Here in Portland I have been involved with a group called Rethinking Psychiatry, an organization that is working to critically examine the modern mental health system and to promote alternative options for helping people in emotional distress. This group works out of the Unitarian Church here, the largest one on the West Coast. Sadly, I just heard news that the Unitarian Church no longer wants Rethinking Psychiatry to be affiliated with them and is effectively asking them to leave.
The main reason they gave is that it strongly conflicts with other members of the church who are not opposed to psychiatric treatment and feel served by modern mental health care. They also described certain people being strongly turned off and angered by some of the messages connected to this movement. Certain members of the church are taking psychiatric medications or have family members who have been hospitalized and feel that our message is not only offensive; it is threatening.
This is sad to me for a number of reasons. The main reason is that, as a member of the Unitarian Church, I value its goal of fighting for social justice. They have been on the front lines of fighting for LGBT rights, working to curb Global Warming and fighting to reduce our imposition of military might in the world, amongst many other things. But in this instance, they decided to choose against fighting for the reform of psychiatry. I think it’s key to examine why.
The main core group who form Rethinking Psychiatry here in Portland are passionate, strong people who believe in righting injustice, and most have personal experience of being directly or, through family members, indirectly harmed by the system. Though they are passionate, they are civil and welcoming to people with different views and I never saw them shutting down other people from talking, or avoiding challenging conversations.
I personally had a chance to talk at a Rethinking Psychiatry event this Spring where there were about 50 people. As someone who works part time in a hospital, this can be seen as deeply unsettling to people who have been abused in that setting. They were kind enough to welcome me and, after talking about the deep problems inherent in crisis care, the conversation opened up to the greater audience. Numerous people shared their stories, and passionate discussion took place. It felt like these issues were touching a very intense emotional place, but there was also a great deal of respect for all the different voices.
This is another reason I am sad; because the chance for a deeper discussion about these really important issues has been shut down, at least for now. If a place that is as open minded as the Unitarian Church will no longer host a psychiatric reform group, what does that say about our message to the broader public? Sometimes I worry that the depth of anger and emotional intensity surrounding these issues turns off people who may be open to the message of deep and systemic reform. But, at the same time, I know that – at its base – that intense anger from survivors is what is driving this movement. For some that anger is a flame that wants to burn down anything associated with psychiatry. And for others, they want to channel that flame into productive systemic changes.
What is sad to me is that an organization such as Rethinking Psychiatry, that does not come across as unwelcoming or angry at those who have other opinions, would no longer be allowed a voice at the table. At the end, I am left only with questions. What could we have done to keep Rethinking Psychiatry aligned with the Unitarian Church here in Portland? How do we find new ways to not only share our message that psychiatric treatment is often deeply problematic and has been extremely harmful to many people, but also reach a wider audience while not retreating into just expressing our anger amongst ourselves?
My hope is that Rethinking Psychiatry can reform in a different venue and in a space that is more amenable to our message. And my hope is that this message can stimulate conversations that broaden perspective, that support holistic alternatives to the current system, and that open doorways to common ground so that real substantial change in modern mental healthcare takes place.