Monday, March 20, 2023

Comments by Paris Williams, PhD

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  • I had the pleasure of connecting with Matt a number of years ago, just prior to his formally entering the “critical psychiatry” community, and then maintainng somewhat regular contact with him on one hell of a ride(!) Witnessing him these past few years has been for me somewhat akin to watching an awe-inspiring shooting star. First coming into our “atmosphere” a bit faintly (holding back a little initially, using pseudonyms, etc.). Then growing ever brighter and bolder (shedding the pseudonyms, showing us the full color of his passion and courage, not shying away from contacting and questioning the “experts” and challenging many of them directly with rare intelligence and insight). Over the past couple of years, I found myself awed and inspired by his passion, authenticity and breadth of self-led education and wisdom (often cheering him on “behind the scenes” as he took on the battles I had pesonally grown mostly weary of). About 6 months ago, as I witnessed Matt’s articles and interactions in various forums, I found myself feeling some renewed hope with regard to our collective cause, thinking, “This is one of those rare individuals who has all the right qualities to really shake up this toxic paradigm.” And then, just like that, this brilliant flash of light vanished (or at least it did so from my perspective, who knows what really happens when our “lights” burn out).

    So as I sit here contemplating this beautiful and inspiring shooting star that passed over my life these past few years, I find myself feeling a rich blend of sadness and joy. I’m sad that his physical presence is no longer with us, deeply feeling the burden of his loss in this often discouraging “David vs. Goliath” battle we wage against the psychiatric/pharmaceutical complex, and already missing this delightful, earnest, humorous, passionate man. And I feel a deep gratitude and joy at having had the opportunity to connect with him at times in these last years of his life’s journey.

    And as much as I miss Matt, I also understand how someone can become so overwhelmed by pain and despair that “bowing out” of this life (i.e., hoping to end the pain) can feel like a very reasonable solution. Like probably everyone who knew and loved him, I keep wondering if there was something I could have said or done to help him not lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel; and then there is another part of me that respects and honours his decision to “bow out,” a part of me that simply wants to give him a standing ovation for his years of gracious service and dedication to our troubled world: “Well done, Man!”

    May Matt’s passion and brilliance live on in the rest of us who are still here carrying on the good fight.

  • Hi dfk,

    Very well stated. I’ve been contemplating such analogies for a while, and while I think the software/hardware analogy works quite well, I think it risks maintaining a kind of “mechanistic” flavour. I’ve been contemplating/writing on a very similar approach used within a number of contemporary systems sciences, which talks about living organisms and living systems being holistic entities comprised of two different aspects–“process” (i.e., “software”) and “structure” (i.e., hardware). I wrote a fairly in-depth 3-part article here on MIA where I go much more deeply into considering the problems of “mental health” and health/wellbeing in general from this perspective (you may enjoy it):

    …granted, that article is still not super accessible for “ordinary people,” as you say, being still fairly academic. But my goal has been to translate that into a much more enjoyable reader-friendly experience with case studies, etc. (unfortunately, due to my commitment to other projects recently, I haven’t been able to tackle that one yet, but I agree that something like that is very important–maybe you can give it a go!)

    Best regards,

  • Hi all,

    I’m sorry I haven’t been able to contribute yet to this rich discussion–my plate’s very full at the moment–I was intending to have some input, but then was delightfully caught off guard by how quickly such rich discussing has formed about this article.

    Rather than submitting multiple comments, I’ll just go ahead and submit this one long comment to address some of the major themes I’ve seen here:

    1) Regarding terminology:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the importance of choosing our words carefully–words are powerful! And I find it heartening that so many people here take this issue so seriously. Ordinarily, when I write, I am quite careful about my choice of words—but as this was a spoken interview, I see now that I wasn’t quite as careful at times with my use of words as I would have liked, and I was guilty of allowing convenience trump care.

    I pretty much avoid using the term “schizophrenia” as much as possible, except when using it to make it clear that I disagree with the reductionistic medical-model connotation that this word has evolved. (Ironically, I think that for some, including myself at several crisis points within my own journey, the literal meaning of this term–“split mind”–can be somewhat fitting, in that it implies extreme ambivalence, and I think that many people who receive this label actually do experience this at times). I do, however, think that it helps to have some kind of a balance between ease of communication on one hand and doing our best to avoid using terms loaded with problematic assumptions on the other hand.

    In most of my articles, presentations, etc. on the topic, I begin by defining the terms I’ll be using. My preferred term for many of the experiences that get referred to as “psychotic” are “anomalous experiences,” “anomalous beliefs,” “anomalous perceptions,” “nonconsensus beliefs/perceptions,” etc., as I think these terms point clearly to these experiences without loading them with too many problematic assumptions. I define “anomalous experiences” as simply those that generally fall outside of what that individual’s particular group/society considers valid. Additionally, I think it’s important to distinguish anomalous experiences that cause harm/distress vs those that don’t; and also anomalous experiences that are relatively stable/coherent vs those that are relatively unstable/chaotic. I do find it helpful to use the term “psychosis” at times when speaking to certain groups and within certain contexts, but with the caveat that I’m using this term to represent a TRANSIENT state in which a person is experiencing relatively UNSTABLE and/or DISTRESSING anomalous experiences, and that this DOES NOT INCLUDE anomalous experiences that are not distressing and are not interfering with the person’s ability to live a relatively enjoyable, functional life. I DO definitely prefer terms such as “extreme states” and “spiritual/existential crisis” rather than “psychosis,” but I have found it helpful to use the term “psychosis” at times for ease of communication within certain forums/settings (with the above caveat). I have found that using my preferred terms within these settings can simply lead to confusion or to my work not being taken seriously (especially by indoctrinated medical model reductionists, which unfortunately is the vast majority of MH professionals as well as probably the large majority of the general population). I think there is something to be said for meeting indoctrinated reductionists where they’re at, and then trying to find a way to guide them towards a more holistic perspective. Otherwise, I find that I just end up in futile head-butting sessions that go nowhere.

    Yes, I concede that the particular strategies I’ve developed for working with terminology in this way leaves a lot of opened cans of worms lying around, especially when dealing with such a complex and broad array of conditions, but it’s the best I’ve been able to come up with so far—I’m always open to more helpful approaches. (I go into these ideas a bit further in Part Two of this article: ).

    (2) Regarding factors that contribute to the onset of “extreme states”:

    Thanks to everyone and especially “Truth in Psychiatry” for pointing out the importance of not being overly reductionistic when discussing psychosocial factors that may contribute to extreme states. I have certainly given medical model MH practitioners a hard time for being biologically reductionistic—I don’t want to be guilty of being overly psychosocially reductionistic(!)

    To put my thoughts on this complex topic in a very small nutshell, I try to think very holistically about health (I go into much more detail about my holistic perspective in this article: ) I generally consider that achieving and maintaining one’s wellbeing is a very challenging and precarious (and nonstop!) undertaking, especially given the many inherent dilemmas inherent in our existence (making peace with death and impermanence, balancing love and autonomy, finding meaning, balancing freedom and responsibility, etc.). So one analogy that may help here is seeing our lives as being akin to riding a small boat across turbulent seas. At times, the water is relatively calm; and at other times, we find ourselves struggling to stay upright during wild storms and massive waves. We each find that our own vessel is somewhat unique, with different strengths and vulnerabilities, based upon a multiplicity of factors: our psychosocial development and environment during our key developmental periods; perhaps some degree of genetic/epigenetic determination (another can of worms, I know, but it seems pretty clear to me that we each do emerge from the womb with somewhat unique temperaments); our degree of physical health and fitness (determined by past and present physiological input—both nourishing and toxic); and of course the many different conditions of our present environment. All of these many factors come together synergistically to determine the stability of our “vessel” at any given point in time; and when these add up to a sum total that is simply not sufficient to maintain stability in the face of our present conditions (both externally and internally), we are bound to find ourselves overwhelmed by the existential dilemmas that are our constant companions; and our “vessel” capsizes. However, as long as we still have life within us, our organism is perpetually striving to survive and thrive. The desperation of such overwhelm (the “capsize”) requires a desperate response, and I believe that what gets called “psychosis” simply reflects this desperate response, this desperate attempt to regain some degree of stability, to make the intolerable tolerable, to regain some semblance of peace with the dilemmas of life, to “right our vessel.” Of course, such extreme strategies are not always successful (especially when we don’t receive adequate support from others, or worse, are “held down” by the fear, greed or ignorance of those placed in support roles); but when we are successful, we learn some important lessons that will hopefully allow us to be less vulnerable to capsizing in the future.

    So from this perspective, I think it’s key to realize that we all have a “tipping point,” though we each have different strengths/vulnerabilities in this regard, and that our early development plays a particularly crucial role in this regard. Can someone with a very solid/healthy early development become overwhelmed and “capsize”? Sure, of course—apparently no one is free from experiencing “psychotic experiences” during such extreme situations as prolonged sleep deprivation, torture and prolonged isolation and/or pain, the ingestion of certain toxic chemicals or psychoactive drugs, brain injury, etc. However, I think that the research is quite clear that the more adverse childhood experiences a person experiences (using this term broadly and holistically, including physical/sexual abuse, parental attachment issues, neglect, peer/sibling bullying, political oppression, war, poverty, exposure to toxins, etc.), the greater the likelihood there is of “tipping over” later in life. So there is no doubt in my mind that parents by necessity hold a particularly high burden of responsibility with regard to fostering the healthy development of their children’s “vessels”; and yet I think it’s also very clear that there are so many variables that impact that child’s development which are simply beyond the parents’ direct control (broader social adversities, environmental toxins, and even intergenerational trauma, “goodness of personality fit” between parent and child, etc.). So I think it’s “both…and”: The quality of parenting is very important in a person’s developing a relatively secure “life vessel” AND ALSO many other extra-parental factors are also clearly very important; AND even when someone has developed a relatively secure “life vessel,” we are all vulnerable to running into that “perfect storm.”

    I better stop there, or we’ll have to publish another article… 🙂

    Again, thanks to all of you for the rich discussion and passionate sharing,

  • Hi Michael,

    Thanks for another thought provoking article. I find it interesting to consider your thoughts here, as someone who is a long time Vipassana (mindfulness) practitioner, and as somone who has spent quite a bit of time studying Buddhism and meditation in Asia, and as a therapist/psychologist who practices with a predominant frame of self acceptance and self compassion. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg tells a story of how when the Dalai Lama came to the West, he was really taken aback by the self-loathing and self-hatred he found here, saying that he simply hadn’t seen anything like it in his own (Tibetan) culture: really does seem like there is something within the Western culture that has spawned this kind of deep self-loathing that runs in start contast to the experience of “basic goodness” or “Buddha nature” (as held within the Buddhist tradition), and/or the rich interdependence and intrinsic “existential belonging” as embodied within most indigenous traditions and other Eastern traditions (e.g., Taoism, advaita vedanta, etc.). Following on your use of the term “remorse” as perhaps being a more noble emotion, I wonder if for those of us in the West, our particularly long history of exploiting, oppressing, enslaving, torturing, etc., other races and sentient beings has led to a kind of deep transmution of long-held intergenerational remorse into the deep self-loathing (showing up as profound shame and guilt, as you write about) that we struggle with today. Very interesting to thing about.

    I initially shared one (or more) of the other commenters’ concerns that you may be suggesting a kind of denial (by emphatically saying “No!” to our own emotions), which in turn may further entrench shame and guilt (i.e., “This critical part of myself is really bad, and I need to crush it”). But I think that I know you and your writing enough to recognize that this “No!” is probably more akin to the “No!” we might yell to a child who is about to grab a snake or run into a busy street–a firm but compassionate “No!”. So compassionately saying to this part of ourself that we’re not willing to allow further self-harm. Do I have the right? Is that the kind of attitude you’re suggesting be cultivated?

    Coming from a mindfulness stance (the way that I generally work), it would generally be suggested that such potentially destructive emotions be worked with by detaching from them and developing the capacity to witness/observe them with a kind of open compassionate curiosity, seeing them as simply a wave of thoughts/sensations/impulses moving through our experience , so not “buying the story” or acting them out on one hand, but also not actively trying to suppress them on the other hand: “between the extremes of expression and suppression is bare observation.” So by shifting our perspective to seeing these kinds of emotions as merely passing “waves” or “storms,” we are able to learn to eventually see the “background” beneath them, which entails a more expansive interconnected sense of self, and the natural qualities of love, compassion and joy that go along with this.: it’s kind of like one of those gestalt image figure/ground shifts. And as this shift begins to be made, with the powerful potentially destructive emotions being seen as simply transientn forms passing in front of a background of “basic goodness,” they naturally lose their power, and even better, often reveal information that can help us move towards a life that is hopefully more workable and enjoyable. Of course this is much easier said than done(!), but I’ve had a lot of success supporting many of my own clients using this kind of approach (many of whom have struggled with shame and guilt, which seem to be particularly powerful for those with early childhood trauma).

    I’d be curious to hear about how this approach I’m describing above may or may not line up with your own approach/philosophy.

    Warm regards,

  • Hi Someone Else,

    Thanks for sharing some of your story with us. You point to a very powerful and toxic shadow element within I suspect most contemporary societies–childhood sexual abuse (and other kinds of child abuse)–and one that I personally work with quite a bit (a number of my clients are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and other kinds of child abuse, and have struggled with significant ongoing distress as a result of this), and I can really appreciate just how harmful this situation is.

    You said, “And, since it does appear, according to the medical evidence, that the number one actual function of today’s psychiatric industry may in fact be covering up child abuse, by way of turning child abuse victims into “psychotics,” with the neuroleptic and other psychiatric drugs.”

    I think you have a point here, though I suspect it’s probably a bit more complicated than what’s implied by this sentence. As you suggest, the evidence is clear that child abuse is very highly correlated with the later onset of extreme states of mind (i.e., “Psychosis”) and other distressing relational and emotional distress; and it’s also quite clear that this correlation is generally denied in mainstream psychiatric practice. Therefore, I think you’re right on that many people who have such experiences (childhood abuse) and subsequent distressing conditions do, as you say, very often get a DSM label and placed on psychiatric drugs, which then likely only exacerbates the situation.

    However, my own sense after working within the field (generally skirting the edges of it, as I can’t tolerate working directly within it), is that many MH professionals (esp. psychiatrists) genuinely buy into their own “medical model” paradigm, and believe that such people really do simply have various biologically-based brain diseases and must be “medicated” for their own good. And for many of these professionals, I believe that the cognitive dissonance is simply too high to allow themselves to really take in the mounting evidence of the links between childhood abuse and psychotic conditions. Furthermore, these professionals typically have high paying jobs and are personally and professionally committed to maintaining the status quo to ensure maximal ease for their own existence–another factor I believe exacerbates cognitive dissonance when/if coming across the research suggesting the harm of the practice of “drugs and more drugs…” and the invalidity of their theoretical orientation.

    So I have come to agree with you that psychiatry has generally come to function in covering up many shadow elements of our society (including childhood abuse), though I think that (a) many MH professionals are themselves oblivious/in denial that they are in fact contributing to this, and so are not necessarily acting in a way that is overtly malevolent (and may even be genuinely well intended), and (b) that what is ultimately being upheld by this industry is not merely the undercurrents of child abuse but, more broadly, the maintenance of a particular status quo in society that offers them a particularly high degree of power, prestige and wealth to such professionals. [This is why I like the term “social control agents” for those professionals who fully contribute to the mainstream “medical model” system, as I think that this generally has become more accurate than the term “mental health professional”].

    You may enjoy this article, in which I explore some of these ideas a bit further:

    Best regards,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi Truth In Psychiatry,

    I really like this quote: “Ideally parents provide both solid roots and strong wings to their children.” Well said.

    I strongly agree with the points you make here about the need to acknowledge factors outside the nuclear family system that may lead to overwhelming and extreme states of mind. You may have seen that I tried to capture that with the following paragraph:

    “Another point that needs to be stated here is that, as discussed above, the research is quite clear that many different factors may contribute to a person developing psychosis. Yes, relational factors, and especially childhood relational factors, do seem to be at play in probably the majority of cases of psychosis, at least those that have been thoroughly explored; but we are complex organisms, whose wellbeing is based on a multiplicity of factors occurring within multiple domains—physiological, psychological, social, environmental, spiritual, existential, etc.—and if we consider that psychosis is often a desperate strategy to cope with otherwise overwhelming experience, it becomes clear that multiple factors and experiential domains often converge to create such overwhelming conditions. So, in many cases, pointing towards any one single factor as the cause of a person’s psychosis is far too simplistic.”

    I realize that I’m only lightly touching on this very important theme–that of the importance of these broader factors–as this particular article is focusing on the nuclear family. However, if you’re interested in reading more about my thoughts on some of these broader social factors, you may enjoy the following article:

    Best wishes,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi BPDTransformation,

    Thanks for sharing this wealth of knowledge(!) …and for some interesting reading material. I am familiar with a number of the people you mention, and look forward to perusing the works of the others.

    To say a little more about my background (as it sounds like you may be interested in that), I have quite an eclectic background in my psychosocial training, particularly appreciating the core human dilemmas and existential and relational principles that I believe so many different approaches have pointed to, which is why I’ve been drawn to a number of different perspectives–particularly humanistic/existential, transpersonal, somatic, psychodynamic, and Buddhist/nondual. So I relate very much to most of the points you’re raising here.

    I particularly appreciate the fact that mental health professionals are in the position to cause either great harm or great benefit to vulnerable people, though unfortunately, many don’t seem to really understand or appreciate their power in this regard. This is why my own personal code of ethics as a psychotherapist/psychologist consists of maintaining certain key ethical principles and continuously evaluating my own behaviour in the light of these, doing my best to empower the people I work with and to minimize the potential for any harm to them.

    Although I incorporate a number of psychotherapeutic modalities, the basic foundation of my approach is Rogerian (empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard), upon which I bring in various approaches that draw from attachment theory, psychodynamic relational, mindfulness, expressive arts, somatic psychology, Nonviolent Communication, etc. You can learn a bit more about my approach here, if interested:

    You mentioned intensive individual psychotherapy–I particularly enjoy Hakomi psychotherapy for intensive psychotherapy with individuals (and couples to some extent), as I believe it captures all of these principles and approaches in an elegant and powerful practical/experiential framework:

    …and I primarily use NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy–an attachment/systems approach) when working with couples and families, though also draw from other family/systems approaches.

    Frieda Fromm-Reichmann said something to the effect that, “People in therapy are looking for an experience, not an explanation,” which I really resonate with. This is why I believe that an experiential approach (working directly with distressing experiences, distressing relational patterns, difficult beliefs, emotions, etc.) is generally more effective than simply offering explanations, trying to persuade people to think differently, etc., which is why I incorporate mindfulness, awareness of physical sensations, emotions, imagery, etc., in most of the work that I do (so I really resonate with your mentioning the importance of supporting people in working directly with their body/sensory experience, etc.)

    Finally, I did consider trying to publish this on a more mainstream forum, but didn’t feel particularly hopeful of this being accepted in the forums that I feel are most in need to engage in this material (as you suggest, APA, NAMI, etc.) But I’m still considering my options in this regard.

    Thanks again for your engagement with this material,

    Paris Williams

  • Hi CatNight,

    I appreciate and resonate with everything you’re saying here–I think you have a wonderful way with words.

    I also share a longing for these visions of a more harmonious world–in which support for individual, family, mind, body, communication, etc., are freely provided to everyone. I’m currently brainstorming setting up such a “holistic wellbeing” centre in my own community (though it hasn’t gotten off the ground yet):

    In solidarity,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi Chrisreed,

    Thanks for sharing a bit about what sounds like a difficult time for you. I’m glad to hear you found that this article resonates for you. I think you also bring up an important point that such dysfunction and “canary in the coal mine” response by a sensitive member of the system can occur in all kinds of different social systems–not just within nuclear families–though I think that problems occurring within our most primary social system (i.e., our nuclear family) can predispose us to becoming more easily overwhelmed within our later social relations.

    Best regards,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi Alex,

    I’m glad to hear you’ve generally been enjoying this series. I think you have an important point that there can be major differences between families and cultures; however, (as BPDTransformation says below), I do believe that there are a few key universals — particularly those I mentioned here (and summarized in the Conclusion). Especially that families represent a form of social system, and that as long as the family is living and surviving as such a system, distress occurring within one individual cannot be cleanly separated out from the family system as a whole–hence my belief in the universality of the principle of such distress as often being indicative of a “canary in a troubled coal mine” and of the principle of shared responsibility. Regarding transparent communication, I believe thgat we can see communication (whether verbal or nonverbal) as the fundamental links between the different members of the system, and that this applies among all social systems (indeed, all living systems period, although “communication” may manifest in very different ways in different kinds of living systerms). So when communication is distorted or blocked, I think it’s generally safe to say that the system as a whole is likely to suffer. Regarding attachment, it’s generally understood that all humans (regardless of culture) are “hardwired” as infants to strive towards secure attachment with one or more caretakers; and that an inability to do can lead to profound distress with long lasting implications for the wellbeing of that person. Finally, we generally know that in living/social systems, if each member is empowered (as opposed to oppressed), then we find a greater net total of power within the system that may be harnessed to maintain the survival and health of the system as a whole; and that mutual empowerment is far more likely to lead to harmonious functioning than oppression and rebellion.

    I think what you’re emphasizing here, Alex, is the final principle I mentioned “distancing when unable to repair.” I agree that this is a very important principle not to lose sight of. Repair with those in our social network is ideal, but sometimes not possible, in which case, we may have to resort to the difficult work of repairing from those toxic relationships and developing a healthier social system. Indeed, this was the case with many of the participants of my own research, who felt they had to break away from such unhealthy relationships altogether in order to “recover” from their overwhelming extreme state of mind. This “breaking away” naturally occurs anyway to some extent as we individuate from our parents, but certainly the degree of harmony of the system we’re individuating from can make a huge difference in how smoothly this process will go, and to which extent we’re able to maintain supportive relations with our parents and nuclear family members.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts,
    Paris Williams

  • Thanks, BPD Transformation and Ron, for your comments.

    BPD…, thanks for expressing your critique, when you said: “I have one criticism to make of your work. I think sometimes you are focused a bit too much on the “benefits” or “transformative potential” of extreme states.” (…and Ron, I resonate with your response that it’s helpful to acknowledge the subjective response to a particular experience).

    I suppose if you have only read my articles, I can understand how you may perceive my work in this light, as I do tend to emphasize the potential for positive transformation as a result of going through such experiences, mostly because I want to counter the all-too-pervasive tendency within mainstream discourse to fixate on the “pathological” aspect of such experiences and generally deny the possibility for any personal growth and healing from them at all. I do, however, make a point to regularly emphasize that such a process is extremely risky and haphazard, with a wholesome resolution definitely not being guaranteed, and with the experience of profound distress and overwhelm nearly ubiquitous within such experiences.

    Also, if you’ve read my book about this, Rethinking Madness, you’ll see that I devoted much of it to formulating my thesis (based on similar works of others) that what we often call “psychosis” is directly related to a profound “self renewal” process, typically requiring that one has to pass through the profound terror associated with “death” and “disintegration of the self,” a terror nearly impossible to describe to those who haven’t experienced this, as you suggest. All six “case studies” included within it clearly revealed that everyone experienced tremendous suffering, distress and even overwhelming terror at times associated with their own processes, though they eventually came to appreciate the tremendous personal growth and healing that ultimately occurred for them as a result of having gone through this.

    In my own “psychotic process,” when I try to describe what it was like to others, often the closest I can come is to say that it was like a terrifying nightmare from which I couldn’t awake, going on day after day, month after month, with my only really feeling as though I’ve fully awoken from the nightmare after several years; or even somewhat more accurately, for those who’ve had the misfortune to experience the terror and chaos of a “bad trip” on LSD, that it was like falling into such a “bad trip,” and then not being able to “snap out of it” for many months (years really), though the “trip” was interspesed with (all too rare) moments of profound expansiveness, equanimity and unitive experiences.

    If you’re interested to hear a bit more about my own process, I’ve included bits of it within this guidebook I’ve compiled on “Working with Spiritual/Existential Crisis”:

    Best regards,

  • Hi Rivka,

    Thanks for pointing out this other “elephant in the room”– that many of the troubles in our society can be seen as manifesting from a disconnection with “God.” I think this is a great point.

    Personally, I have come to hold a kind of pluralistic stance with regard to this, believing that the different spiritual traditions are all essentially pointing at the same “elephant”–i.e., the principles of unity and interconnectedness, the transcendence of the limited egoic self, that lie at the fabric of being/consciousness. So I see this as the kind of dance occurring at the very core of our existence that I’m referring to here as the “peace/existence” dialectic (for lack of better terminology)–with on one hand, a longing for the deeper “spiritual” communion that transcends the limited “personal” self, and on the other hand, also longing to maintain the existence of the self. And as you allude to, it seems that in modern society, the pendulum has swung quite far in the direction of the “existence” pole–with our generally having come to value individualism, personal striving, competitiveness, “pumping up one’s ego” via material wealth and achievement, etc., and the rampant fear and greed that goes along with this; and having been generally neglecting the other pole–spiritual communion, transcending personal egoic strivings to appreciate the broader interconnectedness of our being. As you say, even the major “religions” have generally commodified our natural pull to spiritual communion, trasmuting it into even further egoic striving and generally reinforcing individualism over connection (“my ideology vs. your ideology,” “my God is more real than your God, etc.). So following from your points here, I think it’s safe to say that if we don’t find a way to collectively reconnect with our ultimately inseparable interconnectedness, both with our fellow human, and with all other living organisms and systems of which we are a part, then I think the human species is likely to individuate itself right out of existence(!) A grim thought, but I’d like to think there’s still some hope for us…

    btw, you may enjoy this article that touches on some of these ideas:

    …and a talk I gave on the “Shades of Awakening” conference here:

    …and a guidebook I put together for working with “Spiritual/Existential Crisis,” in which I also share some of my own journey through this territory:

    Best wishes,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi oldhead,

    Your comments are not taken as hostile at all — to the contrary, I really appreciate your directness.

    Great comment about our need to be cautious with our terminology and the assumptions implied therein. I actually fiddled with this particular sentence a few times before leaving it as you found it here in this article, not entirely comfortable with how I wrote it, but also not coming up with a way of saying it of which I felt more comfortable. So I’ll clarify my thoughts a bit more about this here. I said:

    “The second particularly critical period with regard to healthy individuation occurs in late adolescence and early adulthood. It is at this stage that healthy development requires that we undergo a transition in our primary attachment figures, from our parent(s), who have likely been our primary attachment figures up until this point, to a romantic partner, with a relatively secure and longstanding romantic relationship generally considered the most natural and optimal developmental aim in this regard.”

    By “romantic relationship,” I’m referring simply to the way that, as we mature into adulthood, most of us are “wired” to develop a deep attachment to a peer (as opposed to parent or family member) of both an emotional and a sexual nature. Notice that when I said, “a relatively secure and longstanding monogamous romantic relationship generally considered the most natural and optimal developmental aim in this regard,” I qualified this with the phrase, “generally considered”, meaning that within most human societies, this is considered the most “healthy” developmental aim; though certainly there are some cultures and subcultures with very different values and structures around this, and I don’t think it’s my place to directly challenge that.

    As for my use of the term, “healthy development,” I’m defining “health” as simply the capacity to experience maximal wellbeing given the particular challenges of our current situation in life. Of course, wellbeing is a subjective experience–we have to honor each individual’s experience of this in their own life. But generally speaking, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people experience maximal wellbeing when they are “securely attached” (in the context of the article here) to other human beings, with these typically being our primary caretakers when we’re children, and typically more peer-oriented romantic partners and/or close friends and family when we’re adults.

    I appreciate your healthy skepticism around the use of certain terminology and the often hidden assumptions associated with them. I really value that. I kind of see this as the double-edged sword of language–on on hand, we need language and words to effectively communicate with each other; on the other hand, language/terminology can be very powerful in that it comes loaded with certain assumptions that are often well hidden. So I think it’s essential that we regularly “lift up the carpets” beneath the words we use, sweeping out these hidden assumption into the light of day.

    Paris Williams

  • Hi Truth in Psychiatry,

    Thanks for adding more clarity to your situation, and for sharing more about your family’s difficulties.

    You said some things that make me realize I should have been more clear about my comment.

    You said: “We must be very careful not to suggest that parenting causes conditions that likely have a basis in exposure to toxins, such as autism.”

    I think you point to a very important truth about our existence: We are multi-dimensional beings–biological, psychological, social, spiritual, etc.; and while I believe that there are these fundamental existential and relational dilemmas that we all must successfully grapple with in order to experience relative wellbeing, I am in full agreement with you that when someone does becomes overwhelmed with regard to these, we have to be very careful about jumping to conclusions about which factors were most impactful in leading to this overwhelm. I’m certainly not taking a stance of saying that parents must be held responsible when a child experiences such an overwhelm (as I discussed more on the comments beneath Part One of this article, and will discuss more in Part Three). Certainly, there are so many factors that can lead to such a kind of existential breakdown—sometimes these can be fairly clearly linked to familial problems, such as overt abuse, neglect, etc., and at other times, factors external to the family dynamics are perhaps more impactful, including at times clear physiologically-rooted disabilities, social oppression, psychoactive drug use, etc. However, regardless of the factors that lead a person to become vulnerable to existential/relational overwhelm, parents are often in the best position to support that person, both by supporting that person in the individuation process to the best extent possible, and also by connecting with one’s own natural fears, insecurities, etc., and doing one’s best to reduce any harmful impact of these on the child. Based on my understanding of this situation with your son, my sense is that he is very fortunate to have such a loving and well informed family, and that you all made the best (and continue to make the best) of a difficult situation. I’m very happy to hear that you found my own limited support helpful.

    A second point of clarification I feel I should make:

    I said: ““Autism” is a very controversial term, not unlike “schizophrenia” in many ways, though it’s not an area that I have much experience with…”

    …and you said: “I would be very careful about comparing the label of autism to the label of schizophrenia, although I think both may be invalid. Schizophrenia may represent a large group of experiences related to adjustment and finding one’s place in the world as you suggest. However, from all of my heartfelt reading and research on “autism,” I have come to believe that it may be explained on one end with individual differences and eccentricities and on the rest of the continuum as neurological damage, often dating back to prenatal exposure to toxins.”

    I am generally in agreement with you here, and actually this is essentially what I was pointing to with regard to the similarities of “autism” and “schizophrenia”: That many different kinds of experiences, behaviours, etc., with likely differing etiologies get lumped under the term, “Schizophrenia,” and likewise for the term, “autism” (though again, I want to emphasize that autism is not my area of specialty). And based on my general “common sense” feeling about the situation, given how prevalent neurotoxins have become within modern society (especially prenatal maternal drug use, as suggested by the article you mentioned), I tend to agree with you that that many people who do act in particularly eccentric manners and/or exhibit certain disabilities in such a way as to be assigned to one of these two “camps” may actually have experienced some kind of neurological/physiological injury that contributed to this in some way; and also (as you mentioned) I think it is very likely that many individuals so labelled are merely naturally “eccentric,” sensitive, overwhelmed, etc., without the need to imply that there must be any underpinning physiological disease.

    Warm regards,

  • Hi Someone Else,

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom and life experience with us.

    I think these are very important points you bring up. It’s true that contemporary society has become increasingly individualistic in so many ways, and I think there’s no doubt that his has wreaked havoc on the ability to raise our children in genuinely healthy and nurturing ways. It’s an inspiration to hear from someone such as yourself who has managed to resist the individualistic push from our society, and to remain so committed to your children.

    Best regards,

  • Excellent points, Steve. And thanks for sharing a bit about your own trials and tribulations as a child and as a parent. I’ll talk a bit more in Part Three about the implications of a parent’s own attachment wounds. As you may be aware, Dan Siegel has written a lot about these very issues, and how the research shows that one of the most helpful things that a parent can do to support their own child’s healthy relational development (i.e., develop secure attachment styles) is to work on resolving their own attachment wounds, esp. via developing a “coherent narrative” of one’s life and mindfulness practice.

    Best wishes,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi Ron,

    Great point about the double bind the parents are placed in when their child is acting in ways that are harmful, out of control and/or has received a frightening diagnosis. I’ll go into my thoughts on this much more in Part Three (including discussing some of the key principles in the Open Dialogue approach).

    In general, as you mention, I agree that the key is to recognize that a “double bind” occurs at a particular level within a system, and that by trying to “solve” the problem when (a) we have tunnel vision that only allows us to see this particular level of that system, and (b) we are in the mindset of linear causality, thinking we have to “solve” the “problem,” then I think we are likely to remain stuck, stalemated by the double bind. But if we are able to take a step back, maintain a broader more open-minded perspective (practice “easygoing in the not knowing”), practice some patience, and a willingness to be open to a deeper wisdom that lies within ourselves and others and perpetually strives towards health and wholeness, then there is every possibility that the double bind can be “transcended” (in contrast to “solved”).

    I think this is akin to the famous Zen koans, in which a student is given a “problem” that is simply irresolvable via linear cause/effect thinking from within the particular system; but by being willing to allow the koan to settle into one’s being, to sit with it openly and patiently, the student is likely to experience a “jumping out of the system,” and experience a resolution that simply cannot be reached by the linear-thinking rational mind. Bateson gives an example of such a incident with a zen student: his teacher stands over him with the stick and says, “If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will strike you with it. If you don’t say anything, I will strike you with it.” One resolution (not solution) is for the student to simply reach up and take the stick away from the master.

    As you mention, I think this is where certain kinds of family systems therapies and complex systems theories in general can be so helpful. By creating the space for open dialogue, and letting go of overly simplified linear cause/effect reasoning and preconceived ideas, we open the possibility for something genuinely new to emerge, something that may transcend the limited system of the double bind altogether and make way for something unexpected but workable.

    Thanks for your engagement,

  • Hi N.I.,

    Thanks for sharing a little about your own story. I appreciate the insights that it sounds like you’ve gained as the result of a challenging personal journey. As you allude to, if we (the collective “we” including esp. MH professionals) can drop the “illness” model of human distress and transition to the “adaptation to challenging experiences” model, I truly believe that so many of the problems you allude to here would be fairly easily resolved. Yes, we are each born into this world with certain vulnerabilities and resilience that may vary dramatically to those of others; and yes, surely many of these are related to factors predating our birth (pre/perinatal experiences/nutrition, etc. of our mother while we’re in the womb, transgenerational trauma passed down to our parents psychosocially and epigenetically, our particular pocket of human society, with its various degrees of power differentials, resourcefulness, etc.). Yet by focusing on the idea of “illness,” we foster a kind of learned helplessness, the justified forceful use of psychiatric drugs, and general self fulfilling prophecy that most readers here are only all too familiar with. If on the other hand we can focus on the power and wisdom of human adaptation, I think it changes everything–we can learn how to work directly with this wisdom as deep and as old as the universe, rather than fighting against it, to offer real support to people in distress. Anyway, one step at a time…

    Best regards,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi Truth in Psychiatry,

    Great questions/comments. As someone who tends to look for the universal existential “truths”/dilemmas within human experience, I would say that regardless of a particular diagnosis of a person’s distress or disability, and even regardless of the particular etiology, I believe that ultimately, we all struggle with the same core existential and relational dilemmas/dialectics (as discussed in this article), although certain circumstances are likely to make it more difficult for some than others to experience “good enough” resolution to these.

    “Autism” is a very controversial term, not unlike “schizophrenia” in many ways, and though it’s not an area that I have much experience with, I suspect that your points you’re making here are right on. If a person develops certain limitations (especially social limitations, such as what we often see in a person with the “autism” diagnosis), then I agree with you that it stands to reason that they may well struggle with these core dialectics more than the average person. But I think it’s also important not to lose sight of the resilience and core organismic wisdom of the human spirit–as is said, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

    Best regards,

  • Hi Fiachra,

    I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying my articles (I realize that I am cramming a lot into these).

    Your comment reminds me of something I read from one teacher (I believe it was the Buddhist teacher/writer/psychologist, Jack Kornfield), which said something to the effect of, “We spend the first few years of our lives getting banged up, and the rest of our lives trying to recover.” I think there’s something to that–and I’ve never ceased to be amazed by human resiliency, as you also allude to.

    Best wishes,

  • Hi BPD Transformation,

    I’ve only had a chance to peruse your article, but I’m impressed and intrigued by your work of integrating these various models, and I look forward to looking at your article more closely. It’s always a pleasure to come across someone like yourself who enjoys such integrative exploration. This reminds me of one of my favorite stories is of the blind men who come across an elephant for the first time. One comes across the tail and declares, “Ahh, an elephant is like a brush!” Another comes across a leg and declares, “No, it’s like tree trunk!” Another comes across the trunk and says, “No, an elephant is like a snake!” Of course they’re all “seeing” the same elephant, but each only seeing one small truth and missing the bigger truth; so by being open to multiple perspectives, we’re more likely to become aware of the shared universal “truths” to which they all point.

    I’m really enjoying and appreciating your engagement with these articles.

    Paris Williams

  • Hi Ann,

    Excellent point–how do we develop harmonious, healthy families within these broader social systems that are so deeply troubled and broken? I couldn’t agree more with the importance of not losing sight of the broader social systems. Although in this article I am focusing on the family, I’m also a strong critic of the broader health system:

    …and contemporary human society in general:

    Thanks for not letting us lose sight of the bigger picture!
    Paris Williams

  • Hi GetItRight,

    Thanks for bringing in the idea of epigenetics. While of course a complex and still far-to-be fully understood field, my understanding of what it essentially has been successful in doing is further reduce the viability of bio-reductionism (the idea that we are born with a rigidly constructed genetic “blueprint” and are fated to developing certain characteristics and/or “illnesses” according to this). And it further reinforces the viability of the role that trauma and core beliefs (often closely related to each other) play in determining the particular qualities we develop and the likelihood of cultivating wellbeing in our lives (or lack thereof). What I find is particularly fascinating with regard to the discoveries of epigenetics is that it reveals that Lamarck was probably a bit more right on than Darwin in recognizing that certain environmental experiences of an organism (i.e., trauma and other powerful experiences) can modify the organism at the cellular level (i.e., epigenetically) in a way that allows it to pass on certain learned responses/”core beliefs” to its offspring purely via genetic/epigenetic transmission. In other words, this field is reinforcing the long held common sense wisdom of intergenerational trauma—that it is passed down not only environmentally but also probably genetically. So rather than undermining our understanding of the importance of family (and broader systems) dynamics, I see the field of epigenetics actually soundly reinforcing it. Whatever trauma, neglect, discrimination, extreme distress we experience within our own lives, if not adequately dealt with and resolved, are likely to change us at a very core level (including cellular level) and then be passed down to our offspring (if not by the actual transmission of certain behaviour patterns and “core beliefs” about self and the world directly, than probably epigenetically to some extent). Btw, I think that quite a good book on these ideas written for the layperson is Bruce Lipton’s, “The Biology of Belief.”

    Paris Williams

  • Hi BPDTransformation,

    Thanks for your kind words and important suggestion to MH professionals to be more vocal about the serious problems within the field. I’ve generally noticed two different camps with regard to those who are not being particularly vocal (please forgive the overgeneralization):

    (1) Professionals who have some awareness of the harm caused by rampant misinformation and corruption, especially by Big Pharma and associates, but are afraid to speak out and/or generally “rock the boat”—not wanting to risk their job, professional status, get a “tainted name,” etc…

    …and (2) professionals who are honestly oblivious about such harm, fully buying into the Medical Model hook, line and sinker. I admit I initially found it hard to believe that someone could have the intelligence and devotion required to acquire a PhD or an MD and yet have such poor critical thinking skills that they could fall for a model that is clearly so oversimplified and doesn’t stand up to the recovery research well at all, but I’ve come to recognize that many such professionals really are this way—I think it’s akin to believers of a fundamentalist religion, with the “eyes” simply being too clouded over by dogma to see what’s right in front of them.

    As for my passing on your comments to other organizations, I would be willing to do that, but I think it would be more effective and authentic to share these comments yourself. I’m open to further thoughts…

    Best regards,

  • I’m really appreciating hearing you all grappling with this important idea–how to both (a) take personal responsibility for the effects of one’s actions (and hold others accountable for such), while (b) not losing sight of network causality (i.e., the multiple factors beyond the individual that contributed to that behaviour–intergenerational trauma, oppressive social conditions, etc.). I think there are no easy answers, yet it’s essential that we find a way to do this–constructively without simply breeding more defensiveness and animosity. This is where I think it’s so important not to lose sight of the basic humanity of all involved (so note forming “enemy images” of each other), while also being willing to name the elephants in the room, speak truth to power, and invite all of us to become curious about the way that we all contribute to the social systems in which we’re embedded (family, community, nation, human society, biosphere,…). I’ll be discussing these ideas further in Part Three, and I hope to hear more from all of you then.

    I think your thoughts on this are particularly well articulated, BPDTransformation (on this and the other topics on this post). That would be great if you could get some of your ideas onto Huffington Post(!)

    Best regards,

  • Hi Rossa and Alex,

    I appreciate your comments and responses.

    To add a little here, I would emphasize the importance of shifing out of “either/or” “black/white” “good/bad”, etc., dichotomous thinking and instead consider what we’re calling “psyhosis” from a “both/and” perspective.

    So the extreme organismic response we’re calling “psychosis” here can be seen as both a response to overwhelming circumstances and also a potential opening into the awareness of core existential/spiritual truths and universal human dilemmas that most of us are generally not particularly conscious of. The experience of deep existential overwhelm can trigger a desperate survival response that allows both a glimpse into the more raw fabric of existence while also opening the door to the possibility of great chaos as the persons’s psyche attempts to integrate the various domains of experience (existential/spiritual, personal/egoic, environmental, etc.).

    It’s also important to recognize that the conept of “overwhelming circumstances” is entirely subjective. We’re each endowed with unique blends of various sensitivities and resiliences, and the kind of experience that may act as a kind of “psychosis catalyst” for one person may be easily shaken off by someone else. Sometimes it’s very clear what the catalyst was, and other times it’s not very clear at all, and may involve a kind of “perfect storm” of multiple catalysts working together synergistically.

    Finally, I’ll add that even if a particular family system is generally quite harmonious, loving, “healthy,” etc., we are all currently embedded in profoundly dysfunctional broader social systems (imho). Many of us have been so desensitized to this broader dysfunction that we don’t even see it, or maybe see it as a problem “in other regions but my community’s pretty good.” However, some of us, for whatever reason, are much more sensitive to this, and all too clearly experience ourselves as being part of a species painfully out of control and hurtling itself towards a cliff at an accelerating pace, whether or not this awareness manifests consciously or on some other level; and deeply feel the confusion, futility, chaos, hopelessness, etc., that goes along with such awareness. So regardless of the health of a particular family, the dysfunction of these broader social systems is enough to catalyze a “psychotic” response (I’d say that in my case, both problematic family dynames and an all too keen awareness of the broader social dysfunction “pushed me over the edge”).

    In John Weir Perry’s, “Trials of a Visionary Mind,” I think he makes a compelling case that in virtually all societies, particularly sensitive individuals are especially prone to going into such psychotic processes when the broader community/society is in trouble, so they act as a kind of canary in the coal mine, whose particular experiences, chaotic as they may be, may convey important information to that particular society, highlighting the most problematic areas that need to be addressed to regain/maintain the health of the broader social system. This is not a romanticization, as the individual’s often experience great suffering indefinitely, but simply a recognize of the potential benefits of this process, moving through this person as a kind of channel, opening up the possibility of profound transformation, both within the individual and within the broader social systems (family, community, society, species…)

    Thanks for your willingness to explore these challenging issues,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi Redmond,

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the article. Thanks for sharing these valuable comments.

    You say: “I do think that the imposition of psychotropic drugs on children has to rank not only as an ACE, but as one of the great crimes against children: every time I look at a photo of little Rebecca Riley, and think of her case, my entire being revolts in anguish and disgust.” I am in full agreement with you about this. It’s hard to imaging anything more assaultive to one’s mind, body and spirit that forcing mind-altering drugs into you against your will, and even if a child assents to such an act, I don’t think they can truly give “informed consent,” given their natural lack of life wisdom and power in their world (not to mention the ethics of experimenting so haphazardly with a developing organism).

    I didn’t formally include any drugs (recreational or psychiatric) as a a formal ACE on the list, though it’s clear to me that they are correlated with the onset of psychoses and extreme states of mind, as generally speaking, one or more of the other factors occurs first, and the drugging is often secondary to this. However, I realize that with the way things are going, with parents being so radically misinformed and drugs increasingly being handed to kids as freely as if they’re lollies, I’m sure there are many cases now in which the drug use itself is best seen as the primary trauma or ACE.

    Best regards,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi M.W.,
    Thanks for sharing a little about your story. It sounds like life has been quite a challenging journey for you! That’s unfortunate that your were hindered in developing satisfying social connections. As social beings, there is no doubt that healthy connection is extremely important to our wellbeing (I’ll talk about this much more in the next 2 parts); and so I think there’s no doubt that if our basic social/connection/belonging needs aren’t met, we’ll experience a lot of distress, and I think that everyone has a threshhold of tolerance, in which our psyche (our organismic wisdom, much of which we are not directly conscious of) may resort to the kind of desperate haphazard coping/growth-oriented strategy often called “psychosis.” While of course all mental experiences have biological correlates and vice versa (so surely extreme emotional or mental states correlate with “unusual” activity with the brain and body), I think it’s important that we remain very skeptical when we hear the preaching that such extreme states of mind/body automatically a pathophysiological disease. So yes it does appear that there are certain anomalous states of mind and body/brain associated prolonged trauma, but rather than seeing this as disease, we can see it as our organism adapating to difficult circumstances in the best way that it can; and that if are able to change those circumstances and/or our relationship to them in a way that more conducive to wellbeing, then there’s every chance that our physiological and mental states will both improve accordingly. The “lifelong disease” hypothesis promotes hopelessness, disempowerment, and thus a self fulfilling prophecy; the “natural adaptation” hypothesis promotes hope, empowerment, and possibility. Which of these do we want to feed?

    Best wishes,
    Paris Williams

  • Hi dcharles and “someone else,”

    I appreciate your bringing in the importance of transgenerational trauma, and I appreciate your thoughts and personal sharing about this.

    Many (most?) indigenous societies maintain strong connections with their ancestors, really acknowledging and honoring the deep connection of one’s current and societal experience with the experiences of one’s ancestors, and I think it’s a shame that, for the most part, we in contemporary society have lost this. Therefore, I think that this leads to a kind of intergenerational blindness we so often find as parents, we keep repeating the same problematic behaviours and inflicting the same kinds of wounds on our own children as those that we experienced as a child, and we as societies continue the cycle of war, oppression of trauma. The descendants of an oppressed people often go on to become perpetrators/oppressors themselves. But by letting go of the concept of blame (which essentially doesn’t acknowledge systems dynamics and the importance of things like shared responsibility and intergenerational trauma), I think we then have the capacity to look honestly and openly at our own behaviour and the behaviours and lessons of our ancestors, and make some real change.

    A famous poem that I think speaks to this well is Thich Nath Hanh (this link has a compelling intro by the author):

    Best wishes,
    Paris Williams

  • Good points, madincanada and BPDTransformation,

    A particular framework that I think really speaks to this is that of an holistic organismic one. In other words, I think that we (the collective we, as a society) make a mistake by trying to compartmentalize various kinds of experieces (mind vs. body, environmental vs. biological, physical toxins vs. relational toxins, etc.). If we consider the organism as a whole, then we recognize that any state of distress (whether it be “biological” illness or “psychological distress”) represents that this organism is struggling to meet certain basic organismic needs, and is simply responding in the best way that it can to try to meet these, to survive and hopefully thrive. So whether someone is experiencing cancer or a flu, or so called “psychosis,” “depression,” “autism,” etc., we can say that what we are basically seeing is a desperate organismic response to some barrier(s) that are interfering with it meeting its basic needs; and the challenge as supporters is to support the person in idenetifying where these barriers are coming from (often from more than one domain) and in working with (rather than against) this basic organismic wisdom of the being to facilitate recovery. What makes what I’m calling psychosis a bit different than the other kinds of organismic responses is that I believe psychosis represents the organism’s attempt to radically transform its basic cognitive constructs (its lens through which it perceives and interprets self and the world) in order to surive what is experienced as an overwhelming threat to the self at a very core existential level–yes, certainly a very risky and haphazard strategy, but one that I believe does have potential to lead to very powerful healing and transformation if successful, and not only for the individual, but also possibly for the larger social networks (indigenous cultures generally understand this, and therefore value individuals who go through such paradigm transforming experiences).

    For more of my exploration on the “holistic organismic paradigm,” see:


    Paris Williams

  • Thanks for the clarification, BPDTransformation. Good point about the way people (like myself, you and others) who encourage parents and society to consider the harm that problemtic family dynamics may cause are then vilified themselves–a common derogatory term I have found used to try to shut people like us up is referring to us as “mother blamers.” A frustrating and very “head in the sand” response, to say the least (!) I’ll say a lot more about this issue in Part Three.


  • Hi Someone Else,

    I’m really sorry to hear about your going through such a difficult situation. I think you speak to some very important social network extending beyond the typical nuclear family (religious groups, mental health systems, etc.) who certainly have the power to do great harm, even to the point of pushing people “over the edge.” I lived for several years myself in a fundamental religious foster home as a child, with physical and sexual abuse occurring within it (fortunately, I wasn’t sexually abused, but was physically and emotionally abused), and there is no doubt that this played a role in my own breakdown/breakthrough madness process that occurred many years later. I count my blessings that I managed to avoid getting caught up within the psychiatric system.

    Sending my best wishes,

  • Thanks for your comments, “Truth in Psychiatry,”

    I am really glad to hear about your son’s successful working through of his crisis. Thanks for sharing this.

    I also appreciate your wanting to make sure we acknowledge the broader context and social systems, and as I just mentioned in my comments to others above, I couldn’t be in more agreement with this(!) as I’ve discussed elsewhere, such as in the following two articles:

    I am focusing primarily on the nuclear family in this particular article, but we absolutely need to acknowledge the severe limitations and stress placed upon such families trying to survive in a broader society that is so profoundly troubled (I’ll discuss this a bit further in Part Three).

    Best wishes,

  • Hi Diana,

    I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the article, and thanks for your insightful comments.

    As I mentioned above, it’s a bit tricky breaking the article up into 3 parts like this, as much of the comments are pointing to issues I discuss in the later parts, such as yours here. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re wanting to make sure we acknowledge the importance of the broader social networks and how they impact families and the development of youth. I couldn’t agree with this more. Although I’m primarily discussing the nuclear family in this article, families are embedded deeply within the broader social networks–so just as a child is embedded in a family, the family is embedded with the community, the community within the nation and broader human societies. In order to support the individual who is really struggling, we have to recognize that this individual is really just a canary in a coal mine, pointing not only to the problems within the family, but also to those within the broader society (and they are many!). I discuss this further in my article here, which you may enjoy:

    Best wishes,

  • Thanks for sharing a bit about your own experiences, Steve.

    To clarify, I certainly have no intention to “romanticize” psychosis (if that’s what you have taken away from my words). To the contrary, having dipped into these waters myself, I agree that it is very difficult to convey to others who haven’t experienced this kind of thing the intensity of pain, terror, confusion, etc., that can go along with such experiences. I simply have a lot of faith in “organismic wisdom,” that as long as we are alive, some part of us will continuously strive for health and wholeness, although whether this is actually attained is a different matter. Also, by “existential,” I’m simply referring to the basic core dilemmas inherent in our existence–difficulties and challenges that we all face, so long as we are alive, and of course learning how to work with the inevitable pain and confusion of life is part of this (I’ll be saying much more about this in Part Two of this article).

    Best regards,

  • Hi bpdtransformation,

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the article. I’m impressed by your breadth of knowledge(!) Thanks for your suggestions of readings–I’m familiar with some but certainly not all of them, and look forwad to following some of these leads.

    You commented:
    “But the notion that parents should be blamed if they contribute to their children’s psychosis is simplistic and wrong; of course they shouldn’t be blamed. Trauma can be passed down through generations and there is no one person to blame, only problems to be understood. Understanding and acknowledging how parents contribute to psychosis risk can actually be a positive thing because it can allow for change, prevention, and repairing relationships.”

    I just want to say that I couldn’t agree with you more about this, and I hope I didn’t come across in this part suggesting that we take a stance of “blame and shame” towards the parents. I actually will be discussing this very issue in more detail in the next two parts (especially Part Three) of this article. In particular, as you say, all of us (parents included, of course) are embedded within social systems that are very wide (extending out to our extended family, community, nation, and all of the human society) and very deep (extending back through many generations). So as we raise our children, we bring all of this with us–the beliefs and pressures of “wider” and the “deeper” social systems–but we are often oblivious that we are doing so. So when we find that our family system is struggling (and they virtually all struggle at times), as you suggest, the first and most critical step to is become curious about what kind of beliefs and behaviours are present here, where do they come from, and how can we shift towards something more harmonious and wholesome..? So shifting from an attitude of “blame” to “openness, curiousity, humility and shared responsibility.”

    Thanks for your comments,

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and these books. I do remember enjoying “The Inner World of Trauma,” appreciating the collective and archetypal themes the author (Donald Kalsched) brings out from extreme states. And yes, I find it very interesting that the “normal” person is generally so vulnerable to the powerful illusion of having accurate perception and understanding of the world, that sometimes it takes “extreme states” to snap one out of this illusion and see what’s been before one’s eyes the whole time.

  • Yes, these are very exciting, frightening, unpredictable times that we find ourselves in–front row seats to extraordinarily rapid change and evolution. Is it possible to awaken from our deep “self”-absorption in time to save ourselves? Will those who are the most self-absorbed at all–those our predominant social systems have become so adept at placing in the highest positions of power–wake up and/or fall from power, or will they remain in the driver’s seat, gas pedal to the metal as we race towards the edge? Are the rest of us going to have to just sit idly by, seeing ourselves as powerless passengers, or can we find some way to reclaim the steering wheel?

  • Thanks for sharing this interesting perspective on the hypersensitivity of those who experience such extreme states. And regardless of whichever particular theory that we each may use to try to make sense of these experiences, I hope that we can all appreciate the truth in your statement that “a lot of the healing comes in fiding harmony in calm and respectful environments.”

  • Hi Oceanfire1 (cool name btw),

    I’m glad to hear that you find my work so helpful and that it resonates with your own experience.

    Since writing this piece, I have continued to contemplate these ideas deeply, to dialogue with others about them, and to test them in the “real” world–in the work I do with my clients and in my own life. And this has all led to feeling ever more confident that this perspective has real merit, with really no significant modification to these ideas since I’ve written this piece.

    I’m now contemplating how to expand these ideas into a book that is easily comprehensible to people, regardless of their education, and which is grounded in real life stories and experiences. I also want to include a section that is more politically-oriented–looking at how the current political system is resulting in profound “external nourishment barriers,” (i.e., the simple lack of available resources necessary for everyone’s wellbeing)–rather than have the book be focused exclusively on “internal nourishment barriers,” as is the case with this piece here.bI haven’t fully embarked on this stage of the project yet, though I plan to within the next few months. I’ll keep the MIA community informed on my progress.

    Thanks for your interest and your support!


  • Hi Madincanada,

    I think one way to think of the desire to kill someone (especially another member of one’s own species, which is arguably not a particularly natural thing to do) is that when particular needs of ours have reached a level of being profoundly unmet, and we perceive another person (or persons) as being responsible for that nourishment barrier, we can easily lose sight of their humanity, see them as “the enemy,” be overtaken by primal feelings of rage and/or fear, and want to “eliminate” that person. Just look around… The human society has become so imbalanced with regard to everyone’s basic needs being met that we regularly resort not only to carrying out such behavior, but often glorifying it(!)

    As for your son, I of course can only speculate, but I sense it may be helpful to trust your intuition that he may be striving for more autonomy. Individuating from one’s parents and moving on into one’s own life is a completely natural developmental process, and if someone feels this is being stifled in some way (as is often the case for young people diagnosed with “mental illness”), it’s natural to feel a sense of rage at times against those whom the person feels is doing the stifling, which of course often includes the parents.

    The following link is to a program you may find helpful:

    Also, feel free to contact me personally [ ], and I can try to help you find someone in your area who could offer some family support (if you don’t already have good support).

    Best wishes,

  • Good points, acidpop5.

    Yes, I agree that very few of us would regard ourselves as “delusional.” This is why I think it’s helpful to abandon the term “delusional” altogether, and simply acknowledge that certain beliefs are held more consensually within a mainstream group (“consensus beliefs”), and others less so (“anomalous beliefs”); and also that some beliefs are more backed up by observations than others, regardless of how consensus vs. anomalous they may be; and also that some beliefs have the potential to cause more harm than others, again regardless of how consensus or anomalous they are.

    I also hear and resonate with your frustration that certain lables (i.e., “mental illness”) make it more likely that someone’s beliefs will automatically be held with less validity, and make it less likely that others will be willing to to seriously consider them.


  • Hi Copy Cat, Thanks for your engagement.

    While I don’t think this is the place to have a direct debate about climate change (there are more appropriate forums for that), I think it is a topic that works very well to highlight some of the main points in my article: (1) that it’s helpful if all sides of a particular debate/belief system are willing to maintain some healthy skepticism; and (2) recognizing that we don’t have to know the “truth” with absolute certainty before addressing the relevant needs and doing our best to maximize benefit and minimize harm. Let me explain further:

    So, just to continue with the topic of human-induced climate change as an example… Beginning with the idea of holding healthy skepticism, let’s begin with some observations that are pretty hard to dispute: Currently, atmoshperic CO2 is rising extremely rapidly []; the last time the Earth has seen such a rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the single largest extinction event this planet has ever seen occurred [] (and actually CO2 levels are increasing even more rapidly now than then); and finally, over 97% of today’s climate scientists have come to the conclusion this rapid increase and the correlated climate change we’re witnessing is human-induced [].

    Sure, we can probably never know with absolute 100% certainty whether the radical change in climate we’re experiencing now is in fact caused by the massive amounts of heat-trapping gasses we’re putting into the atmosphere, nor whether this change will in fact lead to mass extinction. And sure, there may be some small chance that that the climate change we’re experiencing now is a natural trend that is purely coincidental with human pollution. However, this need for certainty becomes less relevant when we look at the possible consequences of our choices.

    So if we decide to continue going along just as we are, digging up the earth and pumping methane and carbon dioxide into the air at an ever increasing rate (regardless of whether or not we believe in human-induced climate change):
    Needs potentially met: ease, convenience, increasing wealth for a small percentage of us (generally those already quite wealthy)
    Needs potentially undermined: physical and mental health (continued increase in toxin- and pollution-related illness), beauty end environmental health (as a result of ongoing environmental destruction), peace and equality (as wealth and power continue to concentrate in the hands of those profiting from this system, and as the exploited poor become ever more desperate), life and security (many species have already been decimated by these actions–clearly from direct pollution, oil spills, fracking runoff, etc., even if you don’t believe that the climate change itself is caused by our actions; and there really is a distinct possibility that our actions really can lead to the devastation of life at epic proportions, including of course our own).

    …And if we decide to play it safe and work towards radical change in our energy use and methods, just in case our actions really are responsible for climate change:
    Needs potentially met and unmet are essentially the opposite of those above. We would probably have to sacrifice some ease, convenience and some wealth of those already very wealthy, but with potentially the very high rewards of increased health, beauty, peace, equality and security.

    I can’t speak for others, but the choice seems like a no-brainer to me…

    Again, to clarify, I’m only using the issue of human-induced climate change as an example, but I believe the same principle can apply when working with any potentially harmful belief systems and their corresponding behaviors. We don’t have to have absolute certainty or determine an objective “truth” in order to weigh the potential consequences of our actions. If someone tells me with a straight face that there’s a bomb under my house, I will probably give them the benefit of the doubt and vacate my house first before moving on to look more closely at the evidence and how best to manage the situation from there. I’m more than happy to sacrifice a bit of ease and convenience in favor of security. If someone tells me that they believe there’s a video camera hidden in their home or that they believe they’re being poisoned by their spouse, why not give them the benefit of the doubt first, and then explore how best to proceed in order to minimize harm? As Rumi said, “There is a field beyond right and wrong, I’ll meet you there” . . . and we can have a good chat about the best way to work towards getting eveyone’s basic needs met.


  • Hi “Someone Else,”

    I’m sad to hear about all the difficulties it sounds like you’ve been through in the mental health system.

    Ahh… the irony of one group of people dedicated to a belief system founded on very poor evidence (the mainstream “medical model” paradigm) having the audacity to call others “delusional.” Well, it really comes down to numbers much of the time, doesn’t it? One person holding an anomalous belief is “psychotic,” a group doing so represents a “cult” or a “religion,” and a very powerful group doing so represents “expertise.”


  • Thanks, Ron, for sharing, as usual, your own excellent insights and contributions.

    I’m glad to hear you’re in agreement with the importance of emphasizing needs over anomaly.

    Also, given the field of psychiatry’s generally strong lack of congruence between observations/evidence and interpretations/conclusions, and its general unwillingness to acknowledge this (i.e., its often “delusional” stance), I’m inclined to consider it a mark in favor of the validity of a particular belief system to learn that psychiatry believes it delusional.


  • Hi Rossa,

    Thanks for your willingness to be open to this woman and to take the time to try to really understand her situation from her perspective. I can’t even imagine what a great relief that must have been for her–a life saving antidote to the sheer crazy-making of being forced into a restricted environment in which your humanity is repeatedly invalidated by “experts.” Keep up the good work–our troubled world could use a lot more like you.


  • Great points, markps2. Just because a belief is generally held in the consensus doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful or even “delusional,” in that it flies in the face of clear evidence and observation. I agree that so much of what modern society considers “valid” or “true” is far outside of what can readily be observed and is also extremely harmful. Yes, if this is “sanity,” then we are in desperate need of a lot more “madness.”


  • Hi Chrys,

    Thank you for your insightful response.

    I appreciate your bringing up the often paradoxical concept of faith, and the challenging balancing act of recognizing the subjective nature of our own belief systems while also recognizing the importance of having something to believe in that gives our life direction, meaning and a particular set of values. And of course there is the further challenge of cultivating a healthy sense of faith in this regard while having tolerance for others whose faith may be quite different than our own.

    Existential psychologist Rollo May spoke about the dialectic of freedom and structure–that our wellbeing depends upon our cultivating a working synthesis between these. He used the metaphor of a river, with the river bed/bank representing structure and the water representing freedom. Both are essential for healthy flow. Too much structure (e.g., via rigid or dogmatic beliefs), and we have a dam–no more flow. Too little structure, no riverbed at all (e.g., no faith in anything), and we have a stagnant lake–again no more flow.

    Speaking for myself, I have developed faith in the principle of organismic wisdom. That all living beings have the innate capacity and desire to strive towards health and wholeness, no matter how distressed and under-resourced they may be. I’ve also developed faith in the principle of fundamental interconnectedness, and the great responsibility that this implies. That the actions of every living being on this planet ultimately contribute to the distress or wellness of other living organisms and the Earth as a whole; and it’s up to us to decide towards which of these (distress or wellness) we’d like to channel our energies.


  • Thanks for sharing all this. The Human Givens approach looks great

    It’s important to remember that I am working from what already exists, something that I readily acknowledge–we are all piggybacking off of the pioneers of humanistic psychology and the human potential movement, and then going further back, from paradigms far, far older than these such as those associated with the nondual traditions of the East and what was probably more or less ubiquitous within the indigenous cultures (the roots of all other paradigms that have emerged since, though somehow we have fallen very far from these roots in many ways, and a few tendrils are just now beginning to make their way back).

    You’ve got me curious about the Human Givens work–I’ll check out that book you mentioned.

    Thanks again,

  • Thanks for letting me know about the “human givens” approach. I just perused it’s basic principles on Wikipedia, and it is clearly very much on the same page as what I’m bringing up here and what the human potential movement and humanistic psychology in general have been promoting.

    I also agree with you about the need for simplicity, which I try to bring in in Part 2 of this article–if you haven’t read that yet, I recommend it. The first half of it is a little complex, because I’m attempting to reframe the mental health diagnostic system that’s currently in place, but in the final part of it, I hone it all down to a few simple dilemmas and core needs that are most essential, and a few methods of support that I believe are the most effective in supporting someone in meeting these. Again, it seems to be very much in alignment with the “human givens” perspective, with a few different twists.


  • Thanks for sharing some of your own journey towards deeper understanding and health. It does sounds like you and I have taken a similar tack of drawing from widely disparate perspectives and experiences in an attempt to fill out a fuller picture and enjoy a broader experience of all of this existence stuff. I ditto your “wow”–it’s quite a ride, eh? 🙂


  • Thanks, metalrabbit. I’m really glad to hear you resonate with these ideas.

    What you say makes a lot of sense, in that I really just see these ideas as a return to a much more common-sense way of understanding the joys and challenges of being alive. I don’t see my work as really introducing anything particularly new, other than just trying to integrate the many bits of wisdom coming from a lot of different traditions–trying to fit the pieces together to create a broader coherent picture–and putting it all into a humanistic framework that hopefully resonates with people’s actual lived experiences. My ultimate goal is to collaborate with other like-minded folks such as yourself to come up with a useful model that can replace the horribly dysfunction system that is currently in place.


  • It’s kinda funny–I’m actually finding myself really enjoying these biologically reductionistic blogs a lot–not because of the blog itself, of course, but because of the powerful, enlightening, and even at times greatly humorous challenges made by the commenters. Thanks, Duane, Jonah, Nijinsky, and others… you’ve really made my evening 🙂


  • Well said, Stephen.

    In the second part of this article (being posted next week), I address these issues explicitly and discuss the implications for why drugs are so problematic, especially in the long term–primarily because of “making [people] frozen to their true feelings and emotions” as you say so well. I’ll also discuss why I believe the practice of mindfulness meditation and other practices that allow one to develop the ability to be with one’s experience (even the painful and distressing aspects) in a more open and allowing way can be so beneficial.


  • Hi mkj,

    Now that you’ve drawn my attention to this section title, I can see how it is a little intense. I regret that you found it so triggering–I’ve gone ahead and changed it to a less provocative title.

    I’m sorry to hear that you feel so “shattered,” though I admire your ability and desire to move and dance through it all. Thanks for sharing a little bit of your own being’s organismic wisdom.

    Sending my best wishes,

  • Thanks for sharing your other own piece on chaos and complexity. We’re definitely on to some similar ways of thinking.

    I’m not sure, however, how you interpreted that I favor Eastern civilization over Western. I do believe that some of the philosophies that have come out of the East (especially the nondual traditions) have a whole lot to offer us in our attempts to understand the nature of our own subjective experience at a very deep level (as discussed in this article), though I think that generally speaking, civilizations in both the East and the West have been moving away from a more sustainable symbiotic relationship with our natural environment beginning thousands of years ago. If anything, I believe it’s the indigenous societies (so the collective ancestors of both the Eastern and Western civilizations) that have the most to teach us with regard to living sustainably–after all, they managed to live sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years, whereas this broader shift in our evolutionary path that has led us increasingly seeing ourselves (humans) as somehow separate and “better than” the rest of the natural world has begun arguably as long as 10,000 years ago, kicked up a good notch a few thousand years ago, and went to full steam ahead in the last few centuries.

    Look around. Do you really think we can sustain our current track indefinitely? While I recognize that my own views are controversial, I personally see signs everywhere that we are racing ever more quickly towards a very serious precipice. I believe that we can try to change course the best we can now and hope to avert the worst of the carnage, or we can just keep the blinders on and hope we can somehow fly…

    As for looking to indigenous society and their more ecological values, I’m not suggesting that we can go “back” to living as indigenous tribes (though who knows, we may not have a choice at a certain point), but that perhaps we can learn from this much more holistic/ecological/organismic paradigm that is actually very similar to our original paradigm, and consider how we can bring these ideas and values back into our societies now. I don’t have any groundbreaking answers on how to do this, other than hope to inspire others to contemplate these issues and consider ways that we can move collectively in this direction.


  • Thanks for sharing these articles. I think ADHD is an excellent example of positivistic thinking applied to subjective experience (and undesired behavior) gone so wrong. Kids are kids–healthy children are very active, naturally wanting to run around, climb trees, explore,bounce their attention around to the many elements in their environment, etc., etc. Just look at kittens and puppies. Yet, if children have difficulty sitting in a chair and staring at a blackboard for 6-8 hours a day, then we think they must be diseased in some way, and we better give ’em some drugs (essentially speed, no less). Sigh… I’m not discounting that there are numerous factors that can lead to certain kinds of distressing experiences or behaviors that sometimes get labeled “ADHD” (including poor nutrition, lack of time in nature, lack of enjoyable exercise, lack of supported curiosity, a little too much time in front of the tellie, etc.), but we really need to stop and reconsider (1) what kinds of experiences/behaviors are actually distressing/limiting, as opposed to which do we simply find annoying or are not congruent with our rapidly increasing desire for a society of conformists, and (2) is the “find the disease and throw drugs at it” approach really going to lead to sustainable solutions to our various life problems?

    Thanks for bringing these issues up,

    I address these issues much more in Part 2 (next week).


  • Well said. And following off your points here, it would make entirely too much sense [sarcasm intended] to direct funding towards the factors that we already know are significantly correlated with mental distress, such as:

    …collaborative methods of psychosocial support for individuals, children, family, couples and general relationships and social systems (we already know how to do this, and we know that it really helps for most people, so why does most of the health care and research funding go towards drugs, drugs, and more drugs?)

    …eliminating poverty (enough already with unbridled capitalism–does anyone really need millions of dollars to meet their needs while others have to live lives that are little more than socially sanctioned slavery?)

    …general social empowerment (e.g., taking the power back from corporations and the elite and working towards a true non-hierarchical democracy)

    …supporting people in moving towards meaningful, fulfilling lives (e.g., an education system for both children and adults that builds on the innate curiosity and ambition that exists within all of us when our basic needs are getting met–a system that emphasizes choice and diversity rather than control and conformity, and which is fully subsidized for all)

    …physical health, including healthy environments and easy access to natural and thriving ecosystems (e.g., a farm bill that subsidizes organic, sustainable local farmers rather the junk spit out by mega-corporations, and a renewed dedication to parks and wildlands)

    …peace (e.g., it’s well established that simply imprisoning ‘criminals’ and continuing to bomb the heck out of other countries in the name of ‘war on terror’ simply makes more ‘criminals’ and more ‘terrorists’–how about trying some meaningful dialogue and working towards strategies that allow everyone’s needs to be met?)

    Imagine that. A “health care system” that acknowledges that living organisms naturally thrive when certain basic conditions are met, and then simply working to cultivate these basic conditions?

    Or we could just continue with business as usual, allowing every aspect of our lives to become increasingly toxic and simply developing ever more powerful drugs to try to keep us numb to it all. Maybe those apocalyptic movies depicting a futuristic world inhabited by zombies aren’t all that far off the mark…


  • @meremortal

    Thanks for your clarifications. I apologize for not having taking more time with your original post and therefore misinterpreted some of your original comments. Although I have to admit I like the term “radical action,” although I mistakenly ascribed it to you.

    Yes, it does sound like you and I do have quite a bit in common. I really like this quote from your comment: “I am suggesting that those of us who have a radical vision attempt to inject it whenever possible into the larger culture/movement and do so unashamedly and with rigorous argumentation that will hopefully spark interest in others and blow some minds.”

    Here’s to interest sparking and mind blowing 🙂


  • I hear your desire for real and radical change and I appreciate you grappling with how to do this. My response is to ask what you mean by “the right direction” and “radical action.”

    My personal view on action is that all action is essentially an attempt to meet needs. And there are different ways to go about meeting needs, depending on whether or not we want to simply act from a place of wanting instant gratification of them, or whether we want to move towards a more encompassing strategy/vision that will meet our needs in a more sustainable way. If the former is our goal (instant gratification, especially with regard to meeting individual needs at the expense of the needs of the collective), then, well, welcome to modern industrialized society. However, if we want to work towards a more sustainable strategy of meeting needs, then I believe we must first connect with a broader vision and the values we feel are an important part of this vision. If we resort to action, even “radical action” without first taking the time to connect with a set of guiding values and an overarching vision, then I believe we’re still really only acting from a stance of wanting instant gratification, and if you want to see where that’s gotten us, just look around.

    I suspect that you and I are on the same page of seeing enormous harm and unsustainability in the current social worldview, values, and the actions that have arisen from them. When I look around, what I see is a world shaped by a belief in fundamental separateness–human separated from “nature,” certain groups of humans (categorized by gender, race, nation, sexual orientation, degree of conformity to consensus reality, etc., etc.) separated from each other, the human species separated from other species—and by a belief in a hierarchy of value with regard to each of these separations (which results in exploitation and inequality as seen in sexism, racism, nationalism diagnoses of “mental illness,” heterosexism, speciesism, patriarchy, unbridled capitalism, plutocracy, expansion economics, etc., etc.). And closely related this worldview are values such as individualism, survival of the fittest, worth determined by personal achievement and material wealth, etc. I can’t speak for you, but personally, I don’t believe that this worldview and the values associated with them are likely to lead to a society that is sustainable nor one that I personally want to be a part of. And as a result, I, like you, feel compelled towards radical action, but I want to make sure my action is guided by a vision and a set of values that is in accord with this vision, or I fear that my action will only result in working towards an equally unsustainable and unwholesome vision.

    So, what is this worldview and set of values that I aspire to work towards. While I aspire to avoid sinking into dogma and so strive to maintain a dynamic vision, there are certain qualities that feel particularly enduring. First, a worldview that is ecological rather than mechanical and hierarchical—in other words, an emphasis on seeing our entire society and biosphere as an interdependent web of life with each strand of this web (including humans) being of equal value and importance as every other strand—not more nor less. And naturally arising from such a worldview are values such as appreciation for diversity, compassion for all beings, a deep sense of responsibility for the consequences of my action, and a desire to work towards solutions that transcend individualistic needs to include the needs of the many. And having arrived at this basic worldview and associated set of values, I’m reaching out to connect with others who share a similar vision and set of values, and who are ready to explore creative strategies towards manifesting these in the world. And finally and most importantly, I’m aspiring to work with others to cultivate the courage, wisdom, and willingness to take “radical action” in this regard. And I’m taking much of my inspiration from others who’ve already begun to carve out this path, especially those who’ve identified as members of the nonviolent and ecological movements, such as those who’ve gathered in San Francisco over the weekend to speak truth to the harmful ignorance being spread by groups such as the APA (just one of many inspiring examples). Who else is in?

    I agree with you that arriving at values without the willingness to take action is unlikely to result in much change. And yet action without clearly articulated and deeply contemplated values, while certainly likely to result in some change, can be extraordinarily harmful. If we want to work towards real sustainable change in the world, I don’t see any way other than bringing the two together.


  • Thanks for sharing this here. Yes, there are many different movements who are ultimately all fighting for similar values–such as personal choice, freedom and responsibility; tolerance for different behaviors, perspectives and beliefs; and choosing to act from compassion and courage rather than personal greed and fear.

    One group who attempts to bring together these different groups under the banner of these and closely related core common values is Nonviolence United:

    You may enjoy perusing their website. I’ve done some work for them in the past, and would like to contribute more in the future–I think this kind of coming together is really key to pushing back against corporate giants,


  • Good points. And I share your gratitude to those who are in the trenches doing the hard work.

    Yes, the “popping the balloon” analogy probably is a little optimistic. I really do believe that if the actual findings of the recovery and drug research were widely known to the mainstream population (especially of those not directly funded by big pharma, which are unfortunately getting rarer), the pharmaceutical/psychiatric complex would simply have to collapse. But of course it all gets a little more complicated when you consider that the mainstream media caters (and is generally owned by) the big corporations themselves, meaning that greed generally trumps honesty and compassion. This is where I believe the internet can make a significant difference. True, even on the internet, those with the most wealth are able to spread their misinformation much more widely and intensely, but at least other voices aren’t just outright censored (yet). And really, what other options do we have? It seems to me we have to fight back and do our best to disseminate the truth, or give up and watch George Orwell’s fantasy become reality.


  • I think these are all excellent points, Samuel.

    I think there’s no doubt about it—if the drug companies were held accountable for all the harm their drugs have caused, they’d pretty much all be out of business. Which, in my opinion, would be a wonderful thing—bring all aspects of the health industry back into the public and nonprofit sector. I believe that one of the root problems here is the tremendous conflict of interest that arises when health care becomes a profit making venture.

    I particularly want to respond to the idea of liability, especially among mental health care workers. Those of us who are formally licensed (myself included, as a clinical psychologist) are held to what’s called “standard of care.” If harm arises as a result of “treatment,” then a major factor in determining liability is whether or not the practitioner was acting according to the “standard of care.” If they were deemed as having done so, then they will likely not be held liable for any harm caused, and vice versa. If they were deemed as having not acted in accordance with this standard, then they may very well be held liable.

    While I believe that this principle (“standard of care”) was originally introduced with benevolent intentions, it has unfortunately become very twisted in a way that has caused enormous harm. The standard of care is not anything set in stone, but simply refers to how most other similar professionals would act in similar circumstances. The prevailing treatment has become giving drugs whenever someone is diagnosed with a “mental disorder,” and does not consist of supporting people in coming off drugs or in the option of not putting someone on drugs in the first place. Therefore, if harm results from the use of drugs, then the professional is almost never considered liable, no matter how extreme such drug use may have been or the level of harm caused (except perhaps in the very rare and the most extreme cases). However, if a professional chooses not to use drugs or chooses to support someone in tapering, and it’s deemed that harm was caused as a result of this, then the professional is likely to be held liable (because they weren’t acting according to the “standard of care”). So what does this mean? Well, understandably, even if professionals don’t believe that drug prescriptions are the best way to go, or that tapering may be in the best interest of their client, because of their fear of liability, they will still be pressured to stick to the treatment as usual—drugging, and often heavy drugging, and refusal to support people in tapering. As long as this “standard of care” clause remains as it is, this situation is unlikely to change.

    Obviously, exploring an alternative way to hold the “standard of care” would be in everyone’s best interest (except for the drug companies and those who make a living dealing out prescriptions, of course). Right now, it’s extremely imbalanced in favor of the drug companies and psychiatrists. One way to balance the situation is to hold professionals accountable for all harm caused, including harm caused by the drugs. Another way (and one that is my own personal preference) is to hold professionals liable for only two things– giving their clients the most accurate information available based on the actual research (not on drug company propaganda and not on research conducted by drug companies or any of their bedfellows), and ensuring that clients have completely unpressured choice in the kind of support they receive. So in this case, professionals are liable for harm caused as a result of either giving the clients inaccurate information and/or coercing them into a particular method of treatment/support.

    I believe these two things would make a radical improvement in the field—holding the drug companies directly accountable for harm caused by their products, and changing the “standard of care” so that doctors are required to give their clients the most accurate information available and to never coerce their clients into any particular kind of support/treatment. However, I don’t have much hope that we could really initiate these kinds of policy changes given the current state of anti-democracy, plutocracy and corporate rule existing in the U.S. and much of the world. This is why I believe that these changes will most likely have to come from grass roots efforts.

    Thanks again for your willingness to engage with these issues,

  • I forgot to mention that he was actually given a fourth prescription as well-Prozac–one more soul pushed straight away into a full cocktail. Fortunately, he chose to stop taking everything except for a benzo or a sleeping pill occasionally.

    I appreciate your sharing some of your own experiences, Jeffrey. I’m sorry to hear about the way you were treated in your youth. I was also considered quite the “deviant” in my youth. I’m grateful they didn’t give me Ritalin (though I recall that that was a serious consideration), and in the end it was decided that I be sent to a “disciplinarian” foster home for a few years. Thankfully, they didn’t manage to “break” me, but not for lack of trying.

    Yes, my heart breaks too when I think of the rampant drugging of kids. What a total bummer–your brain doesn’t even get the chance to develop properly nor your spirit the opportunity to really blossom before being stomped down. Really, really tragic. What will it take before the collective “we” opens our eyes and recognizes this absurd and utterly devastating atrocity.


  • Thanks, Diana and Ron,

    Yes, I completely agree about both the difficulties in challenging belief systems that are so entrenched and also the need to support each other with this (teaming up). Another advantage of working together, I think, is that mutual support can help us not get bogged down by a sense of hopelessness and futility. My own general thoughts here are encouraging people to explore new ways to reach out to the the community at large with information that’s not coming through the distorted lens of the PPC (psychiatric/pharmaceutical complex), trying these strategies with the support of others, and simply being willing to experiment and learn what kinds of strategies seem to be helpful and which don’t.

    Thanks for your willingness to engage with these ideas,

  • Hi Jen,

    Thank you for the courage to bring this “shadowy” topic into the light, and for doing so in such a powerful and thought-provoking manner.

    When we stop to really think about it, it’s not difficult to recognize that it’s actually a very natural response to consider suicide when we feel profound hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of tremendous pain–hopeless that this intense suffering will ever pass, and powerless to do anything about it. And yet, what is the socially accepted response (and a legally mandated response for some of us)to someone in such a painful place? To lock them up against their will and either coerce of force them to take spirit-dampening drugs, and typically try to convince them that they need to “have insight” into the fact that they have a lifelong brain disease. In other words, here’s someone struggling with overwhelming hopelessness and powerlessness, and our response is to strip away any remaining wisps of hope and power. Wow. Really?

    This topic is near and dear to my own heart because one of my closest friends–one of the only people who supported me in my own time of overwhelming distress, and a fellow lover of the sky (a hang glider pilot like myself)–committed suicide inside a psychiatric hospital.

    Tragically, this all happened while I was living on the other side of the planet (staying in Buddhist monasteries with only infrequent access to email), and so I didn’t even know that she was going through all of this. Fortunately, another close friend of ours remained in contact with her during her final days, and so he was able to share with me his understanding of what had occurred:

    After a traumatic childhood, she continued to struggle with ongoing social and emotional difficulties, including occasional bouts of severe hopelessness several times prior to this incident. She feared that this time she might really try to take the ultimate “exit strategy.” She didn’t know where else to turn for help, so naturally she went to a psychiatric hospital. She apparently made it very clear to the staff that she didn’t want any drugs, as they had only made things worse for her in the past, and that what she really needed was someone to talk to and to keep an eye on her–to make sure she didn’t do anything impulsive (i.e., attempt to take her life). The staff failed horribly on all counts. As soon as she checked in, they forced her to take drugs (I don’t know which kind), refused to allow her to leave, AND failed to provide her with genuine human support and compassionate watchfulness–the only things that she had asked for. Several days into her stay, she walked out onto the hospital grounds, climbed to the top of the tallest tree, and dove headfirst to her death.

    As you can imagine, upon hearing about all of this, I was grief-stricken and enraged. Really??? This is the kind of “support” that we can expect to receive in our greatest time of need? Perhaps the one good thing that came from this was that it represented one of the last straws that led to my own resolve to commit to working towards a more empowering, humanistic, and compassionate health care system.

    And meeting people like you, Jen, and others on this forum keep the hope alive in me that such change is a very real possibility,

    In support,
    Paris Williams

  • This article has been discussed on other forums, and someone requested that I include one exchange here:

    The commenter said:

    I very much agree with you that normal human suffering has become medicalized and over-treated with medication. However many people are relieved when their cluster of symptoms has a name and a medication that helps them feel better even if it is a temporary band-aid. And there are many people whose brains function in a way that makes it difficult for them to function well in their lives. As a psychotherapist I respect whichever paradigm my client adheres to and we go from there.

    And my response:

    I appreciate your willingness to respect your client’s own beliefs, AND I also believe that there’s a place for encouraging the client to be willing to be open to exploring alternative explanations, especially when the belief that they hold may be particularly harmful.

    For example, I worked with a client once who intermittently heard a voice telling her that she must not drink any fluids. She believed this was the voice of God and that she must obey this voice or face God’s wrath. At one point, she was found behind the vehicle of her car pulled over by the side of the road, passed out and close to death from dehydration. I encouraged her to explore alternative understandings of this experience and belief system—for example, considering that the source of this voice came from a source other than “God,” perhaps from a dissociated part of her own personality or an introjected embodiment of another person or message in her life. She was actually surprisingly open to looking at alternative and possibly more helpful understandings, and clearly benefited from this work.

    Let’s look at another closely related (hypothetical) example that is more closely related to the “mental illness” belief system. Let’s suppose you meet a new client who is obviously quite ill. You discover that she’s developed the belief system that her emotional suffering is due to a kind of virus and that the only way to get rid of the virus is to ingest a certain amount of drain cleaner every day. On one hand, she does seem to be experiencing some relief from certain psychological “symptoms,” probably due to the well known placebo effect. On the other hand, it’s quite evident that she is experiencing other significant adverse effects due to the toxicity of the drain cleaner. Would you simply “respect” this belief system, or would you encourage her to explore alternative understandings?

    This example is very similar to what we find within the “mental illness” belief system. Most of the psychiatric drugs used are very toxic, having many very adverse effects associated with them, including making it more likely that a transient condition will harden into a more chronic one (see Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic” or my own “Rethinking Madness” for a more thorough discussion of this). There is evidence that much and perhaps most of the positive effects of these drugs are due to a placebo effect or simply some kind of a “numbing” effect. We also have significant evidence that the “lifelong brain disease” belief is very harmful to many people, acting like a nocebo (the opposite of a placebo), in that it’s likely to lead to hopelessness and the general likelihood of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    There is a major difference between the “mental illness” understanding and the example I gave above—the former is generally socially sanctioned and backed by most of the “authorities” in the field, in spite of the continued lack of evidence. Does this mean that we should simply allow our clients to hold onto this belief system unquestioningly, without encouraging some critical exploration? My own thoughts on this are pretty clear. As a clinical psychologist committed to the wellbeing of my clients, I would consider it a failure in my duty and frankly in violation of my profession’s code of ethics if I didn’t encourage some kind of open minded and critical exploration upon discovering that my client is harboring a potentially harmful belief system. To clarify, this doesn’t at all mean that I would attempt to force them to adopt a different belief system, but that I would simply encourage them to look more closely at the evidence, their needs and values, the harms and benefits of strategies and behaviors that have emerged from this belief system, and work from there.

    Paris Williams

  • Hi Seth,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective and valuable insights on this. I appreciate your calling attention to Linda’s discussion of the “self.” I agree with much of what you say about that–I intentionally avoided going into this topic as I wanted to emphasize what I thought were some of the more serious direct harms of the “mental illness” paradigm while not writing an essay so long that it would turn off potential readers.

    I agree with you that Linda’s reflections show a half step towards a more humanistic paradigm while also leading to some potentially very problematic conclusions. While I am all for allowing each of us to explore our own understandings of our deepest existential and/or spiritual nature, I personally resonate most strongly with the nondual traditions which suggest that there really is no permanent “self” at all—that what we experience as an “I” is in perpetual flux and flow, and that the root of our suffering actually comes from attempting to cling to a solid/secure/permanent sense of self in the face of such ephemeral conditions (I discuss this in much more detail in my book, Rethinking Madness).

    Linda said, “For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill.” Well, based upon the nondual perspective, transformation is a given, and it is our resistance to this transformation that is so problematic. I believe that what so often gets labeled “mental illness” arises from our resistance to such change/transformation, and strong resistance is most likely to occur when we experience our beings attempting to transform in a particularly powerful way. So my conclusion (and it sounds like you and I are on a similar page with this) is almost diametrically opposed to that of Linda—such deep transformation of the “self” is actually a sign of the profound health and wholeness within our beings, rather than being a sign of “illness.” When we find ourselves in a situation that is no longer tenable, this deep wisdom of being (what I like to call “organismic wisdom”) naturally aspires to initiate a transformation into a more sustainable way of being. And it’s difficult to deny that so many aspects of contemporary society are entirely unsustainable, which is where I find one of your insights particularly poignant–an argument could definnitely be made that it is often those we consider “mentally ill” who in some ways are the “healthiest” in the sense that they represent beings who are attempting to transform from being a “well adjusted” individual in a crashing society to a “creatively maladjusted” individual with real potential to work towards a more sustainable vision for all of us. “Hear hear” for messianic sensibility.

    Paris Williams

  • Thanks for sharing a little bit of your story. I hope you’ve been able to connect with some people who can support you in this process. Although it can often be difficult to find peers and professionals who offer real support in this regard, they are out there. I’ve been compiling a list of such resources on my website:

    …click on the “Resources” page.

    Best wishes in your journey towards a healthier life,

  • Once again, very well said, Richard. You’re opening a complex but extremely important topic here, and I have so much I’d like to say about it and so much I’d like to hear from others about it, and yet I’m thinking it would be more appropriate to center this around an article/blog that specifically focuses on action and activism. Would you be willing to submit such an article?

    In the meantime, I can’t resist going ahead and responding with a few of my thoughts here:

    I am in full agreement with you regarding the importance of acknowledging the roles of power and privilege, oppressors vs. oppressed, etc. And I completely resonate with the frustration you express of finding yourself entrenched in such a dysfunctional and harmful system…

    … AND I believe that, generally speaking, within a given oppressor/oppressed system, the oppressor(s) maintain their power over the oppressed because the oppressed continue to give it to them. This is one of the fundamental tenets of the “nonviolent resistance” philosophy. Typically, the oppressors gain their power (often in the form of wealth) directly from those that they oppress—generally by manipulating them with fear (if you don’t do such and such, then you will pay such and such a price), greed (if you DO such and such, you will receive such and such reward, even if the reward is only life), and ignorance (maintaining confusion and a general sense of hopelessness and helplessness). Whether or not a certain group of oppressed individuals has any direct responsibility in having become the victim in the first place, the cold hard reality is that they’re in that position now. And they’ve most likely been conditioned to identify with that role and unwittingly play their part in perpetuating this particular dynamic (e.g., by believing that they’re helpless and believing that resistance is futile, if nothing else).

    This is not an attitude of “blame the victim” at all. Rather it is simple acknowledgment that a harmful and imbalanced system has come into being, that all members of that system play important roles in keeping that system going, and that any change to this system is unlikely to come from those who are benefiting the most from it. I completely agree with you that making such change can appear extremely daunting when those in power have SO much power, and those who are disempowered have so little hope and are kept in so much confusion. And yet if we remember that the oppressors reap their power directly from the oppressed, and that the oppressed often do have at least some degree of freedom to refuse to cooperate and refuse to perpetuate the system, we find that there is the possibility for real change. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout our history–with the abolition of slavery, women’s rights , civil rights and worker’s rights movements, the downfall of apartheid in S. Africa, coming out from under the English thumb in India, etc., etc.

    This kind of movement is generally quite messy, usually involves tremendous courage and sacrifice by many individuals, and arguably may never really ends but can perhaps best be seen as an ongoing dialectic dance that is simply an outcome of our inherent tendency to perceive a ‘self’ (myself, my group, my species, etc.) as distinct from an ‘other’ (other individuals, groups, species, etc.). And the more rigidly we experience such a self/other or us/them split, the more intense and common such struggles are likely to be.

    My own personal values around working towards such change consist of recognizing the humanity and suffering in not only the oppressed but also in the oppressors. After all, their thirst for power is typically spawned by their own fear, greed and ignorance (especially ignorance in the sense of not being willing or able to sincerely connect compassionately to the suffering that their actions are inflicting upon others). In many ways, I see these individuals as the most disturbed and deeply suffering of all. So I believe that if we want to change the current system towards one that is more in line with values such as basic freedom, equality, compassion, tolerance, etc., then those of us who want to take on the role of activists will have to connect to these values within ourselves and act from there. This means being very clear and firm in resisting continued harmful and disempowering behaviour, while also not losing sight of the humanity of those carrying out such behaviour. How would this look? Well, fortunately we have excellent role models such Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Mohatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, etc., who have striven to act from this place. While anger and even overwhelming outrage towards one’s oppressors are certainly understandable, working towards a revolution with these as our foundation is likely only to lead to at best a flip flopping between the oppressed and the oppressors—our history is full of such flip flopping revolutions, and where has that gotten us?

    One final point I want to make here: I do acknowledge that we have in many ways an unprecedented challenge on our hands with regard to our mental health care system. Some harmful systems can become particularly entrenched when the oppressed are profoundly disempowered –such as what we find in the case of the oppression of animals and other species, of children, and of those who are imprisoned either physically or psychologically (i.e., via the use of psychoactive drugs and/or via trauma). The two latter examples are clearly at play here within the mental health system. Fortunately, these types of systems very often have a “third” essential group of members—those who are not directly the “oppressors” nor directly the “oppressed” but whose participation is nonetheless required to keep the system going. These are typically the “willing consumers.” In the case of the mental health system, this is the vast majority of the population—because most of us who have the ability to do so don’t take the time to educate ourselves about the harm caused by the psychiatric/pharmaceutical industry, we generally allow it to continue, with our general support of harmful policy (or at least our general lack of resistance) and our direct financial support as so many of us buy into the story that real peace and happiness will be found in a pill that we can buy from them. I believe that if the majority of us really got it—if we really understood the epidemic that Robert Whitaker writes about so well, the rampant destruction of childhood and fulfilling lives, the enormous disability and burden on taxpayers, that we most likely will not find lasting peace in a pill—then it seems to me that this system would simply have to collapse. I’m grateful for people like you, Richard, and so many others I’ve met who are doing great things in getting the truth out there and for opening up this kind of important dialogue.


  • Thank you, Jen and Louisa, for your kind words. I agree with you, Jen, that the crux of this whole issue is suffering, a universal experience, and our response to it. And I believe that what we see in industrialized western society is an extraordinarily unskillful response to suffering that is unprecedented. We have somehow arrived at a cultural myth that we’re supposed to be “happy” all the time, and any deviation from “happiness” or having thoughts or belief outside the norm suggest that we may have a “mental illness.” And of course once we respond to this fear by naturally reaching out for support from our socially sanctioned mental health care system, then… well, you know the rest of the story. I have no doubt that we could learn much from our ancestors who’ve explored much more skillful responses to suffering–particularly with regard to developing more sustainable and compassionate ways of working with suffering–our own as well as others.


  • Excellent points, Richard.

    I really like the concept of a knowing/doing dialectic. Another very similar concept that I like is the meaning/experience dialectic, the idea being that if we get too stretched towards either side, we can run into difficulties–either all meaning with little grounding in direct experience, or all raw experience without processing it and deriving meaning.

    My main intention in my article here is to focus on the harm caused by the “mental illness” paradigm, and to lay a foundation for an alternative vision, but as it was already getting fairly long, I didn’t want to dive into specific actions in line with this vision–a topic for many more articles by many of us and hopefully ongoing rich discussion. There are already many people and groups doing really good things in this direction–too many to name here–and yet it’s clear we have to do more. I believe that action from a clear core set of values is important, however, which is why I attempted to lay a very basic framework out in this regard–focusing on education and critical thinking, and taming fear and greed while cultivating tolerance, compassion, and mutual respect for each other’s choice and freedom.

    I also hear your desire to separate the powerful industrial forces, with their ramming the “mental illness” paradigm down ourthroats, from the collective “we.” I certainly do acknowledge these forces. However, I also believe that in order for real change to occur, “we” the people need to take on the role of responsible, educated consumers. Every dollar we spend is a vote which says “I agree with or buy into what you’re selling.” So, in many ways, “we” are very responsible for everything that goes on in our society. By not educating ourselves and thinking critically, by not taming our own fear and greed, it is “we,” the masses, who maintain the status quo. If we want real change, I can’t imagine it’s going to come from the forces who are thriving on the current system. It will have to come from “us,” the masses–we’ll have to break out of the trance of feeling like powerless sheep and explore creative ways to take our power and responsibility back. Easier said than done, I know. But the first step starts with people like you and others here on this forum–encouraging people to discover their own truth and take the steps toward real action.

    In solidarity,

  • Thank you, Francesca, for your courage and willingness to share yet one more tragic example of someone simply wanting peace, reaching out for support, and finding themselves swept away into a confusing hell…

    And to add to the tragedy is that most of the people involved in offering such “support” probably really believed that they were doing the best thing for you. As they say, the path to hell is often paved with good intentions…


  • Good question. I always find it somewhat of a delicate balancing act trying to use language to point to experiences or concepts without getting too attached to specific terminology. I suppose my way of holding all of this is recognizing that we each develop and modify a particular set of constructs that we use in an attempt to make sense of our experience and to understand the world, and then we use language as a way to try to share and communicate these constructs with others. It gets really tricky when we try to use language to point to these fundamental constructs themselves–words such as “paradigm” and “health.”

    When I use the term “paradigm,” I’m using it to refer to a particular set of constructs (both cognitive and affective/experiential)that is used to make sense of a particular concept or realm of being. I sometimes use this term in broad sense, such as an individual’s “personal paradigm” or a “cultural paradigm,” and sometimes in a more specific sense, such as an individual or societal paradigm with regard a concept such as “mental health” or simply “health.” I think it’s important to be careful here and try to avoid getting bogged down in abstract philosophical discourse while forgetting about what’s really important–connecting with our values and trying to meet our basic needs.

    So back to your question, I personally hold the concept of “health” as representing the degree of one’s ability to meet one’s basic needs and make peace with the basic dilemmas inherent in being a conscious, living being. I also recognize that for any living organism, being “healthy” is contingent on many different factors and different realms of being–psychological, physiological, relational, environmental, spiritual, etc.–and along with this, recognizing that all living organisms actually hold multiple “identities” simultaneously–as an individual, as a collective of millions of different microorganisms working symbiotically to make up this individual (our cells, etc.), as a member of one’s family, one’s society, one’s ecosystem, the entire biosphere, the entire cosmos… There are so many different levels/realms relevant to the concept of “health” that when you stop to really think about it all, it can become a little overwhelming. But thank god for a deeper wisdom (call it “life” or “organismic wisdom” or “spirit” or “God” or whatever suits your fancy) that seems to aspire towards health on all of these different levels.

    So, from this perspective, the challenge for us humans seems to be learning how to direct this highly conscious and powerful mind/brain that we’ve developed towards working in harmony with this deeper wisdom rather than in direct conflict with it (which currently seems to be the predominant attitude that has taken hold within our society). We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us(!)

    I appreciate your willingness to explore these ideas more deeply.


  • Your comment about the philosopher suggesting psychiatrists honor the patient’s belief that they’re God reminds me of one of Ram Dass’s escapades. Apparently, his brother was hospitalized at one point with the belief that he was Christ. Ram Dass visited him and pointed out that he was right to believe that he was Christ; however, he was making a big mistake by not recognize that so is everyone else(!) Apparently, this realization resulted in his brother having a profound epiphany and some kind of healing/integration, followed by his being allowed to leave the hospital shortly thereafter and presumably movement towards a more wholesome way of experiencing and understanding himself and the world.


  • Initially, it was suggested that this article should be posted along with formal responses that were invited by others in the field; but then it was agreed to simply post it in this more ordinary “op-ed” format, with others responding in a more spontaneous manner. Anyway, I still have a copy of my “formal” response, so I’m putting it in here:

    I’ve been asked by Seth to write a brief reaction/response to his essay, and I’ll preface this by saying that I haven’t had a chance to read his most recent book yet (though I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as I get the chance).

    First, I was struck by Seth’s skill in wrapping up the general history of the “psychiatric survivors”/”mad pride” movement in such a tidy nutshell. I enjoyed his big picture perspective, which added a few more colors to my own picture of our movement.
    I also found myself really appreciating Seth’s willingness to dive headfirst into taboo material—material that is generally even somewhat taboo for many members of the mad pride movement itself, which says a lot(!) He asks some hard hitting questions and is not at all timid about presenting some answers that are sure to invite discomfort and controversy from all sides.
    One of the big questions Seth is inviting us to grapple with can be captured as something like, “How do we—the ‘mad,’ the consensus-reality challenged, the mental health care dissidents and revolutionaries—want to define ourselves?” Seth takes the stance that we should set our sights much higher than simply psychiatric liberation and aspire to utilize our “mad gifts” for the purpose of complete world liberation. In particular, he suggests that we hold proudly one of the most common forms of extreme states of consciousness—what I have generally been referring to as “messianic striving,” and what he calls “messianic sensibility”—and allow this experience to provide both our fuel and our direction. After all, he does have a point that’s difficult to dispute. Messianic striving is very common within extreme states, and by definition, it is a state of consciousness that is loaded to the hilt with fuel and vision.

    I have to admit that I find this line of reasoning contains a certain compelling quality to it. Seth is almost certainly correct in his assertion that the human species is accelerating very rapidly towards its own demise. The sheer desperateness of our situation demands a desperate answer; and what more desperate and powerful intervention can we imagine than an army of “mad messiahs” Hell-bent (or rather Heaven-bent) on bringing about the transcendence of humanity from a species being driven primarily by greed, fear and ignorance, to one driven by love, compassion and tolerance; in other words, moving towards a species-wide shift of consciousness, from the species-wide madness we see today to a species-wide messianic consciousness. After all, what have we got to lose? As “mad” as it sounds, why not? This is such an interesting and important question, I’d like to spend a few paragraphs playing out some of my own reasoning on this issue by taking both sides.

    In favor of the “messianic transformation” stance, even though what Seth is suggesting may sound “mad” even to many of those who are self identified as “mad,” according to many and perhaps most indigenous societies (in other words, the societal roots of all of us), the role of the shaman/healer/seer/visionary is generally very highly regarded. The evidence is quite robust in demonstrating that, historically, one of the most essential roles of a healthy human society appears to be the presence of one or more individuals who experience the world outside the confines of that society’s consensus reality. I think it’s relatively safe to say that one of the most important aspects of this role is that the existence and honoring of such individuals helps to ensure that a given society won’t become entrenched in dogmatic thinking and self-destructive habit patterns.

    It seems likely that many of those labeled “psychotic” or “mad” in our society today would likely be the same individuals honored as shamans, healers, etc. within indigenous societies. What we so often find in these individuals are qualities such as very high sensitivity and the mixed blessing of having a relatively unstable and/or flexible experience and understanding of the world. It’s not difficult to see that, on one hand, such individuals are set up very naturally to act as something like a canary in a coal mine, being the first to be affected by toxic belief systems and behaviors, whether they be within one’s family system or within one’s society. On the other hand, these individuals also, by definition, naturally think “outside the box.” For the “well adjusted” member of society, it can be very difficult to think outside the box of consensus reality. So, when a society (or an entire species, as appears to be the case with us) has become entrenched in a belief system and “normal” behavior patterns that are clearly self destructive, those most likely to be labeled “mad” really are in the unique position of being able to sound an early alarm as well as offer particularly creative solutions for the radical change of direction that the system needs in order to maintain its existence.

    Now to look at the other side of the coin. First, while I do appreciate Seth’s invitation to embrace one’s “messianic sensibility,” and especially the qualities of a spirited striving towards love, peace and harmony, I believe that there are some dangers that should be heeded. For one, when one is in the grips of such intense striving (as I can personally relate to somewhat), there can be the tendency to develop a one track mind. Blinders can cover our peripheral vision, we can lose a sense of healthy skepticism with regard to our own belief system, and we can become oblivious to any harm that we may cause as we charge ahead on our given mission (I think that the “bull in the china shop” metaphor is apropos here). I believe that there is also the tendency while in this state of mind to continue to propagate the kind of divisive thinking (“good” vs. “evil”; “us” vs. “them”; “the elite” (messiahs, in this case) vs. “the minions”) that I believe has led our species to the brink of extinction in the first place. Human history is full of bloody revolutions consisting of one group of self proclaimed righteous individuals toppling the dictatorial elites only to become the next generation of dictatorial elites.

    So, what do we do? It’s clear that the spirit of Seth’s push towards “messianic consciousness” is rooted in the desire for all of us (everyone, not just the “mad”) to awaken to the profound interconnectedness of the world. This is clearly a very noble aspiration in that such awakening would hopefully result in a strengthening of the qualities of love, compassion and tolerance that our species so desperately needs. And I believe Seth has a point that those who often reside outside the realms of consensus reality (those so often labeled “mad”) are often in closer contact with the more fundamental qualities of the world, such as the qualities of profound impermanence and interconnectedness. However, the question is, can we maintain the striving for such noble values and aspirations—love, compassion, tolerance, equality—without paradoxically succumbing to the divisive thinking that is so contrary to these? In other words, as a fallible human being, can I consider myself as being in contact with “messiah consciousness” without losing sight of the fact that such consciousness also resides within everyone else, even though it may be deeply buried beneath woundedness or ignorance? As someone who has been severely pathologized and labeled as inept or even irrelevant (i.e., those labeled “mad” or “mentally ill”), how hard is it to resist the temptation to turn the table and consider oneself to be of much greater worth and importance than others? Speaking for myself, even though I realize that this is not Seth’s intention, the very word “messiah” conjures up such elitist connotations, and I find myself wondering if as a movement, given the simple fallibility of our humanity, we have what it takes to utilize such ideology in a mature and helpful way.

    Having said all of this, I want to say that I am glad to see Seth open up such important and far reaching dialogue. These are very important questions, and I have no doubt that he’s touching into some very core issues related to both the evolution of the “mad pride” movement and humanity in general. The very fact that someone has the courage to bring up such controversial ideas, and that others are willing to seriously engage with them, points to what I believe humanity really needs if we are to avert self-destruction–authentic dialogue and respectful tolerance for the views of others, no matter how far outside one’s own construct of reality they may appear to be.

    Taking Seth’s invitation to heart and connecting to my own “messianic consciousness,” I find myself strangely compelled to take a moment on the “messiah soapbox,” so here goes: As a model for shaping our own mad pride movement and our society in general, I would encourage everyone, regardless of how one identifies—whether “mad” or “sane”—to connect with their aliveness, in whatever form that may take, in a way that doesn’t intrude on the freedom of others to connect to their own aliveness; to explore one’s feelings, values, and aspirations (one’s own “messiah consciousness,” to use Seth’s words), while not becoming too rigidly attached to any particular construct of one’s self and the world; to really listen to one another’s perspectives and take the time to try to really digest them; and to appreciate that abundant diversity combined with tolerance and respect for that diversity are perhaps the most important components of any healthy living system, whether it be a forest ecosystem, a social movement, or the entire human race. By fostering the conditions necessary for the healthy existence and authentic expression of all beings, I don’t believe that the world can do anything but delightfully flourish.

    Okay, who wants to step up on the messiah soapbox next?

    Paris Williams

  • You have some good points here, many of which I resonate with, but it seems you are misinterpreting some aspects of the points in my article, so I’ll try to clarify these here:

    Regarding this quote from the article:
    “While we continue to have no solid evidence that schizophrenia/psychosis is the manifestation of a diseased brain, we do discover one particularly tragic irony in that our very entrenched belief in this theory and the paradigm of care that has resulted from it is actually ensuring that enormous numbers of people actually do develop brain disease (see Figure 1).”

    …what I mean is that the main treatment methods (toxic drugs, ECT, etc., are well established to cause long-lasting and sometimes permanent damage to the brain.

    (2) I never try to claim what beliefs/perceptions are “real” and which are not. In fact, to the contrary, I’m using language such as “consensus reality” and “anomalous beliefs” to try to step away from the debate about what’s real and what’s not, and simply acknowledge that every society or group of individuals tends to have an consensually agreed version of reality (“consensus reality”), and that many members of these societies/groups diverge significantly from these in their beliefs or perceptions (“anomalous beliefs and perceptions”). I’m suggesting that all beliefs and perceptions are individually constructed attempts to make meaning of the raw data we take in from the world, whether someone is considered “sane” or “mad.” The beliefs/perceptions of the “sane” ones just happen to be more in accord with “consensus reality.” Who’s to say what’s actually “real.”

    What I think is most important is not to try to determine whose truth is most “real,” but rather how effective one’s truth is in contributing to meeting one’s needs and creating a sustainable and fulfilling life.

    Paris Williams