[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.