By Gabe C. Jenkins
Intern for MindFreedom International & Aciu! Institute
As a teenager, I hear the term “mental health” a lot. My peers and I definitely talk about our mental well-being more openly than people did in the past 50 years. It is for good reason that we do this—young people today are under a lot of stress with the pandemic, competitive job market, and the threat of global climate change constantly looming.
But that being said, many people of my generation also take for granted the accepted beliefs about psychology. When we think of mental distress, we tend to think of easily-categorized disorders, which indicate that something is biologically different about a person’s brain. When we think of therapy, we think of a trained professional helping their patients overcome challenges in a clinical setting… or with psychotropic medication. However, this is not the only way to think about mental well-being. There are other effective practices that deserve an equal amount of attention.
Discovering Mental Health Alternatives as a College Student
I didn’t know about alternatives to psychiatric treatment until David Oaks, one of the founders of MindFreedom International (MFI), gave a presentation to my class last year. In this presentation, he introduced a term that has been on my mind ever since: peer support. I raised my hand to ask him to elaborate on what this term meant; I had never heard it before, and it didn’t sound like something I would learn about in my undergraduate psychology courses. David, who now consults for MFI with his business Aciu! Institute, explained that peer support refers to more egalitarian models of treatment where people with lived experience help others going through a similar life situation.
As a psychology student who has always been skeptical of the profession that claims to “fix” peoples’ minds without knowing if there is something wrong with them to begin with, the rest of David’s presentation clicked with me. It was reassuring to know that my hunch regarding the ethics of my future profession was valid, and that there is a network of people—with lived experience—saying the same thing.
I decided to speak to David after class about interning at MFI. He was happy to hear about my interest. Two months later, I was on-boarded as an intern, and have been working with David ever since.
Intro to Disability Studies, taught by Professor Betsy Wheeler (who is the main contact person between MFI and the University of Oregon) clearly brought together many like-minded people. After David gave his presentation, two other students in my class also applied for the internship.
Madison Eldridge is one such colleague of mine. She is studying Psychology with a minor in Disability Studies, and has lived experience with mental health. Her goal is to provide a support system for people going through similar challenges, while providing access to alternative methods of mental health treatment. She values giving people choices on how they receive care. Madi is currently working on building connections between MFI and student groups at the University of Oregon, and some other colleges.
Francesca Thompson is another intern and is studying Communication Sciences. They are interested in the intersection of mental health and physical disability, and have lived experience with both. Their goal as an intern at MFI is to learn more about community support. They are currently working extraordinarily hard on the MFI website by adding this blog section, compiling a launch guide for new groups, and cleaning up the overall layout.
What Are Soteria Houses & Peer Respites?
My personal project is to help MFI connect with people who are interested in alternatives to psychiatric treatment. More specifically, there was a series of webinars last October put on by MFI and the Portland-based group Rethinking Psychiatry. I am assisting MFI in following up with the participants of these webinars, making sure their enthusiasm is sustained. But the greatest part of working with these webinars is the information I am receiving about useful and empathetic alternatives to psychiatric treatment—the type of information I would have never discovered in my normal studies. While working with the webinars I felt the same enchanted feeling I did when David Oaks first told me about peer support, many months ago. The webinars discussed two alternatives—Soteria Houses and peer respite. Both of these models offer community-based support to people experiencing psychiatric distress.
Soteria Houses operate as home-like settings where guests are free to come and go as they please. They are run by empathetic, non-professional staff members. Guests who are experiencing an extreme state (referred to as psychosis, clinically) practice “being with” each other. This process of “being with” allows them to develop a better understanding of themselves and their current situation. A large emphasis is placed on community activities, which allows for greater social interaction and thus better self-understanding. Any psychotropic medication is taken by choice. There are Soteria Houses all around the world, such as in Germany, Israel, and Vermont.
Peer respites, like Soteria Houses, also operate as voluntary home environments. These respites are staffed by peers— people who have lived experience with psychiatric treatment or extreme states. Peers form mutual, trusting relationships with guests, which help them use their current crisis as an opportunity for personal discovery. There are peer respites in 14 U.S. States.
Neither of these models, Soteria Houses or peer respites, rely on coercive tactics or clinical labels. They are effective and compassionate alternatives to psychiatric drugging. However, it is worth admitting that these alternatives are scarce when compared to the large number of current mental health programs that tend to be under the dominant influence of the pharmaceutical industry.
One way to secure funding for more Soteria Houses and peer respites—and to educate the public about their efficacy—is for everyone who is interested in these alternatives to join MindFreedom. Individuals can join as members. Groups can join as Affiliates or Sponsors in MindFreedom’s Support Coalition. Because the movement for alternatives is still small, the best way to increase our power is to work together.
MindFreedom International’s Support Coalition
“For decades MindFreedom International through Support Coalition has offered many of us the opportunity to learn and connect with others of similar values,” says MFI’s executive director, Ron Bassman. “Alone, there are severe limitations of what we can do, but joining with others, we can make genuine progress.”
Hopefully in future decades, other teenagers will be able to easily learn about and access humane, empowering alternatives in mental health.
You can join & donate to MindFreedom as an individual.
If you are part of a group, or would like to form such a group, that may be interested in joining MindFreedom International’s Support Coalition, see the MFI Support Coalition Resource Guide.