I am a mental health advocate and an artist. I use research information and art to reach into people’s hearts to inspire action changing the mental health system so that we spend money helping people get well instead of paying them to stay dependent. In my performances I use spoken word poetry and motivational speaking to blow people’s expectations of mental health away. I try to share the following messages:
- Recovery is possible and many people take control of their lives on the other side of a diagnosis.
- People who have experienced recovery are often most effective role models and guides.
- Finding self-support tools is an essential strategy for moving beyond limitations.
- Physical wellness, exercise, and creating social connections are key to mental wellness .
- Many medications are less effective and more harmful than generally known; use can be optimized for great cost savings as well as improved recovery outcomes.
- Young people with diagnoses are especially at risk for entrenchment into disability status and engaging them in service design is extremely important for mental health advocacy.
As I have begun to refine my business approach, I have noticed a lack of emphasis on these key ideas in many funding streams and existing mental health spending patterns. For instance, 93% – 95% of federal government payments to people with disabilities go towards income support. Yet a third of people with disabilities are actively looking for work. The National Institute of Mental Health has five pages of research priorities on their website, and not once do they use the word “consumer” or “recovery.” According to Robert Whitaker, a journalist who has published two books on long term mental health outcomes, our country’s mental health outcomes are worse than those in the developing world, and getting worse as we become more out of balance with our heavy medication usage.
Our current mental health system is unsustainable – we no longer have the societal resources to pay people to remain sick for the rest of their lives. It also causes an intolerable level of human suffering. States across the U.S. are cutting social services drastically in these tight budget times. This mirrors the need for sustainability in other aspects of the American lifestyle, including transportation choice, subsidization of industrial agriculture, health care reform, decreasing freshwater supplies, energy dependence, and large military expenditures. The answer for many of these problems is the same: Speak truth to power. Challenge the existing status quo with a radically less expensive, more effective, more humane approach using updated knowledge, experience, and practices.
Among those people remedying this problem is Pat Deegan, a Ph.D. psychologist who has, like me, recovered from schizophrenia. She says, “Medications have to be one tool among many.” This year she was a finalist among 277 entrants for the very prestigious Ashoka Changemakers award for her social entrepreneurship. I would like to take her work a step further and say, “The biomedical model that medications came from also has to become one model among many.”
A 2010 research article in the American Journal of Psychiatry said, “
“The ‘disease like any other’ tagline has taken clinical and policy efforts far but is not without problems. It is our contention that future stigma reduction efforts need to be reconfigured or at least supplemented. An overreliance on the neurobiological causes of mental illness and substance use disorders is at best ineffective and at worst potentially stigmatizing….clinicians need to be aware that focusing on genetics or brain dysfunction in order to decrease feelings of blame in the clinical encounter may have the unintended effect of increasing client and family feelings of hopelessness and permanence.”
I have figured out that over reliance on the medical model is the key bottleneck in the mental health system. Using only the neurobiological explanation of our problems is the one thing holding our mental health system back from creating a more recovery based approach to services. This is the key sticking point and wall that every initiative of the mental health consumer movement has to overcome.
- People don’t believe they can recover because they have been told their illness are lifelong
- Funding and research for recovery approaches and peer support is squeezed out by disability payments, medical approaches, and crisis services.
- Strengths based self-support is not emphasized when people rely on medication or traditional treatments alone.
- Physical activity and social connection must come from genuine friends and interests and can’t be replaced by expensive care provider contact.
- Medication elimination and reduction is a taboo topic in the biomedical model even though it has a very strong anecdotal and research base for success.
- Young people are uninvolved in their treatment planning and often placed on medications that have no evidence base for their use.
Alternatives to the brain based model for our problems include viewing people’s traumatic experiences as essential sources of their symptoms and difficulties. Then handling the core trauma problem can resolve the peripheral mental health problems. We can view extreme mental and emotional experiences as a breakdown in self-support and social connection that can be resolved by restoring those connections. Mental health crises are often a spiritual emergence where a person has come to a new and uncomfortable level of understanding with their spiritual framework. This can be helped by using grounding techniques, spiritual exploration, change of environment, and support of people who have been through something similar. Emotional difficulties may, as in my case, come when a person gives up on their dreams, and health can be restored by creating a new life and finding new dreams.
Psychiatric difficulties may come from a loss of social role and ability to contribute to society. Ethan Watters, in Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, points out that mental illnesses may come in and out out vogue as part of a society’s “symptom pool.” These are the ways that a culture will recognize a person’s troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression. Many African cultures view emotional difficulties as coming from spiritual possession from any number of sources. What all of these different views have in common is the the distressing emotions and mental experiences are viewed as an extension of normal everyday experiences that all people have had at some point or another. Viewing mental suffering as a continuum of normal behavioral rather than a line that has been genetically or unequivocally crossed is an extremely important element in normalizing people’s experiences rather than increasing stigma, isolation, and labeling.
I envision a new mental health system where people realize that their extreme emotional states are simply temporary variances upon normal human experience. People can work with other people who are further on the recovery journey to sustain real, concrete solutions like self-support strategies, building friendships and connections, positive thinking, and finding meaning and purpose in life. This is how we can change emotional difficulties from a permanent disability to something that be be cured. Those of us who have walked through the fire and come out the other side can share the miraculous nature of our experiences as a source of strength and beauty.
…”Scare me downstream to the intertwined interactions the incantation to my identity
The courage to drag this all together, to face the fright, wander through a night of purple stars,
Pull panic like a brick to build a place right inside the mind of pain,
Power to accept any misperceptions along with all the interplanetary connections
I can take my unreality because I’m stronger through all the misdirections.”
-Corinna West “Your Only Flavor is Vanilla if You Don’t Have a Mental Illness”