The New York Times brings us one of those insightful pieces that I wish were commonplace at all newspapers — the everyday story of people living with mental illness and fighting for their rights.
It details the stories of a number of people living with mental illness, including Liz Spikol who blogs regularly over at Philadelphia Weekly. Ms. Spikol is a 39-year-old writer who grapples with bipolar disorder and has undergone electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
The article also tells the story of Elyn Saks, a University of Southern California law professor, associate dean, and author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, who was afraid to talk about her mental illness until she got tenure, for fear of the stigma that might deny her professional opportunities.
The article says these are two amongst a growing group of people, fueled by the openness of the Internet who are willing to share their life stories in talking about mental illness. I’d say this conversation has been going on for over a decade, now, so this is hardly a new phenomenon.
In any case, a movement is born and people are getting the word out through events and group advocacy activities that go well beyond the typical policy-driven activities of national organizations like NAMI or the MHA:
Just as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word queer as a badge of honor rather than a slur, these advocates proudly call themselves mad; they say their conditions do not preclude them from productive lives.
Mad pride events, organized by loosely connected groups in at least seven countries including Australia, South Africa and the United States, draw thousands of participants, said David W. Oaks, the director of MindFreedom International, a nonprofit group in Eugene, Ore., that tracks the events and says it has 10,000 members.
[…] Members of the mad pride movement do not always agree on their aims and intentions. For some, the objective is to continue the destigmatization of mental illness. A vocal, controversial wing rejects the need to treat mental afflictions with psychotropic drugs and seeks alternatives to the shifting, often inconsistent care offered by the medical establishment. Many members of the movement say they are publicly discussing their own struggles to help those with similar conditions and to inform the general public.
It’s largely a good and well-balanced article (except for the issues mentioned below), and mentions two of the various advocacy projects (but sadly doesn’t link to them):
- MindFreedom International – Win human rights in the mental health system
- The Icarus Project – Navigating the space between brilliance and madness
The article only refers to psychiatrists as being responsible for treating people with mental illness, which is an unfortunate oversight. Psychiatrists make up the smallest profession responsible for the treatment of mental illness — it would have been more balanced to refer to “mental health professionals.”
The writer’s bias goes beyond only referring to psychiatrists in the article. She also apparently believes that mental disorders can only be treated by drugs (which is mentioned a few times in the article; psychotherapy is mentioned zero times):
Mr. Oaks, who was found to be schizophrenic and manic-depressive while an undergraduate at Harvard, says he maintains his mental health with exercise, diet, peer counseling and wilderness trips — strategies that are well outside the mainstream thinking of psychiatrists and many patients.
Really now? Having regular exercise, a good diet, and engaging in self-help support groups is “outside the mainstream thinking of psychiatrists” when it comes to maintaining good mental health and wellness? How does she know that? Did she survey them?
Of course not — this is the writer’s opinion creeping into the writing, and getting it 100% wrong. Most mental health professionals recognize the importance of maintaining a good diet, exercising, and self-help support groups in helping a person in their recovery efforts. None of these ideas are outside of the mainstream thinking (the only one that is would be wilderness trips, but hey, some people like to hike and camp, nothing wrong with that — getting back to nature is very centering and helpful to many).
Many psychiatrists now recognize that patients’ candid discussions of their experiences can help their recoveries.
“Problems are created when people don’t talk to each other,” said Dr. Robert W. Buchanan, the chief of the Outpatient Research Program at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. “It’s critical to have an open conversation.”
Yes, many do. And most mental health professionals understand the value of journaling (which is largely what modern-day blogging is) and self-help support groups.
The challenge is to help more everyday people learn about and accept mental disorders as readily as they do someone with diabetes or M.S. It’s been a long journey, and we still have quite a ways to go.
Read the full article: “Mad Pride” Fights a Stigma