On Wednesday, September 6, 2017, Rethinking Psychiatry members came together at Unite Oregon to celebrate our 7th year. We talked about what first brought us to Rethinking Psychiatry, what the group has meant to us, and how we want to move forward.
The idea for Rethinking Psychiatry began in late 2010. Rethinking Psychiatry originated in 2010 as a project of the Economic Justice Action Group of the First Unitarian Church. Our work was inspired by Robert Whitaker, the award-winning journalist (and founder of Mad in America) whose groundbreaking investigation of ethical and scientific lapses in the psychiatric field has spurred on and given scientific credence to the psychiatric reform movement.
Rethinking Psychiatry’s first major event was February 10, 2011, at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. (Note: Although our work began in a Unitarian church, we are not affiliated with any specific religion.) This event was a panel of people questioning the dominant paradigm of the modern mental health system. Robert Whitaker was the keynote speaker, followed by a panel with Beckie Child, Director of the Mental Health America of Oregon; Cindi Fisher, Movement of Mothers Standing Up Together: Taking Back Our Children; Chris Gordon, Assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Medical Director of Mental Health Advocacy; Gina Nikkel, Director of the Oregon Association of Community Mental Health Programs; and Will Hall, Director of Portland Hearing Voices. More than 450 people attended, and the audience was very engaged, so we knew there was plenty of interest in these ideas.
Our next major event was the Rethinking Psychiatry Two-Day Symposium on Friday, May 13 and Saturday May 14, 2011. The topic for the first night was: “Creating a New Paradigm of Mental Health Care: What needs to be done? And why?” Robert Whitaker again facilitated a conversation with the audience and a panel of mental health care providers and peers on the current national movement to create a mental health care system that is more holistic, effective and humane. The second day’s topic was: “Building Strong Communities: New Tools for Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Health.”
Robert Whitaker again joined us. This day consisted of workshops, open microphone, round table discussions and a community resource fair as we highlighted the array of ideas, actions and activities that are helping to create the new paradigm of mental health care for all. Many of the workshops were from people with lived experience, and many of the organizations that participated were grassroots organizations.
Several months later Rethinking Psychiatry held a general meeting in which we came up with the following mission statement:
Mental health disorder labels often act as a cover for societal and situational problems. This paradigm is encouraged and exacerbated by powerful financial interests. By providing a safe, respectful and inclusive space for the sharing of the wealth of information, tools and experiences available to us all in meeting the challenges of mental, emotional and spiritual wellness, Rethinking Psychiatry is creating a more hopeful, humane and effective mental health care model.
Since then, Rethinking Psychiatry has hosted monthly meetings on a wide range of topics. We have had panel discussions, guest speakers, book discussions, film nights and festivals, interactive activities, and Madness Radio listening parties. We have also hosted several “Truth and Reconciliation” events, in which givers and receivers of mental health services, as well as allies and loved ones, had opportunities to speak their truths and foster a space for healing. For a description of our past events, visit our archives at rethinkingpsychiatry.org.
Rethinking Psychiatry has faced a number of challenges over the years. We are a small, grassroots group that relies on volunteer work and member donations. We also struggle to get the word out about Rethinking Psychiatry and to make sure the public understands what we are really about. (Though we are thrilled that Rethinking Psychiatry’s Facebook Page now has over a thousand “likes,” and we are thrilled to be an affiliate on Mad in America’s site.)
Our members have a wide range of perspectives. We welcome a wide range of opinions and diversity of backgrounds, but sometimes it is challenging to stay clear about our mission and values while respecting and including a wide range of opinions and building collaborative partnerships with other organizations.
We all came to Rethinking Psychiatry because we see problems with the dominant paradigm of modern psychiatry. However, we don’t always agree on exactly what those problems are — or on their solutions. For example, some of our members believe that we should do away with the idea of diagnosing mental health disorders altogether, while other members believe that mental health diagnoses can be useful and valid. Some of our members believe that psychiatric drugs are always harmful and should never be prescribed, whereas other members believe that psychiatric medication has its place but needs to be used with full informed consent and more judiciously. Some members see psychiatry as a practice that has lost its way and needs to get back to its roots, other members see psychiatry as a field that was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, or is irrevocably corrupted in its current state.
Most of our members fall somewhere in the middle on this spectrum of opinions. It can be challenging to have so many differing opinions, but we welcome a diversity of opinions and lively, respectful debate.
It seems that misconceptions about Rethinking Psychiatry persist. Some people still believe that the organization is against psychiatric medication altogether, or even that we tell people to refuse psychiatric medication. That is patently false. While some of our individual members do not believe that psychiatric drugs should ever be used in any circumstance, that is not the official position of Rethinking Psychiatry. Rethinking Psychiatry rejects the “pill for every ill” approach that is so prevalent in modern psychiatry. We believe that the public has been given a great deal of misinformation about the safety and efficacy of psychiatric medication, and we seek to provide accurate information. Robert Whitaker and many others have done a great deal to counteract the dominant narrative in psychiatry. However, even Whitaker himself is not 100% against psychiatric medication — he just states that these medications should be prescribed extremely judiciously, that information about the risks and limitations of these medications and the success of alternative treatments has been suppressed, and that patients should be given true informed consent.
Rethinking Psychiatry is absolutely not in the business of telling anyone what to do or how to live their life. We would never tell anyone they should or should not choose a particular course of action. We believe in providing accurate information, supporting each person’s voice and choice, providing a variety of options and letting people make their own choices.
We also believe that the mental health system pays far too little attention to the broader social context. Martin Luther King spoke brilliantly of this issue in a 1967 address to the American Psychological Association. King explained that people who are labeled as “crazy” or “mentally ill” are often in fact “creatively maladjusted” to a sick society. This concept is still very relevant 50 years later.
Rethinking Psychiatry is proud to continue the work that began in 2010 in Portland, and we look forward to many more years of challenging the dominant paradigm in mental health and providing new perspectives and solutions. We hope that our organization will continue to grow and will spread to other cities. Many thanks to everyone who helped start our group, as well as those who have kept it going.
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.