Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published at Mad in America on June 8, 2014.
I’ve been working on a larger writing project for a while now, and am currently focusing on my ninth grade year— the year I turned fourteen, the year I began to think about suicide, the year I discovered the temporary satisfaction that comes from escaping oneself, and the year I met my first psychiatrist and said goodbye to myself. For many years, I carried great shame about all that unfolded during that year—about the things I did, the secrets I kept, the harm I caused, the darkness I was so immersed in. Today as I write, I am full of love for that lost girl I once was, for I see that I was on a universal, archetypal search—for answers to my profound emptiness, to why I yearned to die, to why I felt so utterly convinced that I didn’t fit into the world. I was searching for self-worth, for peace of mind, for a sense of safety in a world I didn’t understand. I was searching for the kinds of things that all young people search for, only I was never presented an opportunity to realize this.
Had I had a space of mutual understanding, recognition, and solidarity to enter into—one without authority figures like parents, teachers, coaches, or “mental health” practitioners—I wonder how things might have been different for me, how perhaps I might have found fuel in the power of shared experience and identification. I wonder if I might never have found myself before a shrink who’d tell me in less than an hour that I had a “serious mental illness” that I’d live with for the rest of my life, hand me a prescription sheet, tell me to come back the following week and all the weeks after, and trick me into believing that I was broken and fixable only by Psychiatry.
Though today I am completely grateful for the trajectory of life thus far—I am grateful, even, for that first shrink I was forced to see—I can’t help but think about these things. I think about these things because I am acutely aware that millions of young people might be in a place similar to the one I was once in, a place of alienation, isolation, confusion, anger, sadness, and disillusionment. I think about these things because I know that the prominent, visible “help” our young people are offered today is predominantly under the umbrella of “mental health”, and thus, oriented around diagnosis, “treatment”, “early intervention”, “prevention”, and the like. This “help”—“help” that is plastered all over the television and the internet and magazines and schools and doctors’ offices, “help” that young people see over and over every day—offers a tantalizing but false answer to the profound agony of adolescence. It is “help” that young people, themselves, are directly and indirectly promoting in organizations like Active Minds and articles like this one in the New York Times. I know how tantalizing this “help” can seem, and I know how destructive it truly can be, for I sought it desperately for thirteen years until I accidentally discovered that this “help” was actually bringing me closer to my death.
My heart envisions a future of grassroots community-based, free, accessible, welcoming, non-judgmental and safe spaces for young people in the middle of the hurricane of adolescence. They will be spaces completely free of the false and destructive dualism of “mental health” and “mental illness”, spaces in which no professionals are in sight, no illusions of quick-fix solutions offered, no top-down authority to direct the conversation. They will be spaces facilitated by those of us who’ve reclaimed what it means to be human—to suffer, to yearn, to fall into the depths of darkness, to fly high on the waves of euphoria, to think about death as a solution to life, to hear voices, to experience paranoia, to be debilitated by panic and anxiety, to feel completely helpless, hopeless, and alone. In these spaces, young people will find power and validation; they will be listened to and truly heard with no mention of the phrase “mental health”, and certainly not of psychiatric labels. They will discover that their pain and struggle are not evidence of their brokenness, but are in fact healthy responses to this difficult world in which we live, responses that have meaning and that offer the potential for growth, change, and individual and collective transformation, if only they’re listened to and explored in comradeship.
In these spaces, young people will embrace the full spectrum of their emotions—including their deepest suffering and hardship—insulated by mutual support. They will arm themselves with honest facts about what it means to be human, and they will go back out into the world with loud, courageous voices, ready to stand against the rampant pathologization of their experiences. I am envisioning our future generations equipped with all my generation hasn’t been equipped with: the power to resist society’s greedy, destructive, industry-driven urge to turn adolescence into “mental illness”; the power to resist institutions and authorities who work hard to build a profitable, controllable, silenced, psychiatrized, dehumanized mass of young people who will take their meds as prescribed, listen to their doctors’ and parents’ and schools’ demands, and in so doing, sacrifice their fire, their potential, their individuality, and their revolutionary spirit. If we are to dismantle the Psychiatric-Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex, we must reach our young people by building them spaces in which they can reconnect with themselves and what it means to be human. Generations of battle lie ahead, and I smile as I envision victory on our young people’s horizons.