My Personal Journey to Our Upcoming Empathic Therapy Conference

Peter Breggin, MD
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Our newest conference this coming April in Michigan is the high point of a transition that my wife Ginger and I have been making for several years.   The origins of the change go much further into the past to sixty-one years ago in 1954 when I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman at Harvard and a friend invited me to join him as a volunteer on the wards of Metropolitan State Hospital.  I was majoring in American History and Literature, with little thought of becoming a psychologist and no thought whatsoever of being a medical doctor and a psychiatrist.

The wretchedly stifling living conditions inflicted upon the state hospital inmates were appalling.  As I began to spend increasing hours on the wards, my innocent eyes saw that the poisonous drugs, electroshock and lobotomy were doing far more harm than good.  Instead, the so-called patients needed something that was nearly absent—caring relationships. The inmates begged us volunteers for our attention and they responded warmly to any that we offered.

Our Harvard-Radcliffe volunteer program created a special project in which a dozen of us students showed that, with a little supervision from a skilled social worker, we could actually help many of the most hopeless patients regain strength and hope, so that nearly all of them could leave the hospital.   As I described in Toxic Psychiatry, the ongoing volunteer program gave stunning results and received national publicity.   The program continued for many years after I graduated Harvard but eventually fell before the onslaught of biological psychiatry whose basic ideology it so thoroughly undermined and discredited.

If the journey had a beginning, it could have been there at Metropolitan State.   I think it really started at age ten when I saw a newsreel in a movie theater showing the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp.  Jews like me were piled up like refuse in heaps of the dead and dying.   As a young boy, of course I felt initially overwhelmed at witnessing people like myself being treated like biological trash.  Yet in response to that trauma, I managed to make a vow to myself — I would not go easily, nor would I stand by idly while others were taken.  Nothing again aroused that intense emotional reaction in me until I set foot into American’s version of the concentration camp in the form of Metropolitan State.  My vow was re-awakened.

To call it a journey is really a euphemism.   It felt in the beginning like a lonely war against psychiatric oppression and then, with Ginger, a less lonely but still frightening campaign.  Nowadays we rarely feel isolated or threatened because we have for so many years survived the worst and because many other citizens and a number of professionals are beginning to take stands, and to provide mutual support to each other.  I have gone from the early years of living under constant physical and professional threat to feeling welcome nearly everywhere.  With Ginger, I have also come to conclude that my books and articles, and now my blogs and videos, have disseminated enough critical scientific theory and fact for others to continue building on.

Ginger and I have been shifting our emphasis to the more positive realization that I took away from Metropolitan State—that caring and even loving relationships lie at the heart of all healing and can work miracles.  I have also been focusing on increasing our understanding of why we human beings suffer so much from painful, self-destructive emotions that undermine and ruin our relationships.   These overwhelming emotions make us easy victims of predatory human beings and institutions like psychiatry.  Toward increasing this understanding, I wrote my most recent book, Guilt, Shame and Anxiety, about the origins of these inhibitory emotions in biological evolution and childhood, and about how to triumph over and transcend them with reason and love.

Ginger and I have also been shifting the focus of the conferences we began putting on 25 years ago. Our new conference in Michigan this coming April 17-19, 2015 with cosponsor Bertram Karon continues to present strong critiques of psychiatry, but it offers much more about solutions and positive approaches.

Leaders will describe international programs, such as Open Dialogue, a family-oriented approach to treating “schizophrenia,” that has nearly eliminated the “disorder” from the city of Lapland, Finland.  Presenters Mary Olson and Rebecca Hatton are bringing it to the United States.  The Swedish model for placing distressed clients with families in a farming community is equally exciting.  Presenter Carina Håkansson from the Family Care Foundation will describe how this “simple life” moves people toward recovery.  Gina Calhoun will present a scientifically validated and internationally implemented peer approach to helping people across the spectrum of emotional problems through WRAP — the Wellness Recovery Action Plan.  Based on firsthand worldwide experience and his scientific acumen, Robert Whitaker will offer us a scientific review and analysis of innovative, caring approaches.

Experienced professionals will describe their individual research and therapeutic work. Jeanne Stolzer will join me in exploring the origins of guilt, shame and anxiety in biological evolution, and how we can overcome these self-defeating emotions through reason, relationship and love. Burt Karon will talk about psychoanalytic therapy; Michael Cornwall about lived experienced and Laingian therapy; Tim Evans and Geri Carter about Adlerian social theory and love; and Bob Foltz about applying the scientific method to studying drug-free therapy.  Pediatrician Tom Ryan will describe his dramatic moral and scientific decision to stop psychiatrically diagnosing and drugging the children in his practice. Michael Corrigan will, with startling visual images, debunk ADHD and stimulant drugs, and tell us what children really need.

Empathic therapy is an international movement of great diversity.  You will come away from our conference with a profound sense of the depth and variety of caring, humane and largely drug-free empathic approaches to helping people, as well as the mounting scientific evidence that empathic relationship lies at the heart of healing.   For many, the conference will be personally inspiring.

The conference takes place April 17-19, 2015 on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.  It is sponsored by our nonprofit Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, Education and Living with cosponsorship by Bertram Karon and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council.  The setting is the great hotel and conference center on the campus with nearby culinary delights.  The conference awards CEUs.

Bert, Ginger and I, and our roster of presenters, look forward to seeing you!

20 COMMENTS

  1. Good day Dr. Breggin, Your article strikes a chord with me, certainly. I grew up in the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, in the days when many of our streets were unpaved and we could walk a few blocks to buy penny candy at a country store and buy ears of corn from a nearby farm. When I learned to ride a bike and my parents allowed me to ride past our street, I discovered Trapelo Road. I rode through a part of Waltham and past those funny-looking hospitals a number of times, past the conservation land and into Waverley Square and then back again. I never knew what those places were for and my parents couldn’t come up with an explanation that made any sense to me. I saw that one called Metropolitan State Hospital. Why was it a State one? Did that make it like a college? What was the Fernald School? Could I go to it, too, since I was so unhappy at my current school? Well, why not? Why didn’t my mom have my brothers born at Metropolitan State Hospital since it was so close by? What was McLean Hospital? I still had no clue even when I left home at 17 to go to college.

    I ended up with an eating disorder and had no clue what to do. When I fell into the hands of shrinkage at 23, I decided to take time off from college. I moved in with my parents. I intended to stay with them briefly and then go back to school. However, I ended up at Options Day Treatment. This was when I really learned what The Met was. It was at a time when they were bringing patients out of The Met and Options served as the oh so wonderful program that was supposed to de-institutionalize people. Options institutionalized me very well. I was hooked for the next three decades.

    Dr. Breggin, I’d love it if at the conference you are planning, if you’d include a compassionate approach to eating disorders as well. As of now, the absolutely most inhumane care of all is the care of eating disorders. I’ve been talking about this for several years now in my blog (http://juliemadblogger.wordpress.com) and no one seems to take notice at all. Mostly, people say I am a danger to the world of ED because I state that people might want to get away from shrinkage and look into alternatives. However, inhumane care in eating disorders at Children’s Hospital’s Bader 5 was exposed by nurse Katie Higgins. I have been exposing abuse myself when it occurred in many other facilities. I was happy to see that after so many years, eating disorders finally got on the map, but the “care” ain’t care. I hate using the word “disorder” anyway. I don’t see these problems as mental, but nutritional. I would rather not use the term “mental illness” ever and I think mental diagnosis is cruel and demeaning. It should be abolished because it’s a barbaric mindset.

    • It reminds me of a recent story from UK (trigger warning):
      a woman has been “treated” for depression for a long time, not surprisingly without much success. In the end she decided to take her own life as she found the whole struggle hopeless. However, being committed in a psych hospital she didn’t have many options so she decided to starve herself to death. That of course prompted the psychiatrists at the hospital to submit her to force feeding, a ruling that was then upheld in the court because she was “too sick” and “lacked insight”. I don’t even know where to start when I try to describe how appalling every part of this story is.
      “caring and even loving relationships lie at the heart of all healing”
      That is indeed true but apparently hard to grasp for people who are charged with healing.

      • Yeah, that’s it for all of us, well summed up. You get a tube up your nose or supervised meals, you’re told you are completely incompetent and that you “deserve” what you are now getting. The tube is either forcefully inserted, inserted in the presence of “security,” under threat of the presence of “security” or gaining a court order, or “under duress.” I have heard coercion dialogues, reasons they tell people to submit to it. I’d say 99% of the time it’s not medically necessary but used as control method. Some have tubes surgically implanted into various parts of their bodies. Some ask for the tube or delibertately starve till they get it because they are in “treatment” so much that it becomes status symbol. I am so saddened when i hear, “Treatment is my life.” I see this with many so-called “mental illnesses,” that your life revovles around doing well in group, following your program, for decades.

        I realized I was more than a symptom, more the pittance they expected of me. I’d suggest school and they’d say, “You can’t, you need treatment.” I’d suggest working, and they’d say, “Oh no, only a minimum wage job where you aren’t really valued. You have no value except as patient.”

        I realized they were wrong. I wish I could shake some sense into thousands of people out there. I really do. I believed their lies for many years myself and was convinced just like anyone else, bowed down to their drugs, their coping skills, their talk of imbalances, and went to program after program. I am glad I saw the truth and got out when I did. Now, I have a chance to do something with my life.

    • Julie — We seem to be of similar minds. I think discussion of a different – and certainly more compassionate/empathic – approach to treating eating disorders is much-needed and rarely discussed – or realized – in nearly all sectors of mental health practice/research/writing. I recently started writing a series of investigative stories about the eating disorders “residential treatment industrial complex” that was linked to in the “Around the Web” section here; among other things, the first article in the series mentions how some alternative treatment approaches being used in places like Australia are proving far more effective for individuals battling long-term eating disorders, and in particular anorexia (I’ll be discussing those alternative approaches at more length later in the series). I would love to connect with you…. I will visit your Web site too. I’ve looked at a couple of your articles on Mad in America today, and your experience and viewpoints very much resonate with me. In addition to joining Mad in America as a semi-regular blogger, I have recently been trying to think of ways to help bring about concrete change in the largely-abusive forms of treatment almost uniformly administered to individuals branded with an “eating disorder” diagnosis, so am looking for like-minded people to team up with.

  2. I’m glad to see ’empathy’ on the table on such grand scale. It seems to have completely fallen by the wayside in current mental health practices. Frankly, the perspectives of ‘self’ offered, alone, are inherently un-empathic and academic. An empathic perspective would demonstrate high and equal regard for any human being in the vicinity. At present, we’re far away from that reality. Good luck!

  3. Dear Peter, first of all to say that I am deeply honoured to be one of the speakers in such great company of people. Second, when reading your post I recognized some essential similarities with my mentor Barbro Sandin who devoted her work and Life to make a change in the psychiatric system, and for that I am always grateful. I am so much looking forward to meet you in April. warmest / Carina

  4. Thank you, Dr. Breggin, and thanks to your wife Ginger, for your decades of work in speaking the truth about the psychiatric industry and it’s toxic drugs. I’m personally very grateful.

    I agree, today’s psychiatric industry is no more scientifically valid or morally acceptable, and perhaps more insidious (since they’re “medication spellbinding” patients, then claiming the adverse effects of their drugs are “genetic” illnesses), than the Nazi psychiatrists who claimed being Jewish is a “genetic mental illness.”

    Torturing and stealing from people is actually just as bad, if not worse, than killing them outright. The psychiatric industry was historically, and is still today, a morally bankrupt industry. But I am so sorry for the crimes committed against your people (and perhaps, genealogically, mine as well.)

    Thank you for being the “Conscience of Psychiatry.” I had not realized you were Jewish, but am glad you are, since I’d been railroaded into the psychiatric system by a Dr. Rabin (“rabbi”) and a Dr. Kohn (“kohen”). I’m glad a decent Jew helped to educate and save me from some apparently, according to their medical records, non-God believing hypocritical Jews.

    I agree, it is now time to find solutions to the problems caused by today’s morally bankrupt psychiatric system. My best wishes, and gratitude, to you in your upcoming conference, and hopefully continuing advocacy work. Thank you so much.

  5. Dr. Breggin,
    I found and devoured your book “Toxic Psychiatry” in 1982, shortly after I had begun orthomolecular therapy and withdrawn from psychiatric drugs. Your book was a great encouragement and moral-booster for me because it was the first time a respected authority confirmed suspicions I had had about biological psychiatry for some time.

    Several times group leaders at NAMI and MDDA meetings threatened to call the police on me if I continued to recommend your book to their members. I can only imagine the heat you must have endured, and I hope you and your wife can now enjoy the personal freedom you have won for yourselves by fighting for the freedom of all humanity.

  6. My late father was NAMI-Massachusetts president for a term. There was one thing that he did that surprised everyone because it seemed out of character. It was pro-patient. You’d have to know the background to this to understand his reasoning. One day, I had brought my boyfriend Joe (now deceased) to meet my parents. I was surprised because although Joe wasn’t Jewish, my parents liked him and were quite impressed with his sense of humor and good nature. For a change, my dad never made rude remarks to me about Joe being Catholic, and he refrained from trying to encourage me to “meet a nice Jewish boy instead.” So the relationship and trust between Joe and my parents grew. My dad asked me where I’d met this nice man. I told him that he and I met in the smoking room of a local psych ward where I’d been many times.

    So when my dad was president of the state NAMI, there was a motion in the state government to do away with smoking on psych wards. My dad said something like the following, and this of course is not an exact quote. “You must consider patient rights. Patients cannot be expected to quit cold turkey. Also, important relationships are formed in smoking rooms. These bonds are strong and empowering to patients.” I believe he foresaw what was coming, that these places were becoming more and more like prisons. That they had less and less to do with compassion and caring and more to do with complete eradication of what it means to be human, of any freedom of thought, of any freedom of expression whatsoever. My dad would be rolling in his grave if he were alive today and knew what happened to me.

  7. Big fan of alternatives and would go to the conference if it didn’t sound like very similar to the Mad in America film festival in Arlington, MA which I attended last year, but to be that guy…Lapland is not a “city in Finland” it is a region (basically the northern third of the country).

  8. Ialso just want to say thank you for all your work – You must have suffered a lot over the years taking such an extremely different path than most of your colleagues.

    You said something like
    “I made a vow to myself. I would not go easily nor would I stand idly by while others were taken.” I believe this action is the most powerful way to prevent evil in the world

  9. Whoever just left the comment on eating disorders, I can’t even find it right now. I just want to let you know my blog is at juliemadblogger.wordpress.com but I had to make it disappear for now due to privacy reasons. I will be back, just not sure when. I am still blogging but no one can see the posts right now. I don’t know where your comment went nor who you are. I also quit facebook and don’t plan on rejoining. The reason is that I am prone to jealousy. I hate seeing how successful other people are, how loved others are, and how unloved I am, and honestly, I dislike comparing myself to other people and judging myself by facebook’s ugly standards. I wish I had family, mostly. This is the biggest heartbreak of my life, that the System lied to my family about 20 years ago. Also, I made the mistake of joining eating disorders communities. I ended up getting bullied. Why? For fighting for patient rights! Seriously! Also, my new book got accepted for publication but I told my publisher I am putting it on hold until I find a home. I am facing possible homelessness right now. I have no place to go. Also, my last book didn’t sell. I am so shocked over this. Seeing all those zeros was too much for me. I don’t want to publish another no-sell. People tell me publish anyway, but they aren’t writers! Thanks so much for your support. Can you please tell me your name and who you are? You said you are in Australia. My contact info is [email protected]. Thank you.

  10. This magnificent Conference was a life changing event for me. Had I still been taking all my psychiatric drugs at this time, attending and traveling too this event would have been impossible. I was simply too sick, too impaired, too depressed, and too suicidal from taking my medicines prescribed my my psychiatrist. Attending this event was a present I gave to myself after enduring the worst, mentally torturous, deadly psychiatric drug withdrawals I have ever endured in all of 58 years of living on this planet. Every one of the speakers were truly amazing! And a big heartfelt thank you goes to you Dr. Breggin for putting it all together. It gave me hope, strength, and love in my seemingly hopeless world.