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 http://www.rethinkingpsychiatry.org/
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.