Six First Steps for Building Communities of Emotional Wellness

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[Note to readers: In January I quit my job as manager of the Mad In America website and community to focus on developing my advocacy and personal change work. I will continue to blog from my personal perspective, no longer a representative of this website.]

I am being asked by a number of grassroots communities to facilitate a dialogue about how they can better welcome and support individuals who experience emotional distress. This is a challenge for many aspiring peers and allies in a culture where responsibility for our individual well-being has been increasingly transferred to psychiatrists, doctors, and other health professionals.

Even among our movements for alternatives, we often find ourselves replicating disempowering patterns of relying on experts, institutions, and formalized programs to help us through our trying times. Certainly there are roles for these approaches, especially as we slowly transition away from centuries of mistreatment in western culture. And, there is a great deal we can do to alleviate suffering as neighbors, faith communities, activist groups, and other existing circles of mutual aid.

In many places and historical moments, communities have rallied strongly around people who have experienced trauma or exhibit atypical behaviors and abilities. Readers may be interested in Monica Cassani’s recent post featuring an excellent summary of resources on the concept of spiritual emergency, and the way many indigenous cultures respond to extreme states, which leads me into the first step…

1) Take heart that you and your community are not alone. There is a rich and vibrant tradition of those who wish to include, learn from, and gently support individuals experiencing emotional distress. Our current paradigm of institutionalized violence, coercion, and disempowerment is just one version of how we can think about the difficult problems of living. When we begin to make the choice to find another way, we are joining a vast lineage of kindness and skillful practices.

2) Build a culture of radical honesty. Often the majority of the suffering people experience around emotional difficulties  and distressing thoughts comes simply from not being able to talk about them and be truly heard. We live in a culture infected by a kind of sanity-chauvinism, where there are very few “right” ways to experience and express feelings and distressing thoughts. Someone sharing an experience from outside the box is usually ignored, reacted against, or even attacked.

We see this most starkly in the extremely limited number of acceptable narratives about mental illness in popular culture. Anyone who goes “off meds” or defies a psychiatrist’s diagnosis is considered even more sick, “lacking insight” into the severity of their condition. We are denied the opportunity to make meaning out of our own lives.

This pattern can arise in alternative circles as well as in the mainstream. It occurs every time we say or hear, as one of the first responses to a problem, “You should go see [insert favorite psychiatrist/doctor/therapist/acupuncturist/nutritionist/shaman] I think will help you,” instead of some version of “I would like to hear more about that.”

The remedy is for each community member, at their own comfort level, to make the first move and share about their emotional life. If your group meets regularly, especially with the same constellation of people, I encourage scheduling a specific chunk of time for everyone to have the opportunity to express something about their inner world.

Be willing to share the full spectrum of ups and downs like “When I stepped outside and felt the wind on my face this morning, I felt completely in love with life,” and “A part of me that thinks I am a terrible person and that others would be better off without me has been very active today.”

When I am blessed to witness the victories, defeats, inner demons, and saint-like qualities of others in my community, I feel much more connected, less alone, and safer sharing where I am at myself.

3) Listen and appreciate from the heart. A common objection to the previous step might be, “If I share honestly, people will think less of me or use what I say against me.” We need to overcome these damaging myths, which damn us and our communities to a degenerate level of kindness, and fashion new ways of being at the same time. Hearing others with appreciation is equally as important as sharing ourselves.

One method that I find to be helpful when relating with someone who is behaving in a way I do not particularly understand, or I have a reaction to, is to tune into the emotion of what they are saying rather than the content. Then, I can respond honestly and empathically with a statement like, “I hear that you are feeling very scared,” even if  my rational mind might not be able to connect with what they are scared of.

When we listen openly, without criticism and judgment, then we create a circle of connection with the person who is sharing. The person speaking can begin to feel themselves being heard, and the person listening can hear their own hurt parts speak up and rejoice as they are doing the listening. This is a reason why grassroots mutual support groups like the Hearing Voices Network and the Icarus Project are so helpful to their members.

Finally, when you are able to listen, consider kindly and gently asking “what happened to you?” This question is so often eschewed by mental health professionals, who are only interested in what the problem is now, and how to efficiently fix it. For some people, talking about the past may be helpful and validating. For others, less so. Either way, offering a safe and non-judgmental invitation is a harmless, and sometimes extraordinary, gift of support.

4) Take a stand against coercion, violence, oppression and abuse. Research data and most peoples’ lived experience tells us that these are the primary causes of major distress, especially when experienced during childhood. Emotionally damaging circumstances come in many forms. Being an ally against racism, sexism, homophobia, rape-culture, emotional abuse, ableism, and economic injustice is a direct act of support for individuals affected by these forces.

So is standing up to police and psychiatric violence.

Once you’ve taken the first three steps, consider openly discussing how your community might respond non-coercively to a person experiencing an extreme state. The prospect of violence from authorities and being caged in a psychiatric hospital is a major (and very reasonable!) source of anxiety for individuals experiencing or approaching these states.  Every time we choose to not take away the agency of our brothers and sisters, we affirm their humanness, and create a greater space for healing.

Every situation is different, and coercion is not always avoidable, but every action of solidarity is important. Sometimes I have been in a situation where there was nothing I could do to prevent an involuntary trip to a hospital for someone else, but I was told after the fact that simply trying, and in some cases delaying the process for several days, made a meaningful difference for them.

5) Be a resource for basic wellness practices and social interaction. Arts, potlucks, sports, music, hiking, storytelling, dancing, singing, yoga, healthy food, games… these simple, everyday activities are nourishment for everybody’s emotional life. Hold events and invite others to join. Extend your community’s circle of influence so that those who might be less social or prone to isolation can benefit from your group’s natural surplus of social warmth. Extend special invitation to those you have not seen as much of, or might have a concern about.

6) Attend trainings and educational events. There is much for all of us to learn about dismantling psychiatric oppression, supporting people in distress and resolving conflict  You might invite a trainer into your community, or attend events at an alternative institution in your area, if you are lucky enough to live in one of the few places where they exist, such as Western Massachusetts.

Low-cost possibilities include showing films, holding community dialogues, facilitating a mad maps jam, and running a reading group.

Trainings like Intentional Peer Support, Emotional CPR, Wellness Recovery Action Plans, Non-Violent Communication, and anyone offering trauma-awareness can help improve your community’s practical skills for empathy and support.

These are steps that any community can begin to take with little assistance. And the growing movements advocating for alternatives to psychiatry includes many skilled consultants, educators, and troubleshooters who are available to suggest paths out of the darkness of pathologizing and medicalization, into the warm glow of mutual aid, human dignity, and transformational healing.

23 COMMENTS

  1. ” This is a challenge for many aspiring peers and allies in a culture where responsibility for our individual well-being has been increasingly transferred to psychiatrists, doctors, and other health professionals. ”

    “Culture”

    I like how the addiction recovery 12 step cult works, everyone in it knows how that insanity works and we get it, help each other. It has some flaws but psychiatry/govt doesn’t run it at all.

    Maybe if peer recovery had a “big book” it would take off like Bill Wilson’s movement did for alcoholism. I am just thinking big right now but it could work. Copy some of the ideas/format ?

    I know you will grow this thing,

    Thanks for making this site go.

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    • I agree! I think that both the Hearing Voices Network and the Icarus Project are both great examples of moving toward the sort of cellular mutual aid model that 12-step groups use.

      This is a bit off-topic to what you were suggesting, but it got me thinking about why we don’t really have 12-step groups for “mental illness.” I notice that among psych patients, especially those who identify as survivors of psychiatric abuse and oppression, the healing journey is focused less on submitting to a higher power, and more on reclaiming one’s own power and story.

      Personally, I find the dichotomy very interesting. Certain people at certain moments seem to benefit by ceasing to blame others and taking more responsibility on themselves, and others benefit from a radical step of not taking responsibility for everyone else, and reclaiming the reality that they were, in fact, bullied, abused, manipulated, or whatever it may be.

      It seems to me there is a tremendous amount of overlap. Many, including myself, go through a lot of both. And, sometimes people rub up against (or are forced into) either model at the wrong time, when it’s not really what they need.

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      • Here is the 12 steps I wrote:

        RARELY HAVE we seen a person who has thoroughly followed the psychiatric path and recovered. Those who do recover are usually people who have recognized Psychiatry as a dangerous atheist cult, and will not give themselves completely to psychiatry’s fanatical program. The Psychiatry Cult the A.P.A is constituted primarily of men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with anyone… including themselves.

        We are not at fault; WE were screwed the second we sat on the leather couch. We were systematically indoctrinated into believing that we have a biologically based brain defect. Psychiatrists should be held accountable for the behavior that has ruined so many lives. Many APA members suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders. The psychiatric program requires that they believe mental patients can never recover and must take dangerous pills for the rest of there lives. Most of the people who quit Psychiatry have recovered in large part, due to their self-determination and ability to act rationally. Our stories disclose in a general way what We used to be like, what happened, and what We are like now.

        If You have decided You want to leave psychiatry and are willing to go to any lengths to do it – then You are ready to take certain steps.

        At some of these We were delighted. We were sure that We had found a more sound and reasonable way. With all of the earnestness at our command, We encourage You to be resolute and confident from the very start. Some of Us have tried to hold on to Our old psychiatric ideas and the result was nil until We let go absolutely. Remember that WE deal with Psychiatry – cunning, baffling, dishonest! Continuing the mental masturbation was too much for Us.

        May You trust and believe in Yourself now! Delusions and psychiatric nonsense availed Us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We learned to protect and care for Ourselves with complete Self-acceptance. Here are the steps We took which are encouraged as a course of action to escape the Psychiatric mind trap…

        1. We decided We were “Not Powerless” over our problems – that Our lives had become dominated by Psychiatry.

        2. Came to understand that We never had a biological brain defect as psychiatric fundamentalists had led Us to believe.

        3. Made a decision to turn and walk away from Psychiatry forever.

        4. Made a scorching and fearless indictment against Psychiatry as an organization.

        5. Admitted to Ourselves and another Human Being that We had been tricked into joining an atheist cult with “psycho-education”.

        6. Were entirely ready to rid Ourselves of the self-defeating Bullsht We were taught by Psychiatry.

        7. Familiarized Ourselves with cult indoctrination tactics in order that We may never fall into a similar trap again.

        8. Made a list of all Psychiatry-members who had harmed Us, and became willing to confront them all.

        9. Called such people on their bull whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others real bad.

        10. Continued to indict psychiatry and when We were wronged promptly expressed our disapproval of it.

        11. Sought scientific empirical evidence that could help ss to defeat there BullSh^t and lies; focusing on ourselves as the Power to carry that out.

        12. Having been awakened from the psychiatric nightmare as a result of these steps, We tried to carry this message to other victims of Psychiatry, so that everyone might know the truth about the psychiatric cult and big pharma lies.

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      • I would love to see a 12-step group for psychiatric survivors, perhaps, modeled after other 12-step groups indicated for survivors of other traumas, such as ACA and SIA, especially since it seems as if many members of these fellowships have really seen the best and worst of what mental health “care” has to offer, from loving therapists who truly helped them heal to forced hospitalizations and denial that they were even abused. If anyone’s interested in starting such a thing, I’d be glad to help.

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    • It’s interesting you mention the 12 step approach, because I was thinking this might be a helpful approach for healing from psychiatric abuse, too. I am not familiar with the 12 step approach (but was talking to someone who is setting up something similar for people harmed by religious abuse), so was going to go to an Alanon meeting on Tuesday to learn more about the 12 step approach.

      I do think the psychiatric survivors’ movement does need to come up with a more cohesive alternative. Might a 12 step approach work?

      Although, I do wish we could just get the psychiatrists to stop defaming people with their fictitious and iatrogenic disorders, and making people sick with drugs known to damage the brains of all humans. It’s so odd they can’t comprehend such behavior is inappropriate in a civilized society. But I guess our society is not as civilized as it used to be.

      Money worship above all else, does not trump treating others as you’d like to be treated, when it comes to creating a civilized society, IMO.

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  2. 95% of all disabled individuals live below the poverty level. If you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, there is an incredibley high chance you are living in poverty.

    While other minorities such as LGBT have gained political ground, people diagnosed with a mental health disorder are losing ground.

    One of the reasons that the LGBT movement gained so much ground politically in the last couple of decades is the LGBT community is doing well financially. Gay and lesbians are achieving the American dream, purchasing homes, durable goods, getting married, acquiring stocks and securities, and oh yes, donating large sums of money to political campaigns.

    One of the reasons for the wealth of the LGBT community is that LGBT individuals refer one another to LGBT owned businesses. They have travel guides listing which hotels are friendly, and use word of mouth to refer service providers from plumbers to financial advisors. They are FINANCIALLY supporting one another, not simply emotionally supporting one another.

    Our movement focuses nearly entirely on forming self help communities and reforming mental health treatment, while reducing human rights violations. Our movement should instead be focusing on creating meaningful employment, job creation, asset development, business ownership, greater access to higher education, and housing for all consumers/survivors.

    If there was more wealth in our community, everything else would follow.

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    • Imagine if all the leading anti-racism groups were headed and run by white people. All the feminist groups headed and run by men. All the LGBT rights groups run by heterosexuals.

      What would happen?

      NAMI , patient “advocates” funded and ran by the psycho pharmaceutical industry, what a scam !!!

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  3. I guess what I am trying to say is that we need to form a FINANCIAL community and share our resources. The alternative is to beg for the crumbs provided by the federal government programs such as SSDI and yes, accepting even these crumbs requires that one accept the biological model of mental illness and take neurotoxic medication for life.

    Where is the Mad Market? Most of the creative talents in Hollywood have a mental health label. How about people who are ‘IN the closet” come “OUT” and provide a leg up for the less fortunate members of our community?

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    • I agree madmom! I think this is an excellent point. Part of developing a mutual aid network ought to include financial support and patronage among those affected by psychiatric oppression.

      I think that those of us who have been through extreme states actually can have a lot to offer the world in terms of empathic communication, leadership, conflict resolution, and supporting others through their own crises. I would love to help build a market presence specifically for people with lived experience that bypasses the mental health system entirely.

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          • Ashoka foundation upon initial rec, sounds promising. Thank you, madmom. I’d love to start up something in my area, and beyond. And do have experience in heading up decent sized volunteer organizations. And I am currently trying to educate local religious leaders to the almost unfathomable in scope psychiatric crimes being committed against children (and adults).

            And I’m finding, other than the main synod headquarter employees, who apparently only care about “I don’t want to pay you,” because your family gave and helped to make us millions, prior to us trying to kill you to cover up pastoral and friends’ sins against your children and you. That the decent religious people tend to agree, my story must be told.

            Although a local judge was embarrassed by my story, and the fact that the police don’t look into psychiatry’s crimes against patients and I’d never been able to find a lawyer, due to the fictitious psychiatric stigmatization, rather than due to a lack of connections to lawyers.

            Which gives credibility to the concern the psycho / pharmaceutical industries have too much power, and have deluded the entire nation into beliving in their DSM “bible” of stigmatizations and their belief that harming people for profit, matters more than humanity itself.

            Nonetheless, money is currently the issue. But that is of course because psychiatrists drug people, with the intent to prevent proper compensation to patients who mainstream medicine has harmed. And once one is drugged out of their mind on massive quantities of unneeded psychotropic drugs, Dah! Of course, it’s easy for all around that person to steal their money.

            But, thank you Jesus for dying for my sins, I’m not dead yet. But I have had all my money stolen from me, and been denied proper compensation for harm done to me by doctors, due to psychiatric stigmatization.

            This is psychiatry. And their unethical human rights violations need to be stopped, as does their massive drugging of children to bring in future iatrogenic profits for their industry.

            Do you think Ashkoa foundation might assist in allowing us to educate others of such human rights violations and stopping such crimes against others? This is the first I’ve heard of the organization.

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  4. Matthew all the best in your new venture of Flock Forward. I think that advocacy is central to helping people recover and stay well.

    I am interested in your statement “So is standing up to police and psychiatric violence.”. What would you recommend as a way of doing this without being at risk of detention or forced treatment in psychiatric settings? Which can be the outcome if we resist.

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    • Hi Chrys! In this article I am addressing established community groups who want to be allies to our cause. Standing up to police and psychiatric violence alone is very dangerous.

      I have seen here in Massachusetts that when an entire community rallies around somebody, the police, doctors, and judges are much more likely to not detain that person, or to release them much more swiftly.

      There are also intermediary ways to push back against police and psychiatric violence, such as encouraging those who are less aware of the issues to not call in the authorities in the first place.

      Individually we are currently very weak in the face of psychiatry. As households, faith communities, neighborhood associations, local activist networks, and so forth, I think that we can become much stronger.

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      • Hi Matthew – thanks for responding.

        In my experience families and people themselves, here in Scotland and the UK, sometimes have to ask for police help when they or their family member is in crisis and can’t access support. Maybe it’s different in the US. Here’s a blog, for interest, from an English serving police inspector, his twitter account is @mentalhealthcop :
        http://mentalhealthcop.wordpress.com/
        He writes about mental health law and how it affects the work of the police in his area.

        I know a number of psychiatrists now, through my work as a mental health activist and campaigner, and I tend to challenge rather that push against them. In terms of labels like “mental illness” and “schizophrenia”. Which weren’t relevant to me and mine although psychiatry uses these to treat people/patients.

        When I was a psychiatric inpatient, on 3 occasions, I had to take the psych drugs and hand no choice. It wasn’t that I had no strength but rather that I had no power. Psychiatry has power because of mental health law, to detain and coercively treat if they think fit. My strength was useful when back in the community and eventually taking charge of my own mental health, to recover. To do this I had to go against the guidance of a psychiatrist. Others may choose to do it in partnership with their doctor.

        So I don’t feel weak when facing psychiatry, it’s more about being resistant to their mantra of mental illness. I want to see more person-centred psychiatric care/treatment and people being listened to when in mental distress.

        I’m booked on the Open Dialogue UK spring seminars in London, along with many other survivor activists who tell me they are also attending. Here’s the link for info:
        http://opendialogueapproach.co.uk/events/weekend-seminars-in-spring-2014/

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        • I appreciate this Chrys. It is not that we are weak, but that we are powerless, when facing psychiatry. When informed and compassionate communities rally together, they have more power.

          My focus is to educate communities so that they can learn to better listen to one another when in distress and provide organic person-centered care without requiring outside intervention.

          I am glad to hear that you are going to the Open Dialogue seminars in the UK! I hope to read reports on how that goes here.

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