Janet Foner, board member of MindFreedom International and Chair of Choices in Mental Health Committee, presented this speech on Thursday evening, 12 July 2007, at the MindFreedom International Conference: Creative Revolution: Turning Our Minds Around near Litchfield, Connecticut, USA.
We chose the title of our conference carefully. Tonight, we are turning our minds around to inspiration, hopefulness, and the realization that we can change things. Why should we do that? Because we have reason to be hopeful about change. An attitude of hope inspires hopefulness in the people around us, and that can engender more changes — it can catch on.
Besides that, this is a key time in the history of the world, a time when ex-psychiatric inmates and allies from several countries have joined together to share ideas, resources, and experiences about alternatives to the MH system. While the US government has sponsored conferences called Alternatives before(begun by movement leaders, originally), this is the first time ever, that we know of, that our movement is holding an independent, open conference about alternatives. Many of us are excited that this is happening, and know that with our combined forces, we can make lots more changes and grow our movement at the same time.
Almost more importantly, we are turning the minds of most people out there, outside our movement, in the direction of other ways to do things than the mental health system does them. We are turning their minds around the best ways people can heal, and should be allowed to heal. We can do this for other people because we have done it ourselves, we have each recovered in our own way, from the things that happened to us in the mental health system. I want to talk more about how we will do that, but first I want to tell you a little bit about my personal recovery story.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, impacted by many oppressions, as a Jewish woman artist, grandchild of immigrants, with a father in a wheel chair, and a mother who was raised poor, living in a working class neighborhood. Dealing with all those oppressions is part of why I ended up in the mental health system as a patient. But I never had experienced the full brunt of any oppression until I was locked up in a mental hospital.
My entry into the system, at age 21, was being dragged unwillingly into a locked ward of the mental hospital, being injected with so much Thorazine that I passed out, and being put in seclusion for about 8 hours. This was followed by 10 months on a locked ward, with lots more Thorazine. I had never before experienced what it is like for many people living in the US (I thought I lived in a “free” country until age 21), nor understood how heavy mental health oppression is.(Some people call it psychiatric oppression, but I like mental health oppression, because that includes more aspects of it.) I learned what mental health oppression was all about while in the hospital, and have been understanding it more and more ever since.
About 6 months after I got out of the hospital, I had gotten off psychiatric drugs, with the help of my psychiatrist ( a young resident who gradually reduced the dosage), at my request. One of the things that upsets me the most, still today, is that when I first got the drugs I felt like I was in a spy story(the kind where they drug the spy to get rid of him), and knew the drugs were damaging to me. Yet after I had been on heavy doses of Thorazine for several months, my brain had been so affected that I believed the brainwashing that they were doing to me, and thought the drugs were useful. That is, until I had gotten off of them, in September, 1968, and felt 100 times better.
I had been told by my doctor to take a pill, if I needed it, so one night I got very scared and took one pill, which was the last one I ever took, in 1969. Taking that one Thorazine pill reminded me of how damaging the drugs were to my brain, because I was “out of it” for hours. At that point in time, I had been thinking for some time that something should be done about how I(and others) had been hurt by the MH system. But I had no idea what to do about it.
About 4 years later I got involved in Re-evaluation Counseling, a peer support network that exists in most countries all over the world, of people who do social change work and emotional healing, by exchanging listening time with each other. (I will be doing 2 workshops about it on Saturday, if you would like to know more about that.) That organization began working on liberation work of all types, beginning with work on ending racism, in 1974. I knew that mental health oppression was the oppression I wanted to do liberation work about, but people weren’t yet talking about that in the organization. I began to bring it up at weekend workshops, and thereby met a few other ex-psychiatric inmates, as well as therapy survivors, and relatives of survivors.
The support group I started with some of them, and other work, allowed me to exchange listening time with other ex-psychiatric inmates, and others detrimentally affected by their mental health oppression experiences. I got to release lots of emotion, in session after session, year after year, telling my mental health history. I got to lead weekend workshops where many others told their stories and began to heal from them. That led to a lot of emotional healing and recovery for me, though I am still not finished dealing with all that yet.
Over the years, I helped build a network of survivors and family members within Re-evaluation Counseling, called RC for short. Leaders in that group are now working for our liberation across the USA as well as in England, Canada, Greece, Japan, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and many other places. I wrote the first policy statement for mental health liberation for the organization, which has now been revised, with many people having worked on it, and is currently published as the pamphlet, “What’s Wrong With the Mental Health System and What Can Be Done About It.”
In the RC Communities, we have about 40 people called International Liberation Reference Persons(ILRPs) who think about and work with particular constituencies, such as parents, people of African heritage, women, people of Chinese heritage, artists, Jews, men, etc. In 1992 I was appointed International Liberation Reference Person for Mental Health System Survivors in RC, meaning that I go around the USA and to other countries assisting leaders to develop, leading weekend workshops about mental health oppression issues, developing policy, etc. My title has now been changed to ILRP for Mental Health Liberation.
Meanwhile, in 1983 I had gotten involved in the psychiatric survivors’ movement, and in 1987 helped found and was running the statewide survivors’ organization in Pennsylvania. I met David Oaks at the National Association of Rights Protection and Advocacy(NARPA) conference in 1988, and we decided to work together to build an organization that would unify the independent movement of survivors, be open to the public, and join with other liberation movements on common projects. It is now called Mind Freedom International. When it was called the Support-In and then Support Coalition International, we co-coordinated it, from 1990-2000.
Along the way I had gotten my master’s degree in community psychology as a way of figuring out how to change the mental health system. I actually learned a whole lot more in the mental hospital about that then I did in that program, but anyway, I did write my master’s thesis in 1986, on a drug free alternative mental health center, that would use the process of RC to help people heal.
After that I tried to get the center to happen, but I was not certified to run such a center without getting further degrees, which I did not want to do. Additionally, I could not figure out who would run such a place, or learn enough RC to work there, although Peter Breggin did say he would be the consulting psychiatrist if I ever got it going. I put my idea on the back burner. Fast forward to 1997 at the World Conference of the International RC Communities. I had proposed, and developed with 2 others, a policy about psychiatric drugs, essentially saying that RC supports the right of people to decide whether or not to get off psychiatric drugs, noting that people are not to blame for being on them, but putting forth the idea that the use of psychiatric drugs is inconsistent with RC theory and that RC’ers need to work to support people to stop taking psychiatric drugs, if they decide to do so.
Some of the wording needed to be changed slightly after it was adopted by the conference. I met with the ILRP for mental health workers, Joe Gallagher, the ILRP for physicians, and another psychiatric survivor, and we worked out the wording. That was the start of Joe and me working together. I thought it was an amazing meeting, where key leaders of these 3 different constituencies involved with the mental health system, who are often at odds with each other, were cooperating together in a thoughtful way. Later, in line with the new RC policy on psychiatric drugs, Joe stopped giving out psychiatric drugs to his patients and started giving them RC- type counseling instead, if they wanted it. He also was leading the doctors that he worked with to decide to do the same. Because he was doing all that, I invited him to the RC Mental Health Liberation Leaders Conference in 2003.
Shortly after that, he asked me how we could set up a way for doctors everywhere to learn that psychiatric drugs were not necessary, and how to use RC instead. I told him about my thesis, and he told me he would like to run such a center. Joe is going to talk about that center tomorrow. So I won’t say more about that right now, but I will say that this has been a dream of mine since before I wrote about it in my thesis in 1986. I want to use it as an example of what can happen if you hold on to your dreams. The dream that I had in the 1970’s is coming to fruition. Our hunch is that once we get it to exist, in the next few years, it will become a place where not only doctors can learn how to stop prescribing psychiatric drugs, it will also become a place where people who want to learn how to create such a center can intern to start something similar elsewhere.
Looking back at my story, what were the elements that had allowed me to heal from how I was hurt from the oppression of the MH system and get my life back together again? When I got out of the system, I thought my life was over, at the age of 22, that I would never get married, have children, have a job, or do anything worthwhile. I went on to do all those things and then some. I think the things that helped me were loving family and friends, and a lot of support from them; having someone in my corner, my mother, who would not let me give up; getting married to an old friend who was and is very supportive; leaving the city where I lived and moving to another city where no one knew I was a mental patient. The most important thing of all was doing the emotional healing work that I did and still do through RC. Additionally, using the RC process, I did a lot of work on refocusing my attention towards positive things, and setting goals to change my life to be the way I wanted it, and then following through on those goals. These elements are probably common to many alternatives: support, people who believe in you, getting outside the oppression and the stigma of the mental health system, emotional healing work, setting goals. These are all common sense ways to make changes, and they work because they don’t repeat the oppression of the system and they do help people do positive things. There are lots of other ways that we know of, and ways we will discover, that help people heal and make changes in their lives.
I believe I know how to help people like myself who have gotten caught in the mental health system because I have done so over and over with many people. I believe that all of you also know how to do this, because you have all found ways to do so, or you would not be here at this conference. We are creating the seeds of change as we work on this project together, starting, promoting, and supporting alternatives to the mental health system. When I wrote my thesis on an alternative healing center, the only alternative to the mental health system I could find was Soteria House, developed by Loren Mosher, who later joined the Mind Freedom International(MFI) board, and was on it until he died, recently. I had been asked to research alternatives and write about them, before writing about my own, and was surprised to find hardly any. However, at that time, our movement was in a very early stage.
Currently, there are many alternatives that are funded by the mental health system, which is an improvement in the situation at that time, but not the big improvement that we want. There are a few working alternatives outside the system, and many of those people who developed them are here. You will hear some of them talk tomorrow. I have every confidence that we will be multiplying these alternatives and creating more. This conference is about that, and we hope to form a network of working alternatives that is part of MFI, so that we can continue to support this work. We will have a discussion group about that Saturday night, for those that are interested.
When I was the co-coordinator of Support Coalition International, which became Mind Freedom, I used to get at least one call a day from someone asking if there was an alternative to the mental health system for their relative or themselves. I had to tell them there were virtually none that I knew of, or that MindFreedom knew of. It was around that time that I started thinking that MindFreedom needed to support and promote alternatives, and that was the beginning of this conference. Eventually, I met Celia Brown, who became our president, and she and I agreed that we needed to work towards this conference. Matt Morrissey had a similar idea independently, and the 3 of us got together to form the organizing committee for this conference. Later we were joined by Florence Brown, whom I met at a MindFreedom Conference, followed by Krista Erickson from our board, and by Leah Harris, neither of whom could be here this weekend.
We worked together to realize our dreams for the conference. We wondered where to find people who were doing alternatives, but we need not have wondered, because this turned out to be an idea whose time has come. Many people responded to our call for presentations, and most of them are here to present some exciting workshops this weekend. We don’t know exactly how we are going to multiply the numbers and types of alternatives, but we know we will. Libby Roderick, who is a folk singer, has a song that goes, “If you can see the dream, you can get there somehow.” I think we can get there.
Years ago, David Oaks and I were developing the ideas for what became MindFreedom, between 1988 and1990. We thought that by now we would have 100,000 members, but we are not near that number. That does not mean that we will not get to that number, or a lot bigger number, as we continue to do this work. We can remember that we started with nothing, went to 13 groups as part of our coalition, and now have 100 groups. I remind David periodically that it is the depth of mental health oppression that is keeping us from moving forward as fast as we originally thought we would. I remind him that many of us have had years of heavy psychiatric drugs, electroshock, seclusion, four point restraint, etc. in the mental health system, and that that has made it more difficult to organize ourselves than some other movements.
But I also want to remind us that they took their best shots at us and failed, they did not get us down, they didn’t stop us, and they can’t, because we know more than they do about recovery. They assume that no one can recover, and we know people can, because we have done it, and helped others do it, too. The system repeats the same old record over and over: you are sick, there is something wrong with you, you will never get better, you can’t make it in society, you will need drugs forever. We know that those old records that play the same song over and over have proved to be useless and non-productive. In contrast, what we do is powerful, and healing. We can think around and outside of the system, and that puts us in a much better position to change things for the better.
We are the pioneers, making a space in the world for our work and our dreams to happen. I envision that we will create so many alternatives that work that many, many people will seek us out and use our alternatives rather than the system. This will weaken the system and help the movement towards changing the society to a better one, so that eventually we will have a society with no mental health system. I think that can happen in several ways.
One is that we create so many alternatives and support systems around everyone in the society, that everyone has ways to heal and no one gets stuck in an emotional crisis. Or if they do, there is somewhere that is healing to go with it. A second way is that so many alternatives will exist that people will use them instead of the mental health system, which will wither away from lack of use. As that happens, we will necessarily be making big waves in the society, because part of why society is so messed up currently, is that it chews people up and wrecks their lives, and people have no resources to combat that. Other people have a little more resource, and look on helplessly while others get chewed up, because they are afraid to speak up and step out of line.
Our society partly functions the way it does, in an oppressive way, because most people are forced to conform and can’t figure out how to find creative solutions to difficulties. They will keep supporting the oppressive society because they have been forced to do so. But as more and more alternatives spread through society, that situation will begin to loosen up. The “normal” people will see by watching how our alternatives work, that they needn’t be afraid to do things differently, and they will stop conforming so much. They may even loosen up by trying some of our methods themselves.
The people getting chewed up will actually have resources, from our alternatives, and they’ll be able to get out from under the oppression. And that will make way towards a better society, one where everyone is treated well, and all oppressions have ended. In that kind of society there won’t be room for a mental health system, because everyone will be well thought about and well cared for, and emotional crises won’t develop that can’t be helped by one’s friends and neighbors. I recognize that this is a far cry from what we have now, and it won’t be easy to get there, but I think we are helping it happen as we create alternatives.
I envision us forming a network of alternatives as part of Mind Freedom, working with each other and supporting each other through our network, exchanging ideas, developing a directory of existing alternatives that will be part of Mind Freedom’s website, and promoting the use of alternatives through the website, and other means. Eventually, Mind Freedom will become well known as an organization through which people can find out about alternatives to the mental health system. This will make a difference in terms of impacting the general public, which our movement, to date, has not been able to do that much of. I think that’s because we are still seen as mental patients who are the “problem.” But when we provide the answers to the problems, so to speak, when we have working alternatives that obviously help people, and we have a lot of them, it will help us appeal to the public, which will bring more people along with us in our movement, as allies. And this will build our power to change the mental health system and move the growth of alternatives forward.
We will continue to hold conferences where more people can not only find out about existing alternatives, but also how to create new ones, and will also spread knowledge from our conferences about workable methods of recovery that they find out about. That will enable us to move towards the vision I was talking about earlier, about truly changing our society in a big way. This is my vision of alternatives to the mental health system vis a vis our society.
What do you envision? What will you decide to create? I hope we will continue to travel together towards a cooperative society that treats everyone well, and has no mental health system at all.