Rethinking Psychiatry Teaches about Despair, Resilience, and the Great Turning


Rethinking  Psychiatry is an independent,  grassroots group in Portland, Oregon that advocates for a paradigm shift in mental health care.  On January 20,  we hosted a film and discussion by activist and artist Barbara Ford. The subject was  “Despair and Resilience: How to Face this Mess We’re in Without Giving Up.”    Ford also showed a film called Joanna Macy and the Great Turning, featuring philosopher, writer, and activist Joanna Macy.

Both Macy and Barbara began by acknowledging how easy it is to become overwhelmed by the complexity, injustice, and ecological and economic issues of the world.  Given the scope of problems and suffering, it’s easy to understand why many people feel like giving up.

With a backdrop of beautiful cinematography, 81- year-old Macy acknowledges the tremendous destruction of this planet.  Still, she is filled with energy and hope, and talks about how exciting it is to be alive during this time – a time she calls “The Great Turning.”  According to Macy’s website, “The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time:  the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

Macy also acknowledges the benefits of modern society’s advances. However, she explains, our current rate of growth is unsustainable and destructive.  Society has placed far too much value on growth, production, profit, and consumption, and far too little emphasis on protecting our health and our environment, alleviating the causes of extreme poverty, or understanding the role of our economic system in creating this mess.

Many people involved in “The Great Turning” are working on solutions that value health and well-being over production and profit, and that work in harmony with nature instead of against it.  Macy tells of people who are using both old and new ideas to create exciting projects that actually improve our health and the Earth, such as renewable energy, permaculture, and urban gardens.

In the discussion that followed, Barbara explained the importance of acknowledging our sadness. She reminded us that much of our sadness comes from being empathetic beings during this time of great loss and suffering. The holding back of emotions leads to stress. Sharing with others who understand helps with healing.

In working towards solutions, she cautioned that we don’t need to take on every issue and controversy.  Each person needs to find the cause, or causes, that speak to him or her.  Each person needs to find the role that feels right to him or her. Not everyone is comfortable or effective marching in the streets – some people feel more comfortable in supportive, behind-the-scenes roles.  All work in progressive activism is important, and people generally do their best work when they are doing what they are passionate about.

Ford also spoke to the importance of self-protection.  It’s OK, she explains if there are certain books you can’t read, certain movies you can’t watch, and certain news stories you can’t pay much attention to because they are too upsetting and triggering. It’s OK if there is a particular issue you don’t feel called to work on, even if it’s important.  It’s OK to focus most of your energy on the particular issue or idea that you feel passionate about and work that you enjoy.  

This idea of “The Great Turning” is in harmony with Rethinking Psychiatry’s mission to help reform the mental health system into a life-affirming and sustaining field.  We believe that the current status quo of the American mental health system, where the problem is most often identified with the individual rather than the environment, is harmful and often ignores society’s ills.  The current industrial growth society is alienating, unsatisfying, unsustainable, and unhealthy for many people.  As journalist Robert Whitaker explains in his groundbreaking book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” American society’s “a pill for every ill” approach is simply not working – depression and anxiety are more prevalent than ever.

Another journalist, Melody Petersen, explains in her excellent 2008 book, “Our Daily Meds,” how the pharmaceutical industry has become far too focused on profits instead of health. Petersen describes how the pharmaceutical industry’s relentless advertising and ruthless business practices are destructive to public health and the environment.   Petersen describes the same unsustainable and unethical corporate practices and societal mentality that Joanna Macy warns against.

Rethinking Psychiatry believes that there is a better way.  We acknowledge that some people do truly benefit from and need medication.  However, we do not think that the current state of modern psychiatry is effective, healthy,  or equitable.  We believe in a fundamental paradigm shift when it comes to mental health.  We believe in understanding the connection to society as a whole, rather than focusing so much on individual pathology.  We think that what is labeled as mental illness is often an understandable response to a sick society.   We believe that medications should be used far more judiciously and cautiously, that we cannot always assume that medications are safe and effective, and that we must work together to help transform our society so that it fosters mental health and well-being.

Barbara Ford’s talk resonated deeply with Rethinking Psychiatry, both because many of us share the despair about our world, and because many of us feel utterly overwhelmed with the idea of trying to reform the system.  There is so much misinformation out there about mental health, and there are so many people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.   We hear heartbreaking stories about people who have been failed by the mental health system – and many members of Rethinking Psychiatry have lived these stories, or had friends or family who were failed by the system.

Ford concluded her presentation with an overview of her Active Hope program, which is essential for both helping to transform the status quo of the world and the status quo of the mental health system. It includes four key attitudes. Number one is gratitude, remaining aware of all that is truly good and beautiful in our lives and in those who are truly working to help. Step two is honoring the pain in the world and each other. Third is seeing with new eyes.  The fourth is finding others who share our passion and working together on common goals.

Rethinking Psychiatry would like to thank Barbara Ford and Joanna Macy for sharing their wisdom.   Also, we would like to thank everyone who participated in this wonderful presentation.

For more information on how you can support Rethinking Psychiatry, please visit




Editors Note: This blog is part of our growing coverage of promising initiatives that work to change our current drug-centered paradigm of care. You can find our expanding Initiatives section here. If you are aware of any initiatives that you believe should be highlighted on Mad In America, please send us your suggestions.


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.


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  1. This is a good blog.

    Regarding degenerative global processes like fossil fuel depletion (peak oil) and accelerating climate change, I have found these blogs very interesting:

    These blogs make a strong case that we are vastly overusing global resources – fossil fuels, water, animals, rare earths, everything – and that our focus on growth and achievement and profit are likely to be severely damaging to the planet and to our children.

    For psychiatry to be truly transformed or rethought – which I am not very optimistic about – several almost inconceivable things would have to change. Firstly, advertising to consumers and doctors by drug companies would have to be banned. A single-payer health care system in the US might also help. Second, standards for informing clients about risks of drugs would have to be raised greatly, and psychiatrists who violate these standards punished by large fines or prison time. Third, the clinical trial and data processing system for drug trials would have to be completely overhauled with transparency and reporting of negative outcomes mandated. Fourth, the government would need to start funding psychological and social research into how to help people with mental health problems as much as biological research. Fifth, it would have to be admitted that the problems psychiatrists “treat” are largely non-medical and that in most cases psychiatrists are no more qualified to help people with life problems than other helping professionals. Sixth, alternatives to the traditional mental health system like peer respites, peer support, non-medical job training and counseling, etc would have to grow much larger and replace many traditional psychiatric services. I’m sure there are additional steps that others can add.

    All of these steps would likely help consumers but hurt corporate profits and lessen psychiatrists’ incomes. Thus they would have to be initiated largely at the political or government level, as well as by grass roots activism by the public. The main reason these changes do not happen is because psychiatrists and drug companies want to keep making loads of money and occupy a privileged position in “mental health treatment” – to most psychiatrists and all drug companies, profit is more important than the wellbeing of their clients, whether they admit it or not. Therefore psychiatrists and drug companies spew out a steady stream of misinformation, as well as lobbying government with loads of campaign donations, in order to maintain the profitable status quo.

    The United States is currently, in my opinion, a sad, declining nation in which people – speaking very generally – are increasingly unhappy and physically/mentally stressed and unhealthy. The way the US was founded, in which adventurous, hardy, innovative European explorers came and colonized a new land, eventually led to the innovation, risk-taking, and profit-seeking that now characterizes the American ideal of work and success. However, the ideal of independence and achievement that is viewed as “American” is not a good fit with many aspects of our core human needs and nature. Humans need each other, need time to rest, need to be dependent on one another, need to be able to be vulnerable, and need to have a basic level of security assured before they will be truly well. For too many Americans these conditions seem not to be reliably met, and this lack is certainly enhanced by the profiteering of psychiatrists and drug companies, whose “treatments” do such a poor job of reducing the stress and suffering of the “mentally ill” in the long term.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that a fundamental reconsidering of how beneficial and important the American ideals of striving for individual success and self-reliance are, relative to mutual interdependence and vulnerability with others, might be important. Cultures do change over time and hopefully we can eventually lessen the overfocus on profit, triumph, individual success, and (excessive) independence.

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  2. I largely agree with BPT’s comments. Found it very sick and insane to have been misdiagnosed as “bipolar,” according to my “holist Christian” psychologist’s medical records, based upon lies from child molesters and because I knew in my gut that 9.11.2001 was merely the beginning of the downfall of the US back in 2001. Which does unfortunately seem to be something many people are now noticing also. At least it’s good for me that our society taking a downward spiral is no longer only my “delusion.” My “delusions” about the improprieties of our current banking system, disgust at our current never ending wars, and appall at our current psychiatric system’s maltreatment of humans do seem to be shared by millions online now.

    And, I do agree, as humanity we do need to continue evolving, what you seemingly are calling, “The Great Turning.” Lots of others online are discussing a need for this, in many different ways. Then you have the conspiracy theorists, and others, predicting the end of days. We’ll see what eventually what happens, I guess. We’re living in interesting times.

    But I hope humanity, including the psychiatrists and psychologists, decides to evolve and the ‘force medicate people for belief in God’ psychiatrists and psychologists realize they shouldn’t be in charge. Rather than the “status quo” persisting, resulting in things continuing to worsen. Although, I’m not seeing much wisdom on the part of our current leaders in trying to properly address the problems within our current society yet.

    I really hope things do change for the better. And since my “bipolar” wasn’t “bipolar” at all, and instead was, in fact, what I felt was a spiritual calling in the first place. I am doing what I feel “moved by the Holy Spirit” to do, to help bring about humanity’s continued survival and evolvement, rather than a worsening of what I already think is a too low to go society.

    Is this a blog to request money to maintain psychologists, who torture Muslims and Christians, in control?

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        • Whoa! Jews are people. Yes, Greenspan was Jewish. So was Jesus who was so pissed off at the money changers that he turned over the tables. And the writer who chose to highlight the Jewish Greenspan neglected to mention the founders of this country who built the capitalist structure tied into British banks who weren’t Jewish. Or all of the non-Jewish capitalists out there.
          For a great history of capitalism I recommend Ellen Brown’s book, Web of Debt. She not only gives the history, but also suggests solutions to our current financial mess.
          Also of note, Many Jews were historically forced to go into money lending when the countries they lived in forbid them to own property or be professionals.
          Lastly, the Old Testament has laws to forgive debt every 7 years and to return land to its original owners every 50th year, the Jubilee, to help prevent the over accumulation of wealth by some and give everyone a second chance.
          But Check out Ellen Brown’s book, as well as Howard Zinn’s book, The People’s History of the United States, for a more balanced look at our capitalist history. Jews are people. There are philanthropists and environmentalists, and there are greedy people.
          This comment is being written by someone Jewish who is studying how to build a steady state and socially just economy. And for this, check out Dietz and O’Neill’s book, Enough is Enough.
          I think we all need to stop projecting hatred and blame on any group in particular and use that energy to seek solutions to our problems and work together.

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    • Yes, I think that trauma is very often incorrectly diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. Thank you for sharing your experience, and for bringing up the importance of respecting individual’s spiritual beliefs. As for the last question, this blog is not requesting money. Rethinking Psychiatry suggests that participants give a small donation at our meetings, but no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. We do encourage people who work in the mental health system to participate in our group – many people who work in the system truly want to help people, and many of these professionals are also unhappy with the status quo.

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  3. Dethinking psychiatry has a lot to teach us, too. I’m not sure at all that “the great turning” you mention is entirely going in the direction that you indicate, in other words, I don’t think sustainability is necessarily the course we have been taking from the industrial era. What they call the service era is often more sand castle than anything else, and the global warming, of course, is raising the ocean levels and wearing away the coasts. Anyway, dethinking psychiatry works for me.

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    • When people talk about rethinking psychiatry do they allow for the possibility of a reasoned conclusion, having thoroughly “rethought” the situation, that psychiatry should be completely dismantled and abandoned, much like alchemy?

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      • Good question – there are many schools of thought on this. Some people in our group believe in a radical overhaul of the system and in doing away with psychiatry altogether. Other members of our group are actively engaged in psychiatric treatment and/or work in the mental health system, and favor more gradual and incremental change. Then we have members who are somewhere in the middle. We welcome a wide range of opinions and perspectives, as long as everyone is respectful. The variety of opinions leads to a lot of interesting discussion.

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  4. Thanks Rachel. I like Joanna and have been following her for several years now. Unfortunately, there is such a great break between the pscyh survivor movement and other change agents. The initials after your name and I had them once great a divide. I like the idea of your group. I would love to see groups of this type as is at the least alternative thinking. It would be a start. I know some folks would find this problematic not radical enough. But in places like where I live this type of group would be considered way radical. I have been actually fearful of starting something because of the possible ramifications. I think maybe if we could start en masse all over the nation that would help and have a stronghold connection that might create enough energy. Posting on this blog is getting old and I am ready to do something depending on what the election year brings with it. Stasis cant last forever you have either change the system somehow or just move elsewhere. This forum has been great but not enough for me anymore. At least folks read The Great Turning go out of the comfort zones and read and research. Most folks don’t get where and why we care so much about medication and they are victims of the great turning of bog pharama. Not their fault like smokers. Their minds were turned by the greed and dark magic of Wall Street.
    Rachel’s group needs positive acknowledgement. It’s one way to go.

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    • Posting on this blog is getting old and I am ready to do something depending on what the election year brings with it.

      Curious statement. There is definitely a need for action and the consciousness-raising here will ultimately be meaningless if it doesn’t lead to effective action and change. However engaging in an activity simply to tell yourself you’re “doing something” doesn’t make sense either, you need to have an analysis of what you’re trying to accomplish and how to get there. Otherwise it’s like going to church.

      What particularly caught my attention is your comment about the election. Why would your plans hinge on which figurehead is installed next?

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  5. Well if you take the thesis that we are the canaries in the coal mine I am worried. There is no one major political figure that I feel gets why MIA is even in existence. No one speaks of Sen. Thomas Eagleton and I think his story needs to re-examined in the light of the Murphy Bill and our ongoing downward spiral with gun violence and resultant stigma. There are spots and sprouts of hope here and there but I was taught on my mother’s knee to expect the worse and then be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t happen. Not super healthy thinking! So when I read Trump’s son call those of us “wackos” it makes me went to have a plan of action if the worst happens and then throw the suitcase away when I don’t have to take any action at all.

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  6. Presidents don’t really make the decisions. The policies being enacted against us have support from Democrats and Republicans alike; in fact psychiatry is a largely liberal enclave. The problem goes deeper than that. A plan of action would be good, but what would it entail?

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  7. Well there have been various tries with no great overall success. And I agree party and political affiliation still have the walking blind to our issues folks! How to usurp my fear our fears and go with the flow of one good action will began another. Hard in this era! There has to be something face to face not sure how this ever could play out with a nexus of some kind. When if ever I figure it out I will get back and post it.

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    • So this is what I did I wrote a letter. Locality and names have been redacted

      .Once again I am greatly disappointed in the offerings of the board. I would strongly urge to look into the MIA website and Robert Whitaker’s writings along with trauma specialists such as Judith Herman and Dr. Bessel Van der Kerk’s excellent work up in Boston. Another direction I would point you in would be 1boringoldmans website for a bevy of information from a med prescribing shrink about the sad state of affairs in the Mental Health world. The late great Dr. Oliver Sacks would also confirm his findings.

      The lack of any type of peer support or peer presentation is an abject horror and speaks to all that I find disturbing in the professional helping professional world in ****** and ****** in general. Intentional Peer Support staff have given international trainings why can’t they be invited to come to our local?

      In the past there has been a small bow to alternatives with your inclusion of acupuncture. That I think has the least scientific validity and is also prohibitively expensive for most folks who live in urban ************. Or actually most folks anywhere.

      DBT has currently been thrown out of most cutting edge Mental Health work around the country. It is a sham.

      I would have liked to see a vigil held or candle ceremony for _________As John Donne wrote so long ago
      “Ask not for whom the bell tolls = it tolls for thee” ago. It still rings true today.

      As both a former LISW of over twenty years and as a partaker of help I have been extremely disappointed in the continuing decline of quality and resources available to both those on public insurance and those of us with. private insurance.

      I have not found NAMI to be a true voice. It is a voice of concerned family members who have followed without question the medical system trashing of what was at least before the time of the DSM III R a system where at least some of the time despite great flaws good help could be obtained. Not for me – though I am aware that they do try. ______ seems to be strained to the bones without much support.

      I would be afraid to do any organizing of any type at this time due to the heading of the board by a police officer. I have family members who are officers and I like many but as far as I can tell they are not gifted with the history of Social Work and would not know who Selma Fraiburg, D W Winnicot Jay Haley,Jane Addams, Emma Lazarus, Dorthy Day, Dorthea Dix, David Oaks, Claude Beers, Jean Vanier,or Nelly Bly were if they were staring at them in the face

      . Not their fault. Police are here to serve and protect not care and help and organize. It creates a sense of fear which creates then more invisible barriers to dialogue and change.

      I hope to see change some day and when this happening I may feel safe enough to join in. Until that day comes keep me off your list. It’s just too sad.

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