sean’s videos have found a truly enthusiastic audience. His book, “Am I Bipolar or Waking Up?” describes his own ‘bipolar awakening’, subsequent hospitalization and complete recovery, which happened in 1996.

    1. The Psycho-Educational Role of bipolarORwakingUP Videos :
    (Video, PowerPoint)

    The extremely positive online feedback Sean’s bipolarORwakingUP videos receive suggest that they can be very validating for those who are open to consider the transpersonal perspective. Because the videos are based on (1) thousands of conversations with people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, (2) direct personal experience and (3) the pioneering transpersonal theory of Dr. Stanislav Grof, Dr. David Lukoff and Dr. John Weir Perry, viewers are often astonished that certain videos may speak to their own experience of madness in a very precise manner.

    Along with presenting one of his 10-minute videos, Sean will touch on most of the major themes present in his work such as trauma, family issues, paranoia, and perhaps, most importantly, the need to be able to accept these anomalous experiences as being very beneficial, if they are approached with a positive frame of mind.

    2. The Healing Techniques of Transpersonal Psychology
    (Video, PowerPoint)

    From the perspective of Transpersonal Psychology, the apparent madness of what psychiatry labels as an ‘acute psychosis’ does not normally stem from a biological dysfunction of the brain, but from an overwhelming influx of ‘bio-energetic’ material which arises from the previously repressed subconscious.

    As a result, along with the very important concept of “being with” as opposed to “doing” something to the person in crisis, a number of unique therapeutic approaches can be useful in helping someone work through the bio-energies of anomalous experiences.

    These approaches are:
    • Short periods of Holotropic Breathwork
    • Short periods of Vipassana Meditation (when possible)
    • Mandala Drawing
    • The Sharing of Secrets, Perceived Sins, and Untold Truths

    Each of these techniques will be discussed during the workshop.

    3. The Healing Center Plan
    (PowerPoint – Q&A session)

    Now, six years into this project, Sean Blackwell and his wife, Ligia (a transpersonal psychologist) are working towards creating a Healing Center in Brazil. They have also begun to accept invitations from people in other countries who are interested in working towards healing their ‘disorder’. For the presentation, Sean will share how they plan on creating the healing center, and why they think it has a chance of being successful.

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  4. If your life experience points to something other then the usual suspects and solutions of the alternatively politically correct and allowed topics and you are censored by the so called Alternatives Conference well then you’ll just have to find another way or place to inform those that need to know.Ted Chabasinski must be right. Where is that place ?

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  5. Sean,

    I was so very pleased to see you’re doing at workshop at the SAMSHA conference on your bipolarORwakingUP Project and using transpersonal psychology for validation and recovery. You’re a wonderful antidote to all the gloom-and-doomers who criticize “the system” but don’t have any practical ideas about how to make treatment better. I’m very much in agreement with you that we need to change our ideas about what a lot of “mental illness” really is — or maybe I should say, could be, if it were treated properly: not “illness,” but a process of transformation and growth. You and Jaako Seikkula in Finland with his Open Dialogue treatment are the brightest lights in the whole field right now. You’re giving me hope for the future. Keep up the good work!!

    With much love and admiration,
    Mary Newton

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    • Thank you Mary, it means a lot to be mentioned in the same circle as Dr. Seikkula. In some ways though, I feel like an old comedian who steals all his jokes! 90% of what I share online was first written about by pioneers like Stan Grof and David Lukoff. I just take their stuff, make it more accessible, and put my little spin on it! If you are coming, please drop by and say hi!

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    • Ted,

      I agree with you, human rights are absolutely crucial. They are also a problem to be tackled with political action and lawsuits to get laws and bureaucratic policies changed. I’ve been around the block a few times, so I can remember back in the days when my fellow citizens in the South were sure you couldn’t get rid of segregation without changing peoples’ hearts and minds first; therefore passing laws against segregation was futile until this change came about. They were however proved wrong: when the laws were passed, we began to see segregation as a crime against human rights. Changing peoples’ behavior changed their minds, not vice versa.

      But securing human rights for mental patients is a little different from doing the same for citizens deemed at least minimally competent to manage their own affairs. Outlawing all involuntary treatment procedures would not solve the problem.

      What we’re dealing with, I’m afraid, goes far deeper than mere prejudice toward “the mentally ill.” The great elephant in our living room is that we’ve made diseases of the anomalous experiences our ancestors once fashioned into divine revelations and mythology. The well of wisdom of our priests and shamans has been poisoned, and they turn away from it in horror.

      This is why we need the new treatment methods that don’t take the medical model as their foundation. It’s almost as if the 20th century declared swollen bellies to be an infallible sign of disease and devised surgery to consign the foreign contents to a bloody bucket under the operating table. So now, in the 21st century, our task is to recognize pregnancy and devise safe methods of delivery for the new life trying to make its way into the world. This is far more than a matter of passing laws.

      Best regards,
      Mary Newton

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        • There are lots of, “Treatment methods,” that don’t take the medical model as their foundation. The hearing voices network, Soteria House, Open Dialogue, Bertram karom wrote a book over 20 years ago called, “Psychotherapy of Schizophrenia, treatment of choice.”

          All effective, none taken up in massive amount’s by mainstream psychiatry.

          I wish you look and I look forward to seeing if Ted’s network takes off

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          • In the hospital where I work I mention Open Dialogue and Soteria House and Loren Mosher and Bertram Karom and all I get are blank looks. The name Thomas Szas gets no response. It’s really weird how all of the staff seems to know absolutely nothing about what’s going on out in the wider world. I’m wondering if they actually know and are refusing to talk about it. Never once among psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists do I get a response. I gave Anatomy of an Epidemic to the CEO to read, which he did and his respnse was “This is disturbing.” One of the psychologists knows who Robert is. But these are the only two responses I’ve gotten out of everyone!

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  6. Sean,

    Stephen Gilbert’s letter gives the reasons we need an advertising pro like yourself to “share online what was first written about by pioneers like Stan Grof and David Lukoff,” as you say. And before them there was Carl Jung, who is universally ignored by psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists but a best seller worldwide.

    As Stephen said, these beknighted folks are largely unaware of what’s going on out in the wider world. A hundred years ago, the makers of horse drawn buggies were pretty much in denial too, even on the verge of bankruptcy.

    These days people are increasingly turning to grass roots organizations like HNV (Hearing Voices Network), ACISTE (American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences), IANDS (International Association for Near Death Studies), meditation centers, and hundreds of local Meet-Up groups and the like for help in mastering their anomalous experiences. The old medical model is going the way of buggy whips and high topped shoes. Without Big Pharma propping it up, it would be gone already.

    So keep stealing all the good stuff from the experts, and keep spreading the word about it. Its time has come.


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