Power to Communities,
Healing Through Social Justice:
INTAR 2014 in Liverpool, England

Philip Thomas, MDPeter Stastny, MD
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Mental health services today are almost completely dominated by the view that extreme distress such as psychoses are biological disorders that require treatment with drugs or other medical interventions. This is despite the absence of evidence that such conditions have a biological basis. In addition to this, recent work within the evidence-based medicine paradigm casts doubt on the effectiveness of most forms of physical treatment in psychiatry. At the same time the evidence accumulates that many physical treatments, such as the long-term use of neuroleptic drugs, are fraught with risks and danger.

The majority of people who have to rely on mental health services at times of crisis are offered little in the way of choice. Accept the “biopsychosocial approach” or seek help elsewhere, they are usually told. They are asked to subscribe to notions of ‘recovery’ defined narrowly in terms of ‘symptom reduction’ or ‘remission’. Generally, they are instructed to remain on “their medications” if they are to keep out of hospital. Many are forced against their wishes to take psychiatric drugs in hospital, and increasingly, in the community.

Although service user/survivor-led research suggests that a minority of people find biomedical diagnoses and drug treatment helpful, many do not. They, their families, friends, advocates and supporters, find that a range of different forms of help and support are valuable in helping them move towards self-defined recovery. These include peer support, engagement in voluntary work, creative activities such as writing, dance and poetry, spiritual support, and political activism. Other systems of support that focus on meaning and recovery rather than drugs and case management, such as Open Dialogue, the Needs Adapted Treatment approach, and Soteria, have been desired alternatives by many, but are hardly availably outside of a small set of locales.

The availability of choices is of the essence here, and for the past 10 years the International Network Towards Alternatives and Recovery (INTAR) has brought together survivors and service users, family members, professionals and advocates from around the world to promote a much broader range of help for people who experience distress and psychosis. INTAR associates believe that mental health services fail to offer genuine choices and are instead reliant on drug treatment, coercion and hospital care. Thereby they deprive the person in crisis of their dignity, autonomy and real opportunity for re/discovery.

INTAR’s first meeting took place in 2004 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. It brought together over thirty people with many years of experiences in alternative services/supports, who shared personal stories of recovery, family struggles, community activism, clinical experience and research to launch the Network. It was a happy and inspiring event, but also marked with deep sadness at the passing of Loren Mosher, founder of the first Soteria House, who was a key member of the founding group that brought us all together. Subsequent INTAR meetings took place in Killarney (Ireland, 2005), Gabriola Island (BC, Canada) 2007, Toronto (2008), New York (2009), and Toronto (2011). We are delighted to announce that the first INTAR event to be held in the UK will take place in Liverpool from the 25th – 27th June 2014.

The City of Liverpool is famous for its musical, literary, artistic and creative heritage, and like most of Britain’s great former industrial cities it is further enriched by the depth and range of its culturally diverse communities. Over the last five or six years the recession has had a significant impact on the lives of many who live in the City. Individuals, families and communities have had to cope with the worsening economic climate, which has negative consequences for health and well-being through ever-tightening spirals of hardship and adversity. This makes it even more important to emphasise the limitations of responses to distress and psychosis which focus on individual ‘deficits’, biological or psychological. Systems of help and support that engage with lived experience, and the varied personal and cultural contexts in which distress arises, are central.

The five conference themes are (1) social justice and mental health, (2) securing human rights in psychiatric care (3) cultural diversity and mental health, and (4) creating and developing healing communities. The fifth, arts and madness, threads across the three days. These themes concern the different contexts in which individual experiences of madness and distress occur and that are key to understanding and responding to these experiences. We have been fortunate to attract a number of internationally distinguished speakers who will deliver plenary talks on these themes. These include Isaac Prilleltensky, Kate Pickett and Marianne Schulz (day one), Bhagarvi Davar, Rameri Moukam and William Sax (day two), and Jacqui Dillon, Alison Gilchrist and Brendan Stone (day three). We also intend to make space for performances of dance, poetry, plays, films and reading, including some surprises and appearances by well-known supporters.

Plans are already well advanced, and we are fortunate indeed to have received enthusiastic support and help from friends, colleagues and organisations in the Liverpool area and the UK. The international organising committee for INTAR is working closely with a local organising group. This would not be possible without the support of a number of individuals and groups. The Liverpool Mental Health Consortium, which was set up in 1995 with the purpose of improving the local mental health services is an umbrella organisation that gives voice to service users / survivors, families and community groups in the City. Through the Consortium, service users, survivors, families and community groups are closely involved in planning the conference, and deciding which workshop submissions will be accepted. The Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group has provided much-needed financial support to help get the conference up and running. This has made it possible to appoint a part-time administrator for the conference, Jackie Patiniotis. Liverpool John Moores University has also pledged some financial assistance, and the event will take place with the support of the University of Liverpool, in its new conference and accommodation centre.

There are plenty of opportunities for workshops, presentation and performances, and you will find instructions on this webpage for submitting proposals (deadline 31st December 2013). The local organising committee will be arranging training and support for service users / survivors who want to be involved in the selection of submissions. This will ensure that the conference will reflect INTAR’s values as well as the concerns of a broad range of stakeholders.  More details are now available at INTAR.org, where you can follow the link to register, and you can submit proposals for workshops, presentations, readings and performances via the INTAR Liverpool Call for Contributions. Past INTAR conferences have been inspirational, life-changing events. Don’t miss out. See you there!

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