“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”
My identities sometimes seem to contradict each other, which can be really confusing.
For instance, I often grapple with being simultaneously a psychology student working to enter the mental health field, and a radical mental health activist working to end stigma and improve the treatment of mad people by professionals. (Existential crises: an occupational hazard of trying to dismantle the very system you’re a part of.)
Sometimes this paradox hurts my brain so much that I become exasperated, and wonder if it’s possible at all. Depending on how my studies and my activism are going, and which I’m more devoted to at the moment, I might either wonder why the heck I’m studying psychology or why the heck I’m a radical mental health activist. What did I get myself into???
But although some radical mental health activists are anti-psychiatry, I am not. Professional mental health treatment has helped me and many people I know. I think everyone has a right to a self-directed and fulfilling life, and some people need or want professional help getting there. That is ok, and to be honest, I think demonizing the industry will only serve to further stigmatize those who do choose to seek help. In allowing for self-direction and autonomy, having a variety of different options available is also key. What I want to do is make room in the mental health industry for care that is truly compassionate and respectful, viewing all clients as capable of self-direction and assessing their own needs and desires. In this model, the role of a therapist for instance would be less about giving advice or telling the client their neuroses and what caused them, and more about asking thoughtful questions to encourage reflection and show they’re listening and care.
There are skills I learned in therapy years ago that I still use on a daily basis and can’t imagine living without. These include DBT skills (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy teaches practical hands-on coping skills that are very useful for tolerating intense emotions, such as squeezing a frozen orange if you’re having a panic attack or disassociating, or drawing on your skin with marker if you have self-harm urges you don’t want to follow through on.) CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) teaches how to combat untrue, exaggerated, nasty inner voices of depression or insecurity that say things like “You’re so stupid, you should just give up”. More processing-oriented approaches, such as expressive therapy and psychodynamic therapy, have given me the time and space I needed to express myself and feel, and through that I gained peace and insight. (Expressive therapy, as a style of therapy, is distinguished from the field of expressive arts therapy, which involves using any one art form for therapeutic benefits and can come from a variety of different theoretical approaches. Expressive therapy refers specifically to combining various art forms in therapy that focuses on catharsis and processing, for instance dramatizing a poem or painting to music.)
Though it’s worth noting that my journey hasn’t been (and still isn’t) all sunshine and roses, or else I wouldn’t feel such a need to go into either the field or activism. Something needs to change. I have been told that defining aspects of myself that I take pride in, that bring me joy, and that serve important coping and healing purposes, are “symptoms” of my “illness”. Things like, well, wanting to be an activist in the first place. And being queer and kinky and polyamorous (yes, professionals really do still say these things about LGBTQ people, all the time actually, despite that homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1986). And being Pagan (Paganism is often labeled as a symptom of either psychosis or OCD, only they would call it “magical thinking”). Yes, psychology and psychiatry can and often do help people heal. But we can’t ignore the other ways it has been used: to enable people in power to enforce the status quo, by controlling what is considered “sane” or “insane” by mainstream society.
This is where activism comes in, and where I don’t think that radical mental health and Western psychiatry are necessarily at odds, but rather can be seen as two sides of the same coin.
From the ages of 21-23, I was in a theater troupe that changed my life forever (and quite possibly even saved it). It was a troupe of LGBTQ youth, and focused on political and activist theater, with the goal of advocating for LGBTQ rights to high schools and social service agencies. It started with a boot camp of training: guerrilla theater, costume and prop design, playwriting, and activism and public speaking. But to say it was all about training doesn’t do it justice. We also did a lot of talking, bonding, and processing. We talked and wrote about what being LGBTQ youth meant to us. We talked and wrote about what kind of world we wanted to see, and how we might accomplish this. We talked and wrote about all sorts of things… things like addiction, poverty and homelessness, suicidality, homophobia and transphobia, gender and sexuality exploration, gender and sexuality theory, intersectionality, kyriarchy, bigotry, social justice, the history of youth activist movements in the United States, our hopes and dreams for the future, and what kinds of artists and activists we wanted to be. We did improv theater around these discussions, which was videotaped and transcribed, and somehow the transcriptions and the journals and the weeks of laughter and tears came together to produce our original plays.
Some of the places we toured to, we were warned, had high incidences of homophobia and transphobia. But the audiences were still largely made up of vulnerable youth much like ourselves. Especially in the Q&A and open discussions that followed each performance, all of us (both the people in the audience and the people on the stage) were able to recognize our shared humanity, perhaps for the first time. For my part, I was able to combat some preconceived notions around race and class, and begin to unpack my privileges as a white girl from a middle class family. How we then chose to react to this, of course, was up to us, and it’s unrealistic to think that a few hours can completely undo a lifetime of messaging and experiences. Yet for some, it opened a door to consider that people unlike ourselves in one way or another are still people deserving of respect, and who often have more in common with us than we might think, if we only look beyond the surface.
I never felt so empowered in my life. And though it’s been five years since then, and I could definitely use a brush-up, I can say with certainty that without that experience, I might not have ever become an activist. I probably would have continued to blame myself for everything bad that ever happened to me, and feel horribly insecure all the time as a result. It probably never would have truly sunk in the extent to which my trauma, my insecurities, my neuroses, are not only resulting from a chemical imbalance in the brain or poor choices, but rather from a complex interaction between my brain and personal choices and the society in which I live. A society in which people such as LGBTQ people, people of color, poor people, female-presenting people, the young and the old, people with brains or bodies that are different from the norm, and people of cultural or subcultural or religious minorities, are still often treated as less than human. A society in which anyone who is different from oneself, in any way, might be looked at as less than human.
Contrast this to my experiences in therapy. Sure, it sometimes helps me feel better, though often only so long as I stay actively involved. And at what cost? Rather than being empowered, it has usually been disempowering. By its very nature, the therapist is placed in a position of authority over your life and health, which can make it difficult for clients to feel like their accomplishments are their own. If clients show any difficulty coping with the realities of living in an often cruel and harsh world, they are called “ill” or “disabled”, regardless of if they personally feel this description fits. Their difficulties are blamed on their brain chemicals, or perhaps traumatic experiences are recognized and validated, but it is still then the client’s responsibility to change themselves and their reactions, rather than the external situation. This is especially true of large, societal problems.
No matter what happens, life will still always have its ups and downs, so the capacity for resilience is still important. But regardless of how big of a difference someone ultimately makes, what really matters is that they feel they can. Even if we’re not talking about global injustice but about a personal goal, like getting a driving license, if someone doesn’t have that basic belief in their capacity to achieve it (regardless of how much time and effort it might take), they probably won’t. No amount of coping skills or processing or medication will change that.
And if someone’s suffering is truly due to oppression, and not just their brain (as is so often the case)…if nothing is done to address these oppressive systems, no amount of coping skills or processing or medication will truly help them. This is the sad truth about living in an unjust world.
But there’s still hope. It doesn’t have to be this way. I do have hope that society as a whole can and will change, as it has in the past. But no matter what happens, and even if the pace is so slow that people working for change today never get to see the results of their work, this doesn’t negate their power. If a suffering person believes that they can and must use their suffering to change the world, so that others don’t have to suffer in the ways they did, and they have ways of gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to do so… they can do almost anything. Then they just have to remember that whatever help they got along the way to gain these skills and confidence, it was still them who decided to use it to take action, and that’s a major accomplishment.
I’d love to see therapists focus on teaching clients the skills and knowledge they need to follow through on their dreams, both for themselves and for the world. If the therapist doesn’t posses these skills personally, they can help the client find and access someone who does. Activism skills, creative skills, communication and relationship skills, time and self management skills, coping skills, the knowledge of how individuals are both affected by and affect the world around them, and how this has happened in the past. Whatever particular skills they need to accomplish the things they value the most. Therapists may also need to help remind their clients of the skills and abilities they already have, and access the courage to use them (which necessitates believing that using them to make a difference is even possible). With all this comes power.
Coming from personal experience…this process not only can change the world (whether in ways big or small), but it is also extremely therapeutic.
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