“I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I’m sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
— Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s words encapsulate that great crime and injustice perpetrated against people who are diagnosed—often misdiagnosed—with mental illness by the system supposedly set up to help them. People turn to doctors when they’ve been wounded by life and are at their most vulnerable. Those of us who experience emotional problems that overwhelm us for a time often walk out of a doctor’s office with a referral to a psychologist or a psychiatrist—specialists who deal with maladies of the mind, who diagnose and treat mental illness. And yes, that was me making a superhuman effort not to put illness into air quotes, which always have that wry, somewhat disparaging tone to them.
It’s at that point of asking for help from someone in authority, someone we should be able to trust, that many have their story stolen from them. As a result, they become incapable of being who they set out to be when they were born into this world. They reach a turning point—usually one which is the result of loss, grief, abuse, disappointment, disillusionment, a fall from on high, some form of trauma—and consult a professional (again, that superhuman effort to not use air quotes) who turns their turning point into an ambush, their life adventure into a medical misadventure. Many end their days having lived a story that was meant to be only a chapter in their lives, not the whole book.
This is theft of the most criminal kind. Today, at this very moment, despite all we know about the perils of the mental health system, someone will walk into a doctor’s office for help and support. They feel they‘re in danger of drowning, they reach out for a lifeline but instead are thrown an anchor. After that, they’ll find themselves in another office, someone in a white coat (either an actual or a metaphoric one) will ask some questions and tick some boxes in the DSM-V. Where these ticks land will change their lives, give them a very different version of themselves and a very different story about the life they will live.
The following is part of my story as someone who escaped that fate. I escaped only by luck, only by chance, only by confiding my strange-days-indeed Katmandu story to friends, or to fellow travelers, or complete strangers, rather than to mental health professionals.
Back in the late 80’s, I was the Chosen One, here on Earth to bring about World Peace. I was Eve from the Garden of Eden and I was Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, doomsday and death. Oh, and I was also the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, forever waiting on His Holiness to acknowledge his successor—moi.
When I left Australia, I’d just finished my librarianship degree, intending to become a children’s librarian in Byron Bay, reading stories to children in a purpose-built sandpit in a library looking out to the horizon linking sea and sky. By the time I returned after nine months in the Mysterious East, I was the founder of the World Peace Party; barefoot, skeletal, slowly shattering into a million pieces as my belief in my enlightened state and my great Mission (always with a capital M) slowly dwindled away.
When I look back now, what I encountered on my return to Sydney was an unofficial, untrained, stumbling-in-the-dark version of the Open Dialogue paradigm—family and friends, a community of people who cared enough for me to provide a series of roofs over my head while I wandered dazed and confused, betwixt and between two worlds. Being the Chosen One was much harder here in Australia than it had been back in Katmandu surrounded by mystics and shamans and sorcerers and expat hippies and junkies and white witches and all of Ken Kesey’s Merry Band of Pranksters Take II. My Sydney friends feared for my sanity but they didn’t take me along to the local psych ward for evaluation. Phew! Luck luck lucky me! as my friend Dana used to say with such glee.
A decade later, after the death of my mother and what the DSM describes as ‘complicated grief’, I was again lucky in speaking to a psychologist, Jocelyn Clayton (may her name be forever praised), who listened to my story differently, who heard it through an alternative lens than the one that would have quite possibly seen me labeled for life with a mental illness misdiagnosis. This should very definitely not be a matter of luck, of blind fate. She sent me down different research paths: Stan and Christina Grof, Jung, Assagioli. My life from then on changed as a result of seeing what had happened to me—a Spiritual Emergence which spiraled into a Spiritual Emergency/Crisis—very differently than the prevailing view in both the mental health system and in our culture.
Fast forward a few decades… For a shorter period of my life than I would have liked, I worked as an art therapist with children in foster care. It was one of the great joys of my life—finally having found work I loved, a career that used all of my somewhat eclectic bag of accumulated skills and learning. Plus, joy of all joys, I took either Softy or Willow, the dogs I looked after, to my sessions with each child. Softy and Willow are both rescue dogs and they were my examples of creatures who’d been rescued from abusive backgrounds and placed in homes where they were loved. At the time, this was how I viewed children taken into foster care. As I now know, sometimes this is the case but sadly, not always.
I found children easier to work with than many adults. In general, children are more honest, more open to playing with art and art processes that, on the surface, are just that: play. I know from experience that these deceptively simple processes reach way down into the deep places within us and shed light on behaviors that are often uncommonly strange or self-defeating but that we view as being ‘this is me, this is who I am.’
I was sacked from my position working with CatholicCare as a result of challenging an ADHD diagnosis for one of the children I worked with, an 11-year-old boy of indigenous descent. When he told me he’d been re-diagnosed—having been taken off Ritalin previously because it made him feel sick—and that he was now self-harming, I expressed my concerns to the foster care agency. I sent them a copy of Generation Rx, a documentary I’d shown several times during Mental Health Month to raise awareness about the connections between psych meds and suicide/homicide plus the connections between the pharmaceutical industry and mental illness diagnoses. I also sent them links to current relevant research, some of it from Mad in America. I sent them research papers by Dr. Yolande Lucire, an Australian psychiatrist and a long-time critic of modern psychiatry. I requested a case conference to discuss what was happening with this child, particularly as there was no previous mention of self-harm in his file. I stressed that I was not coming at the situation from an anti-medication perspective, nor an ideological issue of right/wrong, nor it being my opinion vs another’s opinion—it was about making the best possible decision for this child’s life, based on a sound understanding of the consequences for him of their decision.
At my next fortnightly visit, he told me his Ritalin dose had been increased and an anti-anxiety medication added. When I asked what had caused his diagnosis to be revisited, the psychologist told me it was an escalation of his behaviors at school. When I asked for further specifics, the answers were pretty much that grab bag of ‘symptoms’ as per the DSM description of ADHD—which would have pretty much every single one of us diagnosed and medicated.
After several months, many emails, phone calls, and visits between myself, the caseworker and the psychologist whose care the child was in, I stated that if the matter wasn’t handled at that level, I’d take my concerns to the Executive Director. The next day, I was dismissed from my position. I sent the entire email correspondence to the Executive Director and to the local Bishop. They replied immediately. Subsequently, there was an investigation into my concerns. As I was no longer employed by the organization, I could not be given the results of the investigation but I was told by a reliable third party that the young boy had been taken off Ritalin. The Executive Director sent me an official letter of resolution of my concerns, stating that, “[X] is fortunate to have someone to advocate for him. This is so sadly lacking for many of the young people at risk that we support at CatholicCare.” She reassured me that he was now safely in the care of professionals—those very same professionals who had diagnosed and medicated him in the first place. I was not overly reassured by this information.
I was angry and hurt; surprised despite what I knew of other people’s stories of mistreatment at the hands of the mental health system. But more than that, I was disgusted at the treatment of this child whose behavior was clearly caused by past trauma. I’d seen firsthand the mindset of the foster parents: frequent requests that he be given an ADHD diagnosis; their belief in the biomedical model; maintaining the two boys in their care as foster children rather than adopting them because there’s more support and more money for fostering. At a case conference for his foster brother, the issue of his birth mother being on heavy psych meds and this being obvious at visits was raised. I commented that it would be in the boy’s best interest if they informed him that mental illness wasn’t genetic and he was in no danger of ‘inheriting’ his mother’s problems; that this would more than likely be a worry to him. The father, who worked for Johnson and Johnson, slammed his fist on the table, glared at me, and said, “The science is very clear…”
The science is not clear on this (unless, of course, you work for J&J) but the consequences of believing that it is are very clear indeed.
When I finally found my feet again, I sought legal advice regarding unfair dismissal (not possible due to having been head-hunted in the first place, working under contract, not having been smart enough to ask for a written contract, and various other factors that employment legislation required that I lacked). I spoke to other lawyers to find out if I could bring a case against CatholicCare to highlight the systemic nature of this event—that it wasn’t just an isolated incident, that children in the foster care system are far more likely to be diagnosed and medicated precisely because they’re already in the system. My rationale for seeking legal advice was that this is a systemic issue requiring further investigation so that valid concerns about other children in similar situations could be raised without fear of dismissal. I spoke to the Ombudsman and to the Minister for that Department. All to no avail.
I viewed it as my duty of care to act as I did—my moral, ethical, professional and legal responsibility to ensure a child’s safety and well-being, particularly taking into account all I knew regarding the connections between psych meds and suicide.
I very deliberately chose to study transpersonal art therapy rather than ordinary old art therapy because of its connections to Jungian psychology and its examination of states of consciousness beyond that of individual identity. It also linked to my studies in Material Anthropology which I had studied at a time when I was deeply wounded and lost in my life, in an attempt to find a new direction. Material Anthropology uses artifacts from which to view the maker’s (and, by extension, the culture’s) history, spirituality, economy, etc—the myriad of connections that lead to the making of this one particular object. This is also how I view a piece of art made as part of an art therapy session.
It’s this interesting combination of knowledge, this cross-disciplinary approach, that gives me a firm basis of knowing that art, anything that’s made by hand, holds vast treasure troves of connections and connectivity and history, both personal and cultural. These storytelling threads hold the keys to understanding what’s at the core of our being. That understanding, if utilized, gives us the power to choose rather than being continually hampered by choices made for us by others, or compelled to repeat mistakes based on faulty perceptions of who we are and how the world is. This understanding and these choices are impossible if we’ve been misdiagnosed with mental illnesses based on biased and corrupted science.
This young boy I worked with, in several of our sessions, made drawings and turned them into stories of being unloved, of not caring if he lived or died, of no one else caring either. It’s an important and necessary thing for any of us to be able to discuss these issues, to put them in context, to be able to reality-test their veracity.
When I first started working with him, I was given a report that allocated him the understanding level of a four-year-old. I did not see this to be the case at all—he was intuitive and funny and mischievous and angry and loving and confident and confused and complex. The same report stated that, according to his psychologist, he met the diagnostic criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Statements such as these, I believe, which result from ticking boxes on standardized forms, can end up presenting any of us with a very distorted picture of who we are. But this is who this little boy became for those who had power over his life and made decisions on his behalf, supposedly in his best interest. Those making these momentous decisions did not suffer any ill effects or the negative consequences of their decisions—he did.
I would not have been able to come to different conclusions had I not asked different questions and questioned CatholicCare’s ‘care’ of this little boy. I would not have had a different lens through which to see his behavior had I not had my own experience of having an alternative lens than the biomedical one through which to see my own behavior and my own life, the worst and hardest moments thereof.
If people such as myself, who speak out against the medicalization and medication of trauma-related behavior, particularly in children, are silenced, the consequences are obvious. They are already with us in the ever-escalating rate of youth suicide, of children attempting to grow into adulthood without having been given the necessary emotional capacity to deal with life’s difficulties. We ignore these connections and consequences at our peril.
This is an outdoor sculpture near where I live. The little boy I speak of in this story took me to it the first time we met and told me that you put yourself in the space where the ‘I’ is missing. I made this image for him to see himself standing in that place. I used the IMAGINE sculpture from then on with the different foster children I worked with, to symbolize using their imagination and making themselves the center of their lives. This obviously doesn’t happen—or happens very differently—if they end up diagnosed and medicated, their true stories stolen from them.
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.