Reflections on a Pathologized Adolescence and a Vision for the Future


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.

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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.



Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


  1. When Columbia University’s TeenScreen program announced last month that it was shutting down effective December 14, everyone, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
    TeenScreen shuts doors suddenly after 13 years:

    Services Administration (SAMHSA), was surprised. Mark Olfson, M.D., interim executive director of TeenScreen, referred interview requests to the Columbia University press office, where spokesman Doug Levy said that no interview requests would be granted.

    TeenScreen’s demise shows there is hope and our efforts are working.

  2. “Dual diagnosis” has to go next cause its almost impossible for anyone to get help for drug and alcohol abuse without labels and drug pushing, this is due to the failure to stop one of the most dangerous drug pushers of all time: the psychiatrist. The sad irony is that he has also established himself in positions enabling him to control the drug rehab field, even though he can show no results for the billions awarded by governments and legislatures all over the world.

  3. I hope your vision becomes a reality. Something like what you propose would have changed everything for me when I was 15. But I didn’t get that. I didn’t get validation or understanding or witness or space to actually try to start figuring out what it meant to be my own authentic self. I got psychiatrized.

    I’m sorry that you did, too. What you are doing now with that experience is inspiring. Thanks.

  4. Laura, I want you to know that you’re amazing, in case you ever doubt it. Your consistently passionate and articulate breakdown of the whole lie of “help” and “health” have helped to dispell my fear that the mental patients’ liberation movement had hopelessly fallen victim to the blase doublespeak of the so-called “consumers'” so-called “movement.” You are also helping to take the movement to a higher level of understanding — that psychiatric opprerssion goes far beyond the no-brainer level of forced incarceration and “treatment” to the very way our thoughts and assumptions about life are molded so as to make us view our pain not as something with an objective social/political cause, but as the result of some mysterious personal deficiency. Of course, the “help” offered is generally help in forcing ourselves into the mold of capitalist culture.

    I think that young people are sophisticated enough, and cynical enough (in a good way) that they will respond in a positive way to the way you explain things. My strategyif I were you would be to promote an attitude among youth that, just as signing up lemming-like at the recruiting station to kill for america, inc. is not “cool,” neither is pressuring one’s peers to submit themselves to the orwellian machinations of what you very aptly label the “psychiatric/pharmaceutical industrial complex.” (Actually the term has really been evolving since Eisenhower first warned of the military industrial complex; in the 90’s the term “prison industrial complex” came into wide usage. Now I guess we can speak of the “military/prison/psychiatric/pharmaceutical industrial complex” — the same beast, however you look at it.)

    Tangents aside, it’s good to see you back with a new piece. And whatever else you’re doing, please keep doing it!!!

  5. There are few persons in the world who no longer look outside themselves for fulfillment. Most people want something from someone else. Your first psychiatrist wanted you to have serious mental illness though he probably could not have adequately defined what that was or even if it existed. It was not as though he had diagnosed you with TB or anemia. No, he was working within an imaginary realm where mental illnesses existed and needed no defining other than his pronouncements. And yet this person had attended medical school and was obviously not of low intelligence. He had done an internship. He ought to have been responsible. He could have said, You seem to be unhappy. What is your life like? Please tell me. Maybe I can help you find some happiness and joy in your life. I will try my best.
    But rather, he said, You have a serious mental illness. Don’t you think that strange coming form a well educated and intelligent man/woman? I do. I think this was not just arrogance. He was a part of a system and a society of many such persons who gave and were expected to give diagnoses and get paid handsomely. So in a way he was not well educated and not using his intelligence. He was behaving almost like a robot. How did he get that way? What happened to him when he was in the 9th grade and later on? It is not easy to become a doctor. Lots of work. And not a lot of fun. Why would someone go through that to end up making this frightening pronouncements to some one too young and sensitive to grasp the significance of what he said. It was in some respects like a sexual assault though one authorized by society. Honored even.
    14 years of age is very young to be confronted by a subtle form of intellectual dishonesty which had become habitual with this psychiatrist. He or she had learned it from professors here and there and in medical school. Perhaps also at home from a parent. Once lying becomes a practice it goes on without one even knowing it.
    In essence you were lied to at 14 by someone who ought not to have been telling lies but was. Out of fear perhaps. He or she had a family. Bills, a mortgage, etc.
    A lie told by an authority has a lot of power in it. No wonder lies have always been considered dangerous and evil. Look what they can do to others. Well, I imagine your parents and insurance companies ended up paying a lot of money to that profession and the pharmacies. And you were lucky to have escaped their clutches.
    But on the whole this is what one should expect in a nation like America where money is king and a god to boot. And finding a new and better king to take its place may be the hardest task a nation ever had.

  6. Laura, you are an incredible inspiration and I admire you deeply and stand with you in this struggle. But I want to make a comment for thought. When you write that you dream of a place “with no professional” in sight, I understand the reason you write this. Yet, it makes me sad, because it excludes me, and says that my desire to serve and a compassionate, gentle, affirming and (hopefully) empowering way isn’t welcome. It makes me sad because I was never looking to be labeled a “professional” though these days I am. I am also a peer, with my own direct lived experiences and interactions with the system. I devoted my life to what I see to be a duty to serve, going head over heels in debt in the process, because I believed that understanding the human processes of emotions, responses to trauma, and processes by which meaningful relationships can be rediscovered were the kinds of things I wanted to know, and know as fully and as “professionally” as I possibly could.

    I am not a psychiatrist. I am a social worker, engaged most often in individual counseling directed by the individual, not by my agenda. I’m not able to write and say that my education was a waste, because it wasn’t. Never in school was I indoctrinated in a medical model. In fact there was little at odds with the very passions and missions that drive the community here at MIA. Maybe “social work” is vastly different that psychiatry or psychology in its education or professionalism. But I feel left out when I am written off by my label as a “professional.” I need you and every other member of this community and the consumer movement as partners and allies. But I also think you need professionals like me. I don’t believe in coercive, or directive, or authoritarian structures of interactions with other people, and I carry those values out in the small agency I work for, celebrating the ways in which the agency upholds those values and challenging and pushing the agency in the instances where it does not.

    I could not agree more with the vision of a total transformation in how we provide positive, relational community to all persons experiencing deep emotional struggles (not illness.) But I hope that there can be room not only for peer experiences, such as yours and mine and others, but also for hearts that burn for social justice for those branded as “mentally ill” and castigated to the fringe of society who also happen to be “professionals.”
    In Solidarity,

    • Dude, get over it. You need to understand that whatever you are doing as a “professional” may well be valuable but in the end the goal is to eliminate the need for your profession, and the alienation which makes human support a “professional” specialty.

      • You might be right. It might not be an important distinction. Perhaps it is just semantics.

        But what I see from my vantage point are front line “professionals” working with individuals because the individuals voluntarily come and seek that kind of partnership. Of the approximately 80 people that work in our agency, a grand total of zero are psychiatrists. Clinical Social Workers, LPCs, Marriage and Family Therapists are the people working with people who feel they need that kind of support.

        This is a huge percentage of the “mental health system” and my experiences has been that a significant number of “professionals” from these disciplines are not adversaries, but allies to the cause of responsible science and social justice for persons with lived experiences.

        I don’t believe there will ever be a point in human history in which human beings won’t benefit from reaching out and accessing support from other people, and people who decide to try and devote their working time to understanding human experiences, emotions and training in how to relational possible in helpful ways, unlikely to ever go away. The place for persons who choose to make that duty of service their lifes work will also probably not go away.

        Think of all the allies right here at MIA – frequent authors who are clinical psychologists, social workers, family therapists. I sort of feel like when you speak of “your profession” it really comes without clarity about what that “profession” even means. My world doesn’t look anything like the simple stereotype world where there are all good guys on one side in the consumer movement and all bad guys the moment they make helping and service their life’s work.

        Instead, I suspect that we need to continue oppose institutions that have made it clear they are anti-science, anti-justice filled with bigotry toward persons with lived experience. But I think we also need to spend a little less time drawing arbitrary lines in the sand based on someone’s credentials or lack thereof and instead start looking for people who hold certain values.

        Do our values align? Then we’re all allies. And each of us can probably contribute in powerful ways, including those of us who made a choice to pretty much spend our lives studying human experience and matching that up with compassionate practice and social activism.

        “No professionals” shouldn’t even be a goal. The goal should be no bigotry, no oppression, no coercion, no dehumanization. Anyone can participate in those goals, and we probably need everyone. Including the social workers, professional counselors, family therapists and others already living these values out, as direct feedback from the people voluntarily choosing to see them attests.

        • A few more thoughts:

          When I referred to “your profession” I took it from your comment; you clearly have a better idea of what you do than I.

          That aside, no one is saying that professionals are bad people. It is indeed the institutions that are the issue.

          However, whenever there is a line drawn between professional and client, a power relationship has been created, which leads to all sorts of
          contradictions if it is not recognized. Recognizing and attempting to resolve contradiction is necessary to progress, and people who are in solidarity with one another can also have contradictions with each other.
          For example, though many men may support the concept of women’s equality, this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily non-sexist in all their attitudes and actions. This doesn’t mean that they should be trashed, but the contradictions need to be explored, not denied. It’s the same thing here. So I have no personal antagonism towards you or what you do, I’m sure we’re on the same side of many issues. But I was reacting to what seemed sort of like a guilt trip on Laura for her analysis that professionalism needs to basically fade away. (If it did it wouldn’t mean that you would have no role to play btw.) Such conclusions need to be based on analysis, not on being afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. That’s all.

    • I don’t want to put words in Laura’s mouth but on the matter of the role of so called “mental health” professionals, every liberation movement has had a dream, an ideal to aspire to no matter how implausible it looked like in its beginnings.

      Take the anti slavery movement. There were opponents of slavery ever since America was founded. It took them 90 years to officially ban slave owners and another 100 (1964 Civil Rights Act) to officially ban bigotry because of race in our laws. During all that time, the “dream of a world without slave owners and racist laws” is what kept many activists going.

      Similarly, I have a dream in which there will be no “mind guardians” with the prerogative of imposing their worldview on their fellow citizens.

      What this means is not that there will not be psychiatrists or similarly fraudulent professionals (psychologists, social workers, you name it) but that their legal ability mess up the life of non criminal, unwilling participants with their chicanery will be non existent. So in that regard, rather than dreaming with the unemployment of “mental health professionals” my dream is that the total tax expenditures on so called “mental health” will be exactly zero and that courts abolish the usage of “mental health professionals” testimony in legal proceedings because these “mental health professionals” would be given the same deference as professional astrologers, ie, none whatsoever. People would be able to spend as much of their money as they want on counselors, just as they are able to spend money today on astrologers, but that would be seen as people donating money to churches today.

      That’s my dream.

  7. Laura,

    Thank you for sharing your story of struggle and your search for peace and meaning…yes, we need something much different than what we have. My thought is that we need to overturn Citizen’s United and keep private monied interests…ie drug companies…out of our government, science and democracy. Otherwise we will not have a democracy…only a big marketing machine in place of a democratically elected government.

    Thank you for your vision…

  8. Laura–Your unique language fulfills the requirements of stating your position about as well as langauge can, I think. I wonder if you have read Tina M.’s latest post and her follow-up comments in the thread?

    The reason that I say this has to do with what show up here in the comments for your post. What you mention with lots of sensitivity indicated about the lives of teens reminds me of somewhat old-fashioned talk of “needing to find ourselves”–and no one feels this need more than adolescents.

    What the quasi-polarized comments remind me of is the tension between subtle and not so subtle pressures to conform, to accept and push other into accepting the desirability of, in fact, re-creating the existing social order, endorsing a reformed version of it “working right”, on the one hand, and on the other hand understanding the inviolable spirit of search for self-understanding uninfected by the charms of how the system could work right with like-mindedness and “teamwork”.

    Tina Minkowski’s vision seems pretty uncorrupted by doublethink, and I think that the life energy of yours has to be accomodated within that kind of approach to extending empowerment for us.

  9. We at Rutgers Integral Spiritual Nexus House are also visioning such a place here in New Brunswick, NJ. We discovered recently that another group is opening a Respite home in New Brunswick and thought we could collaborate. The only problem is that the new Respite home is for those over 21. I assume (and perhaps I am wrong) that this has to do with seeking parental consent and the other issues that the New York Times piece articulated.

  10. Hi Laura
    As always I very much like to read your post, and the issue this time is often in my mind, How to do as little harm as possible as a professional helper and instead find ways to connect with young people beyond the therapeutic wordings and by labelling and diagnosing. As it is by now it seems as if society and those being in charge pay far too much attention to find out “what is wrong” instead of realizing that it is a part of growing to be a bit “crazy” at times. And for sure there are a lot of reasons for young people, and for us not that young any more to feel dispair and sadness and “furiosity”. So if instead of focusing on “the missing gen” or “the imbalance in brain”, as we now know does not even exist except as a metaphor, try to make changes in society on a political level and dare to show in words as in action how crazy it has been when a society label their kids and young people instead of changing what needs to be changed. My vision is that far more people, both so called ordinary ones as those defined professional helpers would refuse to take part in that play.

  11. Here is how the child drugging industry trolls for costumers Psychiatry looks at behavior, then fraudulently calls the behavior a medical disease but they use no medical, lab, blood, or urine tests, brains scans, etc. to prove that’s the cause of the feelings and behaviors.

    I have spoken to hundreds of people who have been subjected to child psychiatry , no one is grateful and most have resentments about a drugged childhood. What is sad is most of them still believe all the broken brain psychiatric lies told to their parents to push the drugs on them in the first place.

    Goto any 12 step meeting where treatment center vans show up and bring up the topic of psychiatry , MOST of the young people will join in and tell a story of a drugged childhood.

    Childhood psychiatry leads to adult drug addiction no matter how much they try and deny it and refuse to track it.

  12. Laura–Thanks for the terrific and informative feedback, certainly something greater than I expected, and something that continues my fantastic, unintended career as a scholar of psychiatric “knowledge”.

    In the meantime I had visited your website and looked around, and also read your story and a couple of speeches and the two-part Marcia Angell review feature that I hadn’t looked at before via the link you provide.

    You were a very productive and hardworking(!) wild woman, not just self-destructive and seduced by psychiatry. How you got so much done on the “medicine” is forever going to be a guess. (By the way, I hate using quote marks so routinely, but what choice is there with this phoney group of services hiding out as “care” under the umbrella of systems of hospital-prisons? I understand what people have come to think they see when they point up the well-intentioned majority of the clumsy clinical efforts to do some mixed-up person some good–of course, for their own good–no doubt, in the good way to do it. But I feel sorry for them, too. These are hollow gestures in most every sense: if a clinical worker doesn’t tell someone in person that they disagree with their loss of civil rights and recognize that things are medicalized but not really medically happening, that there isn’t any actual measure being implemented therapeutically for their CNS, then there isn’t the lasting effect to the “therapeutic contact” or “supportive exchange” that they blithely think is there. There’s temporary difference, and added consequences for the sufferer of all the other worse consequences, thereby, as he tries or she attempts to put into perspective the wholy unacceptable “therapy ideas” with the merely unimaginitive or else helpfully kind pepperings of attiudes and expressions in the mileu. The truly helpful work happens mainly via minutae, taking effect accidentally in affording people hope about humanity as a whole.)

    And so you’re smart and not entirely uncultured. For sure, these were strikes against you. Your actual intelligence was not allowed. Yes, in hospital settings the staff are the doctors’ roadies, groupies, bodyguards, publicists, agents, entourage, and there is no end to the mental game of enforcing the label. And well-intentioned kindnesses hardly counter that misanthropic device.

    I will take your word for it that you were a true believer, but I only played that role. Still, most of your story contained analogues to mine, and likewise, in not finding salvation for my soul in the proffered dimensions of treatment and admonition, my diagnosis was expanded. At this point in my career, finally having gotten used to intense derealisation and unpredictable ranges of both that and depersonalization, and having seen definitvely that no attention would ever get paid by anyone not wholly skeptical of mainstream behavioral healthcare protocols to my extensive history of traumas–that the bipolar diagnosis, and much more lately a schizoaffective decree– ruled my life… because of well-intentioned jerks– I now manage all symptoms according to what they indicate about actual events and happenings, and in terms of what they mean about my relationship to my feelings and interactions with other people.

    What is modern mental health service? Unimpressive.

    Sincerely, I hope you can pull off your trick for some, for many, kids’ sakes, and wish that your fellowship with the Rutgers Integral Spiritual Nexus House, among all else, works for the cause.

  13. I think it all shows just how much human beings need to have what’s on the inside, be able to show up on the outside. Seems like this is a survival thing, built into us, so we can, together, meet the environment successfully. For children, if the adults know all about them, keeping track of them, they are more likely to survive. We are, by nature, kind of mismatched to our organized society.

  14. Please allow me to join the chorus of those praising this article as a valuable community service; “the message” is important and you are an articulate spokesperson.

    My criticism of psychiatry focuses on medical schools who legitimize its harmful “medical model” narrative as medical science; a (harmful) philosophy of “mind” is not a biological, medical science. The “medical model” is actually the “disease model” since it has no medical legitimacy.

    Pathologizing natural emotional suffering is a crime against humanity!

  15. I was in heartland fighting. There weren’t many of us here or if they were they did a stent.

    Few years now I’m just still that’s all I can do here alone.

    Still though they punch me kick me and punch me again. Not hassling around though the picture gets more evident due to my vigilant prayer life.

    These dudes getting even more punked be their malediction. Even the reverent and the insestous hats guys get’n more pitifulied.

  16. I mean I don’t want to come across as too oddball though I in a way feel I’m living in Scooby-Doo world. A lot of mean peoples. Them mean people.

    These guys at Church give me the uncomfortable. I’m white and my favorite people men and women that I feel aren’t there because it hurt them too.

    Those really warm peoples and the friendliest or # 1 people are there and I feel nice with them generally speaking. It either be pretty good though if people who are of Christian background re-join us at Protestant side. Dudes get them out of there.

  17. Beautiful post Laura. And I think your idea for a community-based free space children can come to for support and, well…”community,” is a long overdue idea! It’s kind of-to my mind-something of a counter-psych ward, maybe an anti-psych ward! Not that it needs that moniker of course. All of those states you mentioned struggling with when you were young are nothing short of human feelings, feelings children have to juggle while “learning to fit into a very complex and not a little sick world. Subjecting children to a psychiatrist (and, in my opinion, most mental health experts) who struggle with these states is nothing short of criminal. I sure wish something like your community idea existed for me 40 years ago! Best of luck with all your work in these areas moving forward!