On Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 I received an e-mail directed to the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community’s (RLC) [email protected] address from an ‘Outreach Specialist’ connected to Arcos Films. Arcos Films is a production and distribution company based in Austin, Texas. Their tagline suggests that their mission is to create “media to change the world”.
At least at a distance, Arcos’ aim and goals seem admirable. They want to look at empowering women and young girls in developing regions of the world. They want to build awareness and access to honest information about energy and how it impacts our environment, politics, food sources, and so on. And, in collaboration with Trinity Films, they also want to talk about the importance of ‘mental health’.
I’m not sure how their Outreach Specialist found her way to the RLC’s e-mail inbox, but there she was, requesting to schedule a phone consultation in regards to Arcos’ new project: developing the so-named ‘Mental Health Channel’ (MHC). In what I’m sure was a form letter sent out to several different groups and individuals, the initial contact read:
“MHC will be the world’s first channel for mental health programming, a revolutionary new network to engage, entertain, offer help and build awareness. The approach is honest, respectful and well-informed. I recently began the preliminary research and development of these web series and would like to gain a better understanding of the field… In an effort to structure the series in an accurate format, I am looking to speak to as many people in the field as possible.”
Indeed, I spoke with the Outreach Specialist, and even sent her a follow-up e-mail on October 29th, 2013 chock full of people and organizations with whom I suggested she and her colleagues connect as they moved forward. That list included:
- Robert Whitaker
- Jacqui Dillon
- Gail Hornstein
- Jay Joseph
- David Cohen
- Daniel Mackler
- Rachel Waddingham
- Peter Breggin
- Rob Anda
- Ruta Mazelis
- Mary Olson
- Rich Shulman
- Jim Gottstein
- Peter Bullimore
- Laura Delano
- Dorothy Dundas
I further suggested they get to know more people in the RLC community, check out the Mad in America website, and listen to some of the many Madness Radio podcasts available at www.madnessradio.net. (To make it all as easy and straight-forward as possible, I provided them with links and/or e-mail addresses for all my recommendations.) Additionally, they were set to come to at least some of the film screenings at the Alternatives Conference (where the RLC’s Beyond the Medical Model was to be shown) scheduled for December of that year in Arcos’ home city. (They may very well have done so, but I do not recall crossing paths with them there.)
Given their early efforts to reach out to not just individuals but whole communities of people who identify as being among the psychiatrically diagnosed, there seemed reason to have some hope about the shape this channel might take. That hope was, of course, quite naïve.
The website is – on the whole – more of the same old medicalized material available at every turn. Although there are a few faint rays of light (e.g., ‘Best Day Ever’ and ‘On my Way’, two episodes about young people that are almost entirely devoid of medicalized assumptions), they are buried underneath the unbearable weight of all the most stereotypically disease-model content you could ever imagine.
There’s repeated mention of all phenomena associated with emotional or mental distress as falling underneath the ever present umbrella of ‘brain disease’, and efficacy of psychiatric drugs is grossly exaggerated on more than one occasion. For example, ‘Big Thinker’, Patricia Deldin suggests flatly that research on depression demonstrates best treatment practices are those that include medication combined with therapy, and Brandon Staglin refers to the four psychotropic medications he’s taking to treat his Schizophrenia diagnosis when exclaiming, “Actually, antipsychotic medications are very effective at stopping psychosis.”
Perhaps most painfully, young person after young person tells their story of devastating trauma only to have it plunked down within a mental illness frame. For example, in Arifa’s story (called ‘B Positive’), she talks about the pain and sorrow that comes with trying to persevere through kidney failure, while the Mental Health Channel characterizes her story as follows:
“Arifa’s life hangs in the balance. She’s on a 5 year transplant wait list, and may not have 5 years to wait. She prioritizes her mental health to counter depression.” (Emphasis added)
Meanwhile, there’s Selvaughn who was abandoned abruptly by his mother at the age of 17, and then was homeless and living on the streets until entering into a residential mental health facility on his 18th birthday apparently because he’d been diagnosed with ‘depression’.
And then there’s the film festival. Oh, the film festival. Several of the themes mentioned above are repeated here, but the Channel reaches a new height of dangerousness in its choice to promote ‘The Mermaid’ directed by Sara Werner, selecting it for the fest’s Jury Award. Check it out. It’s only 13(ish) minutes long.
This short film follows a young woman (played by writer/producer, Italome Ohikhuare) who is pulled between her obnoxious boyfriend (Jay) who wants to “spend more time with her” (which seems to be not-so-subtle code for ‘let’s have more sex’) and her troubled brother (Deji) who has been diagnosed with Schizophrenia. On the film’s promotional website, the piece is touted as a “gift” to Ohikihuare’s brother, who is reportedly also diagnosed with Schizophrenia. Some gift.
Although, right at the start, Ohikihuare’s character (Sirah) tells her boyfriend that her brother would never bite him (see the film to understand why!), Deji shows up and has his hands around Jay’s neck three times within the first five minutes of the film. In fairness, I guess it’s true that biting is not the same as strangling! (By the way, Jay is white and Deji is a young black man.)
The film rambles on with Sirah screeching about Deji just “needing his pills”, while Jay yells that Deji needs to be “Baker Act”ed and warns that he’s going to “kill someone”. By the end, Deji appears to be at risk for drowning after jumping in the ocean, and Jay (who’d previously run off to get said pills) returns and comes to his rescue while sister Sirah screams for help like a fairytale princess cornered by a dragon. Shortly thereafter, Sirah turns things around and pins Deji on the ground with her hands around his neck, yelling at Jay to call the cops. The whole film ends with Jay reassuring a tearful Sirah that she did the right thing, and Sirah asking him to spend the night. (Perhaps he’ll get his sex after all.)
The whole thing could essentially serve as an ad for the Murphy Bill and Involuntary Outpatient Commitment (A.K.A ‘AOT’). Not only does it send strange messages about how psychiatric drugs work (instantaneously, if we are to believe Sirah’s screech), but it paints individuals with such diagnoses as inarguably dangerous, and force as unavoidable and unquestionably ‘the right thing’. Additionally, the race connotations leave me uneasy. Both the portrayal of a young black man (Schizophrenia diagnosis or not) as so uncontrollably violent and dangerous, and the otherwise arrogant and disrespectful white man as savior (to both the ‘out of her depth’ woman whom he wishes to bed and the violent black man who previously attacked him) seem particularly off given our current climate of racial injustice. (Though, I should note that I feel somewhat out-of-place as a white woman critiquing a young woman of color on this point.)
“We Work Around Politics because they’re increasingly divisive. We continually review our content to be sure it adheres to our nonpartisan mission, and is as much as possible, objective. We embrace ideas from any side, as long as they stand up to rigorous scrutiny, as practical and achievable solutions that are scientifically defensible.”
This strikes me as particularly interesting considering that so much of the status quo message about ‘mental health’ (that runs rampant around the virtual ‘Mental Health Channel’ space) is not particularly “scientifically defensible,” and certainly doesn’t stand up to “rigorous scrutiny.” Furthermore, the channel seems to completely fail at embracing “ideas from any side.” Perhaps they could more fairly claim ignorance if not for our correspondence back in 2013. But, given that exchange, I can only see their choice to represent such a limited and questionable version of reality as willful. And, it’s this willfulness that, at least in some ways, makes them worse in my eyes than so many other groups that simply have never even heard there’s another way.
Although the team behind the Mental Health Channel clearly ignored all of my input, they did graciously add me to their mailing list, and so I get their cheery, often self-congratulatory updates with a fair amount of regularity. I generally ignore them, but periodically do take a peek, and, in a moment of frustration on September 28th of this year, I finally read and replied to their update about a new series entitled “Big Thinkers on Mental Health” and expressed some of my disappointment. In that e-mail, I offered the following concerns:
- That their new ‘Big Thinker’ series seems to only identify doctors as the experts and fails to fairly recognize individuals who’ve ‘been there’ themselves in that way
- That they only offered four resources on their ‘support organizations’ page, and all of them are pharmaceutically funded (including the heavily pharma funded trio of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)
- That they are failing to recognize non-medicalized perspectives on ‘mental health’ and appear to have completely dismissed ideas on how to represent alternative perspectives overall
To their credit, I received a reply from one of their senior producers. Here’s a bit of what she had to say:
“It’s not that your input has been dismissed, it’s just that we are a small group of people trying to do a tremendous amount of work. And we can’t do it all, at least not all at the same time. Our official public launch was just last May. As mentioned, we continue to grow, and we will continue to take feedback like this into consideration as we plan future stories and future iterations of our website. I assure you, you have been heard.”
(Note that she failed to address that such feedback was given far in advance of their launch.) In regards to their resources section, she offered:
“To address your concerns regarding our resources page, you are right, it is a narrow list. We do not have the bandwidth to maintain a comprehensive list of resources – this page is hopefully enough to provide a starting point if someone is in need. To maximize our efforts, we have included the organizations we know of that have a broad, national presence so that anyone going to that page is likely to find help in their area.”
(Note that she apparently ignored my commentary on the one-note, pharmaceutically funded nature of those resources.) Among other things, she also offered:
“We don’t align with one path of treatment or school of thought but hope to feature a variety of ways that people and organizations are having a positive impact,” and “Many of the interviews within this series don’t mention medication at all. Others do. Some people are with clinical organizations, others are not. We do aim to make it well-rounded.”
Sigh. This brings me to perhaps the most important point in all this: It’s impossible to make change or even have meaningful dialogue on these issues when those propagating mainstream ideas don’t even seem to fully understand what it is they’re doing, or what it would look like to do otherwise.
How are we going to get anywhere at all if people believe that speaking to alternatives just means occasionally putting something out there that isn’t about psychiatric drugs? Assuming that the Mental Health Channel folks genuinely believe they’re offering a product that’s ‘well-rounded,’ how do we even get to a point where they understand why it’s not, and can make a well-reasoned decision about where to go from there?
In reality, psychiatry and the medical model of mental illness are less defined by psychotropics themselves than they are by the concept that extreme emotions and altered mental states are based purely in biology. If we accept that as hard fact (as so many seem to, in spite of the lack of conclusive evidence or even evidence to the contrary), then it’s all the harder to convince anyone that the right response shouldn’t also be biologic in nature. If people buy wholeheartedly into the (thoroughly debunked) idea of ‘chemical imbalance’ as root cause, it makes at least some sense that they’d continue to be drawn most strongly down a path of chemical cure.
Mad in America focuses a great deal on psychiatric drugs themselves, as it rightly should. Yet, it must be pointed out that while, yes, harm was done to me by the medications a psychiatrist prescribed, the harm started when they essentially gave those who hurt, and hit, and raped, and devalued me a pass and said the problems all resided in my head. Harm is done to others when their different ways of relating to the world are defined rigidly as a disorder, rather than the result of how a particular individual and a particular environment intersect. Harm is done to our whole world when sensitivity is defined as weakness, and hardness and emotionlessness are promoted as strength.
Yes, it’s about the drugs. But, in some ways, no, it’s not at all about them. It’s about the damage we do by convincing people that there’s no other choice than to take the drugs because of a ‘chemical imbalance’ or ‘chronic brain disease’ that, just like cancer, will only get worse if it goes untreated. It’s about the inescapable nature of the boxes people put us in (even some of those boxes not filled up with pills).
Until the Mental Health Channel (and so many others) is willing to really hash that bit out – as long as people think they’re being ‘well rounded’ and presenting ‘alternatives’ because they sometimes mention that exercise and meditation and eating well can help a ‘mental illness’, too – then there will be no balance at all.
So, Mental Health Channel, you get an ‘A’ for production value, but an ‘F’ for following your own stated goals. You are doing harm. Your homepage professes that you are a “new online network that’s changing the conversation,” but it appears to me that you’re using your considerable resources to further mostly the same old stories.
And, in the process, you further the silencing of so many voices that couldn’t possibly compete with your reach or your budget to produce. You perpetuate dangerous ideas like that those of us who have been psychiatrically labeled are dangerous, or ‘need to take our meds’ (even if they’re killing us or drastically shortening our lives which, at least in my perusal of your website thus far, seems to go unmentioned).
You’ve repeatedly said that you want to avoid taking sides; You want to stay ‘non-partisan’. But, in the end, this is not just some political debate about ‘to med or not to med’. This is systemic oppression, and you are taking part. Is that really where you want to be, or were you serious when you said you want to change the conversation? If so, you know where to find me (as our e-mail exchanges indicate) and so many others who might be willing to help. (P.S. I’m not so sure you can truly change a conversation without getting at least a little bit ‘political’.)
Until then, I really hope the rest of us can figure out how to maximize the resources and connections we do have, and get our stories beyond these bubbles in which we currently appear to be floating along adrift.
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.