Not Just a Dream: Finding the Mental Health Community I’d Been Longing For

I dreamed of a place where healers weren’t afraid of intense states like madness. They embraced it; maybe they’d been through it themselves.

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Several weeks after being committed under the Mental Health Act, still dopey from mandated antipsychotics, I had a dream. They were shatteringly vivid then—usually involving fleeing from hospital staff who wanted to lock me up and inject me with sedatives. But this dream was different, and it turns out, not so far from a possible reality.

These days, I research alternatives to approaching psychosis, voice-hearing and unshared realities at the University of Edinburgh, which often feels like a surreal leap from surviving a psychiatric ward in Canada known for emotional abuse and patient maltreatment. Prompted by a last-minute invitation, I recently traveled to the 13th Compassionate Mental Health retreat in Coed Hills, Wales. The three-day gathering delved into compassionate alternatives for understanding and working with mental distress, continuing to be a beacon for what mental health services can become. For me, the retreat was more than a beacon—it was exactly what I’d been longing to find since I stumbled out of a locked ward eight years ago, squinting in the outdoor light.

Coed Hills is an off-grid sustainable arts community where members grow food using permaculture techniques, run a pottery studio, construct their own yurts and cabins, and host eclectic events such as this retreat. After being shown to my “pod”—a tiny wooden cabin shared with a roommate, I wandered through the modern-day stone circle made using ancient techniques, with giant stones rolled up the hill on logs. The lichen-spotted stones kept vigil over the lush valley below, only 30 minutes away from the small farming and former coal mining village where my grandfather had grown up.

Cabins at the Coed Hills retreat.

The family story is foggy, but after working abroad in his youth, he came home extremely ill, malnourished, and suffered a breakdown. The authorities wanted to send him to a mental asylum, but my great-grandmother refused to let him be taken. She knew he would be warehoused for life, that he would never come out again, so she nursed him back to health for a full year. If she hadn’t given him a safe place to heal, I wouldn’t have been born. He wouldn’t have become the loving and cheeky grandfather who somehow knew to call me when I was in the weeds of my own breakdown to tell me how deeply he loved me.

Many people at the retreat had been harmed by modern psychiatry in heartbreaking ways—for many of us, mental health services still aren’t safe. They’re too entangled with control, coercion, sanism, and violence. In a mental health landscape increasingly polarised by those critiquing or calling to abolish psychiatry, and those wanting to improve access to psychiatry, the retreat was a refreshing space that acknowledged the harm of current mental health systems while welcoming clinicians working within them. People with experiences of psychosis and distress attended alongside psychiatrists, therapists, and NHS workers. As articulated by the founder of Compassionate Mental Health, Brigid Bowen, “We are moving beyond that separation between those who are unwell and finding things particularly difficult, and those who are supposedly “well”—the fixers, the experts. We’re acknowledging life is difficult and full of suffering—there is so much conflict in the world right now—so we are all here building our resources, building community and connection.”

Over a communal dinner of pakoras, mango salsa, salads, and soup—most of the ingredients grown in the gardens—I met people of all ages and backgrounds who spoke openly about bereavements, psychosis, altered states, spiritual experiences, and visions for a compassionate, non-coercive mental health system. It was the first time I’d been in a space where psychiatrists dined next to “patients,” where people dove straight into topics that often take years to broach with close friends. Cautious, I hid behind my PhD student identity, reluctant to divulge my own story.

Every day, we strolled through the gardens to the spacious refurbished barn to eat in the dining hall or lounge on well-worn sofas around the woodburning stove, propping ourselves up on multi-coloured pillows. Weavings, wreaths, metal sculptures, paintings, and fairy lights adorned the walls. Before sunrise, keeners attended a yoga and breathing workshop which took place in a circular, wood-panelled gathering area. The daily workshops ranged from Open Dialogue and movement workshops to sauna sessions and trauma-informed equine therapy. There was even a bushcraft workshop where we learnt to start campfires with flint and magnesium, using foraged mushrooms as fire starter. Perhaps an unlikely therapeutic activity, but as we warmed ourselves around the flames, learning about the treasures found in the forest, laughing and sharing stories, life’s tensions began to unravel. Back indoors with a mug of tea, we spoke about loss of community and connection, how mental health interventions are often about artificially restoring basic human needs like support groups into people’s lives. Most of us know loneliness in some way and crave a different kind of relating.

The author with Apollo and Rainbow.

A bond I never imagined forming during the retreat was with a crow, Apollo, and a sparrow, Rainbow. The owner of a wild bird rescue invited people into her cabin to meet her feathered friends. We were told the birds would be affected by whatever emotional state we brought into the room, so we were guided through breathing exercises before entering. Sure enough, Apollo shook his feathers with irritation and anxiety until we calmed ourselves. The delicate-boned sparrow flew over to my shoulder and nuzzled into the nest of my scarf, eying me with curiosity. I carried that feeling of flight, of joy, with me for the rest of the day—the connection to the land, the stones, the animals as precious and restorative as that of my newfound human friends.

After lunch, the Open Dialogue facilitators had us break off into “compassion pods” where we shared what had brought us to the retreat. A social network model of supporting people through psychosis and crisis, a core principle of Open Dialogue is tolerating uncertainty. Clinicians learn to deeply listen to people with lived experience and their loved ones and come up with solutions together, minimising the emphasis on clinical hierarchies, diagnosis, and overuse of medication. “Sometimes the hardest thing to do is what feels like nothing at all,” shared one of the facilitators—if you’re trying to fix someone, you’ve stopped listening.

In my small group, a father shared his story of losing his child to suicide, and the dehumanizing treatment their family received at the hospital. When it was my turn to share, I could no longer avoid what had really brought me there or hide behind the researcher title. “Ummm… well… I guess when I wasn’t doing well, I took myself to the hospital. Voluntarily. The psychiatrist prescribed me heavy tranquilizers that night and said I could sign out the next day and attend my job interview. The next morning, I was still sedated from the meds, and when a new psychiatrist noticed my speech was slurred, she diagnosed me with schizophrenia within five minutes and told me I wasn’t allowed to leave. Terrified, I grabbed my belongings and ran, not understanding anything about the Mental Health Act. Security followed me, labelled me a non-compliant flight risk, and threw me into a high security locked unit where staff gave me competing labels, a cocktail of drugs, and never spoke with me about my life. After the shock of being incarcerated and humiliated, I became fully psychotic. I think I just needed some understanding… some kindness for what I was going through at the time. The treatment… well, it was literally maddening.”

Once we wrapped up the compassion pods, I slipped out the doors, crossing the stone circle into the moss-blanketed forest. Striding through tangled branches and brambles, over mud, rock, and mushrooms, I found my breath again. Most people become uncomfortable or defensive when you point out how mental health care can be abusive. When I worked for a mental health charity, I was told never to share critiques of the mental health system because it might discourage “help-seeking behaviour,” and our funders were often health authorities. It can be jarring to listen to anger, to people who have been harmed and abused by the very institutions claiming to help. But grieving together is a vital piece of healing. To have that harm be acknowledged by clinicians willing to listen and be humble, who want to work in a different way… it restores trust and hope. It makes possible a more compassionate way forward.

The Coed Hills retreat.

Later, I attempted to hermit in the upstairs loft and become one with the couch. Too much emotional interaction for one day, thank you very much. But life had other plans, and people filtered over to the adjoining couches. A reflection circle was taking place, run by facilitators who work in therapeutic communities. I intended to stay silent and listen, but instead found myself clearing my throat and unsuccessfully trying not to cry. “Yeah, I guess I can say something. A few weeks after I was hospitalised, I had a dream about a place like this…”

In the dream, a psychic refuge from the nightmares of being locked up and threatened, I was transported to a different kind of hospital. A home in the hillside, there was art on the walls, warm lights, a glowing fireplace, no locked doors. Outside, a garden brimmed with gnarled trees, fruits, and vegetables. There was a deep sense of safety; a knowing that the healers understood and weren’t afraid of intense states like madness. They embraced it; maybe they’d been through it themselves. They didn’t want to wrestle us into submission, they wanted to help guide us through, right into the murky core, find meaning and insight in what everyone else called symptoms of a broken brain.

“And this gathering,” I continued shakily, “is just like the place I dreamt about, what I longed for. It’s surreal to be here, and it’s also… so sad. Because this is what I needed. This kind of a space. And instead, it was more trauma and fear. So… it’s this strange feeling of hope and sorrow. That places like this are on the fringes when this way of approaching suffering is so obvious. This is so, so obvious. A connection to the land, people who understand, who hold space for each other and alongside each other. Food, fires, movement, working through the hard stuff, being.” My words fall short. It’s simply the basics of what human beings need, not just unwell people. Community, connection, belonging—these medicines that keep eroding.

The Coed Hills retreat.

On the final evening, a handful of us tentatively started a dance, drum, and singing circle. The wariness I often feel around psychiatrists dissolved as we grinned and grooved to the music, the drums beating away diagnostic labels and career or carer titles; everyone was working through something, shaking off some heaviness, and soon the circle swelled with people jiving to the music, banging on drums, finding vocal harmonies. We mirrored and listened to each other, creating and holding onto that invisible river of rhythm, that overlapping heartbeat.

For three days, we were invited to speak about death and loss, about love and rage, about hope and injustice, about deep pain and deep longing. When I was in a psychiatric ward, meaningful conversations were prohibited. We were handed suicide checklists every day, forced to tick boxes assessing whether we wanted to off ourselves or not. Every person in that ward knew to just tick the box and pretend they were thinking of nothing but sunshine and compliance, lest they be punished with an extended stay. Shut up, keep your head down, suppress the experience. Spaces like the Compassionate Mental Health retreat embrace discomfort, hold space for intense emotions, grapple with the excruciating beauty and uncertainty of living. It’s shocking how rare, how precious these spaces are. You can find them in little pockets or transient fragments here and there. But to wander into a micro-world, where it is the norm, the reality, to welcome our unwieldly human complexity—now that is something to pay attention to. That is something to dream into reality.

The next Compassionate Mental Health retreat  will take place on the 11th-14th of March, 2024, in Coed Hills, South Wales.

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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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31 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Robyn for this very moving account of your mental illness and the Compassionate Mental Health retreat and how it helped you. I was at the same retreat – last November remember! I visited for a day and spoke about my younger brother Eric who’d taken his life in 2009. I also had 2 years of intense Open Dialogue therapy: lucky enough to have Dr. Russell Razzaque who brought it to the UK, as my lead clinician.

    We ‘mad’ people are so exquisitely gentle, it’s no wonder we’re as perplexed as other mammals and birds by the world’s real insanity. (Love that photo of you with the birds!) I love talking to ‘mad’ people. I don’t see the madness, just spiritual wellness which STILL exists in these crazy times. I’m lucky enough to have had many lucid dreams since I was a wee kid, all of which have come true the past 30 years. These are signs of the divine and I’ve found how hyperconnected people are. I grew up as a Third Culture Kid, always moving home from 9 onwards: Ethiopia, Watford (2 months); Coventry (15 months) then apartheid era South Africa (6 years.) The latter split my personality,but now I have friends in 10 countries, all heartfelt people……

    I sense your dad with you and it’s delightful that Coed Hills brought you some closure. Mine came this August with a major stroke which almost killed me. The same one which killed my dad in 1982, at 62. Me? Dizziness, but full cognition and memory at 71. I credit my faith, my sobriety and the 100+ people praying for a full recovery for me. I was treated at the same hospital where dad was born 103 years earlier. My own full circle and I can feel my dad smiling as I write this. I left all my trauma behind and now thank God for every new day. Love is all you need,” as the Beatles sang! Wishing you peace and love for Christmas. TRUST you are well!

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    • Indeed, beautifully and compassionately shared. I meet with “mad folk” every week. I am 78 years old and must share that the meetings with these wonderful people bring me to inner heights of awareness and feeling real, more than my daily cocktail of prescriptions. Thank the good Lord for making us all mad in unique ways!!

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      • This article gives me hope that we will find better ways in society to help anyone of us who can fall ill and need kind, compassionate people to help us up again. To help us find mental peace and happiness again.. without judgement or shame. Thank you for writing this article.

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    • That was very therapeutic to read of your happenings throughout your life, and I very much appreciate you sharing your life’s events along with dialogue to piece it all together. Your a very helpful and sweet minded woman to keep helping others with their trials and tribulations they may come across from there own demons(episodes I call them) I am so thankful I happened to be skimming the page where I found your heartfelt article.. thanks again. God Bless.. Merry Christmas

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  2. Robyn Thomas wrote: “Most people become uncomfortable or defensive when you point out how mental health care can be abusive. When I worked for a mental health charity, I was told never to share critiques of the mental health system because it might discourage “help-seeking behaviour,” and our funders were often health authorities. It can be jarring to listen to anger, to people who have been harmed and abused by the very institutions claiming to help. But grieving together is a vital piece of healing. To have that harm be acknowledged by clinicians willing to listen and be humble, who want to work in a different way… it restores trust and hope. It makes possible a more compassionate way forward.”

    Absolutely. But never fall into the trap of dividing everyone into the good guys and the bad guys, that all the harm and harmful and harming people are situated in one camp, and not to be found in the other.

    There are just as many abusive and abusing people in the alternative recovery movement as there are in mainstream services. In fact most of them are operating in an environment of almost-zero accountability.

    The Golden Rule applies in all settings: wherever vulnerable people gather, hawks with bad intentions will appear.

    No gathering of people will ever be without its hawks. So never, never romanticise a gathering.

    On the plus side, I respect that lots of people gain hope and rekindled wonder from retreats and they can be very beneficial, no doubt.

    On a side note the mushroom for tinder was likely birch fungus, very prevalent in Welsh woods. Or possibly hoof fungus. Both are extraordinary tinders, for sure. However, I do think that we should leave the small remaining wild sanctuaries alone as much as possible. Lighters are available from most Welsh shops. Or a box of matches. Wild fungi and mushrooms are a part of the complex ecosystem, and serve as food for many fauna and flora. Humans are causing enough problems without training them how to acquire “free” firelighters so they can go into nature and start more mostly unnecessary fires.

    Happy Christmas!

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    • Thank you for validating an experience I’ve had. When I found the peer support spaces where I live, it was amazing. Overall, they have transformed my life in many ways. However, I have come across some individuals in positions of power within those spaces who are not operating with the best interests of others in mind and I’ve not only been harmed myself, but have seen harm done to others and to the spaces. These individuals add to stigma by refusing to be honest and continue to do harm to people who need a space where they can belong and hold true community. I could go on and on regarding this topic since I’m so passionate about ethical behavior within our own spaces.
      The hawks are not only at the retreats, they are everywhere. As you said, there is almost zero accountability. What’s worse, there is government spending that will be increasing in my country as we attempt to find real solutions to our challenges. Those who are fueled by their unhealthy motives will truly need to be held to some sort of accountability within our spaces if we don’t want them to create a situation in which even this space becomes riddled with people who are either not capable or not wholeheartedly focused on preserving the original goals of the movement from which these spaces were born.

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  3. Also I think it is important to keep in mind that the author imagined that a place like this would be helpful while in psychosis, but did not go to the place while in psychosis, but post-psychosis.

    There are many elements described in this review of Coed Hills retreat that could create problems for someone in active psychosis.

    For example, sheds for shared sleeping and morning waking activities. To be enclosed in such tiny holding areas could inevitably lead to friction, of two active psychotic people rubbing up against each other in very cramped conditions. Sounds the alarms!

    And then being directed into activity groups and plunged into the psychoses of multiple others….

    So, maybe I have this wrong. But is this place more of a post-psychosis retreat for people to reflect on prior psychosis with others?

    When I was in psychiatric wards I would actively encourage conversation about psychosis with others but many people were not well enough to go into it. However, others would listen to me, and some would have me listening to them, and we found each other fascinating to a degree, yet impenetrable, mostly. We could not fathom one anothers experiences but did develop a level of respect, generally, for one another’s suffering. On that level we developed friendships and respect. I’m sorry that the author did not have that depth of experience and connection in the hospital.

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  4. Wow. This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing your story and the information about this wonderful place. It sounds exactly like the place I’ve dreamed of setting up in Ireland.

    I’m so sorry you had to endure what you did. The trauma and harm caused by these places that are meant to help needs to be spoken of. I resonate with so much of what you say. Thank you and wishing you continued peace and ease

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  5. Robyn—your article made my day!!! Thank you. Your retreat & that space sounded like heaven to me. The fact that a safe respite like that even exists gives me a hope I needed so badly right now. THANK YOU for sharing the GOOD NEWS!!!
    I’m so sorry about your experience at the MH! How did you recover from that? I’m so glad they didn’t trap you into a lifetime of being a career mental patient!! Good for you!

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  6. I wonder whether it might not be preferable to speak of social health rather than mental health. Put a person in a good social environment and you are not automatically mass producing odd balls. We are all, in other words, woven into the same social fabric, one fate being connected to the next, if we are not intent on abandoning people, and throwing some of them under the bus. Manufacturing wastrels, in the sense mentioned above, can complicate, consciously or not, communication between people.

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  7. “After the shock of being incarcerated and humiliated, I became fully psychotic. I think I just needed some understanding… some kindness for what I was going through at the time. The treatment… well, it was literally maddening.”

    The most shocking thing to me is how easy it is for random “health professionals” to randomly “diagnose”, “medicate” and forcibly detain people they know virtually nothing about. Situations like this qualify as torture.

    This is why things need to change. What passes for “treatment” is inexcusable. Punishing people who’ve committed no crime makes no sense. Places similar to Compassionate Mental Health is what’s needed.

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  8. “When I worked for a mental health charity, I was told never to share critiques of the mental health system because it might discourage “help-seeking behaviour,”

    This is a non-sequitur – it does not follow – if reports evidence abuse and a not-fit-for-purpose system then people MUST NOT be sent into it. Your account of the project in Wales is very welcome but I don’t think that will come nationally until there is a civil disobedience movement as happened with black civil rights. People have been subjected to propaganda much like whites were in apartheid (“the blacks are being looked after”). It’s not until a massive peaceful fuss is made that change will be forced. I highly recommend listening to the speeches of Martin Luther King.

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    • I recently attended a week-long retreat in Tennessee provided by the Onsite corporation for survivors of mass shootings. I believe they also have a retreat available in California, but I’m not sure what services are offered.

      Though I qualified as a candidate for this healing retreat, my experiences and needs were different than the majority (I am a first responder, as well as being a close relative and life-long resident where my incident occured.) So I had a number of things going against me when it came to sharing our experiences.

      One thing that resonated throughout the entire week, though, was the overwhelming acceptance and support that was provided by both staff and attendees of all their programs running concurrently. There were more than a few times where I’m sure I would have been sent away on an involuntary hold when all it took was the understanding and compassion of their counselors who actually listened to me and were able to turn bad experiences and overwhelming emotions into a different frame of thinking. Yes, I was hurting- but it was Okay. I have never been around a more supportive community setting here in the United States.

      There are fledgling groups out there, I just wish there was more availability and access to these amazing resources.

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  9. Thank you for persisting in movement towards your dream of what healthy care and life should be. I’ve been on the receiving end of misdiagnosis, someone slipping me multiple hallucinogens and then ending up in a ward after a close suicidal action. Treating patients/clients as guinea pigs for drugs seems to have been a dominant part of psychiatric care for too long ruled more by capitalism than by psychology, though the desire to make psychology a ‘precise science ‘ is a big part of the greed power madness of the system.
    I really liked the image of caring for wild creatures with mindfulness deep breathing before entering into their space. As a mental health counselor that is my initial goal with others, to bring no judgement or threat into the ‘wild’ beautiful other before me, but be a place of peace and safety.
    May we respect and appreciate always the complete wildness of others along with what is inside ourselves.

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  10. I’m so grateful for your article and the fact of mental health systems that abuse and use the power they think have to diagnose someone who have no idea about. Just labels that are now stuck to the person for life to be judged and used against them and treated as not humans just labeled diagnostic that someone placed in your history and it then as I learned used for gaslighting of people who have been diagnosed with mental health issues even if untrue doesn’t matter as you as the labeled are not treated like ” normal ” people whomever that fits. I can tell you my nightmare story of decades lost in the system of mental health or psychiatric hospital care that is not helpful and caused more harm yet I was too drugged to know what was happening before was almost too late and well my story started with finally admitting I needed help with a eating disorder and well very long intense experience that ultimately did more harm to me than any help. My first place that I found and thought was a eating disorder program which great I thought maybe can get help finally. The program turned out to be first walking into a locked psychiatric unit and when I wanted to leave as not what was looking for or told was the nurse said you can’t leave. I didn’t know what I know now about patient rights. Well I found them yet they only pertain when your considered healthy and in right mind and behavior l could continue with the treatment that was given me for years under the information that was in my best interest and care to get better. I would like to find a place you described if anything is in the United States. I being honest highly doubt as the systems are so run on money and political backing it would be hard to find here. Thank you all who shared.

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  11. The uniting forces throughout the Dream, both in waking and sleeping life in your essay are beauty, choice and love.
    Sounds impossibly faerie tale, yes?
    It’s not.
    It’s simple, real, and utterly do-able by anyone.
    It requires intense shared belief in the value of choice, agency and ability to create and maintain community, despite deeply differing human cultures. It also requires an empathic understanding that every single person there is there because they need to be.
    I encourage anyone who wants to take on this community process to just do so.
    Beauty is free, as are all the other necessary elements.
    Flying low under the radar of what is supposed to be Established, Approved, Authorized, and Evidenced Based is the only way to go.
    With love

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  12. Many of your lived experiences in the mental health system mirror mine. So much paperwork is falsified, too. One time that I was hospitalized, I supposedly was involved with a social worker, a family member (by phone because of Covid), and myself. I never met with anyone. They were threatening to keep me for a month (!) because I told them that checking a box ultimately had no reason. I’m so happy for you that you had that experience. ❤️

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  13. Thank you for sharing your history, your pain, and your hope. I agree, that a solution of compassionate community is SO obvious for those feeling broken off from ‘rational’ society. I wish there was something like this retreat available in California, where I am. My experience is dissimilar but evolving around medical trauma and MCAS/inflammatory induced micro events with psychosis, as an ongoing result of Long COVID and it’s myriad of challenges. I’m not sure why I’m sharing this, other than I stumbled upon your article and it touched the place where my pain and compassion cries: ‘it shouldn’t be like this, there’s another way if only we can find it’, and sparked hope that another way is truly out there. Warm regards!

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  14. This New Year I will be 24 years free from drugs and the constant propaganda of the “mental health/mental illness/disorder system. While of course it is good for anyone to get away from that for a while most people will still be haunted, stalked, electroshocked and drugged by the power of this corrupt system. It won’t go away.
    However, we can see that our environments help to strengthen it. We can see that most of us belong to some community. We can see that other people who value our common humanity don’t define themselves as “mentally healthy or ill’. When people live for an average lifetime they will experience hard times Some experience terrible times. It is the way we react to these times that makes or breaks us. When we talk about broken hearts we don’t mean that our heart is broken.
    Medical language keeps the deceptive, coercive, corrupt, ‘mental health system’ alive. It is not how beautiful our language sounds that will connect us. The professional language will not connect us. It is how sincere it is and in the end, action speaks louder than words.
    A Peaceful Toxic Free New Year to everyone.

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  15. Hi Robyn, In your well – written article you make no mention of the dangerous psychotic patient who might commit suicide or homocide. Much as I agree that your dream place is a wonderful refuge for the apsychtic ( and your were definity apsychotic when you wrote this article) , I would have appreciated some reassurance that you understand the ugly part of psychiatry and the need for drastic intervention. It is, after all, a matter of life and death, and it would seem that “Mad in America ” is deliberately trying to ignore, or avoid, this crucial element in psychiatry. Regards, dr. Jean Blom (Psychiatrist).

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