Friday, 4 July 2008

Changing the system from within

Gianna at Beyond Meds posted a great piece, including two videos, on Patricia Deegan earlier today, where she, among other things, mentions that she'd "wish she (Pat Deegan) would talk more about the importance of freeing oneself of meds".

About two years ago, I read the Norwegian psychologist Arnhild Lauveng's account I morgen var jeg alltid en løve (Tomorrow I always was a lion) about her experiences in the Norwegian mental health system as a "schizophrenic", her recovery, and her becoming a psychologist.

I recall being slightly disappointed about Lauveng's "somewhat laissez faire approach to suggesting others are often extremely over-medicated", as Gianna has it in her post in regard to Pat Deegan.

Lauveng's account was one of the first I came across by someone who'd recovered and had become a professional, working in the mental health system, and back then I thought, it was rather exceptional for a survivor/ex-user to enter the system as a professional. Which I later on found out it isn't. Dan Fisher and Rufus May are just a couple of others who chose to become professionals, determined to change the system from within.

The problems with this are the same as they often are with political activists who choose to try and change the system from within: before they've reached a position in the system, that really would let them change it, they've often become more or less spellbound by this very same system, while another, and maybe even more important, aspect is that if you take on the role of and identify as the fighting "guerilla", fighting an enemy who you feel, fights you, you'll inevitably keep on fighting, even though there might be a shift in power, even though you one day may be the one who holds the power: the revolution devours its own children. Black people in South Africa successfully fought Apartheid, the white oppressors. Now they fight each other.

So, in order to break the vicious circle of aggression, you'd have to stop fighting, stop creating enemies, stop objectifying others and thus turning them into your enemies.

Now, I don't suggest, that either Pat Deegan or Arnhild Lauveng are any more aggressive than most people. They certainly are not, they're rather less aggressive. Still, participating actively in a system, that is as characterized by aggression (with fear being the source of all aggression) as the mental health system is, requires that one is willing to compromize with a certain amount of aggression.

In the second video, which Gianna posted at her blog, and which I'll post below, too, Pat Deegan talks about her torments while witnessing others being subjected to the same dehumanizing "treatment", like being put in restraints, that she herself had been subjected to, while being an intern at a psychiatric hospital. If she didn't want to get into serious trouble with the system, putting her position, her future as a psychologist, at risk, she had to, at least, tolerate, tacitly accept, these human rights violations to take place, with very little, if any, possibility to stop them right here and now. This, to me, is a kind of "passive aggression". It is complicity. And it is selling your soul.

In his latest radio blog show, Larry Simon talks about why he left the ICSPP, and why he stopped his professional partnership with Dominick Riccio. Although the ICSPP as well as Dominick Riccio "in private" agree with a view of "mental illness" identical to Larry Simon's, i.e. that "mental illness" is not a biologically caused brain disease, not an illness, but rather a quite healthy reaction to traumatizing experiences, and as such shouldn't be diagnozed, they still, officially, label people with diagnoses of "mental illness" (because of insurance, i.e. payment, issues), thus tacitly agreeing to the mainstream mental health system's practise of discriminating people. For the sake of cash.

Some people will maybe say, that in leaving the ICSPP and terminating the professional partnership with Dominick Riccio, Larry Simon misses out on a possibility to bring change into the system. I think, in doing so, in resisting in a passive way rather than actively fighting, he actually makes use of a very wise tactic, that maybe won't bring about change tomorrow, but certainly over time. While at the same time it allows him to keep his integrity intact to a somewhat greater extent than any further attempt to change the system from within would have allowed him to do.

Whenever someone needs to compromize, to tacitly accept, to condone, doing so makes them accomplices. Which is more or less murderous to their soul. Making people witness others being tortured, without leaving them any possibility to step in and stop the torture, is a well-known means to train these people to become torturers themselves.

Of course, entering the system with the intention of changing it, also has its positive aspects. At least there are a few people inside the system who, how carefully ever they need to tread, advocate a less aggressive way of treating people in crisis. On the other hand, the fact that they accept the system, even if certain reservations are made, reassures the system of being acceptable on an overall scale, and that only minor and rather insignificant changes would have to be made.

There are several ways how to do non-violent activism: change whatever you can change, turn away from whatever you can't change (in order not to become an accomplice), and accept whatever you can't change and can't turn away from (because if you fight it in the only way possible in this situation, i.e. by repressing it, you sell your soul). To be applied in this order.

To me it seems rather impossible to change the mental health system from within. While, on the other hand, no one forces you to stay in it and become an accomplice. Turning away from it, and maybe engaging in the establishment of alternatives outside this system, like Loren Mosher or John Weir Perry did, is possible and, with all respect to Pat Deegan and everyone else who chooses to try and change this system from within, seems to me the best solution.

Make sure to read Gianna's post. It also has links to both Pat Deegan's website and a very interesting Madness Radio interview with her.


Monica Cassani said...

Good job, Marian,
I have terribly conflicted feelings about people like Dan Fisher and Pat Deegan who work in the system...

I simply don't have the answers though I share all your concerns, I'm not 100% convinced it's all for not even though it's not a path I could possibly tolerate for myself.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your excellent analysis of the system. You have helped me decide not to even become involved in the CPS training that I was contemplating. I have so much rage against the system that I just could not tolerate what is and has been done to so many psych survivors. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

This was a very articulate post Marian. I quite agree with your analysis.

In a similar vein to your anonymous commenter I had often thought about going into the system myself. Not so much to effect change per se but to add to the body of knowledge that is psychology with my own understanding of how the mind works.

After I started making vids people were contacting me and telling me that I would make a great social worker or psychologist. On some level I agree, there is a part of me that wants the system to change and I think of it as, "Well there is something that needs doing, I'll handle it."

I don't want to be exposed to the system again, ever if I had my way. It is a dark and hopeless world to live with and deal with severely mentally ill.

The CPS in most places is corrupt and evil. I thought about being a case worker so I can manage teens like me and treat them better than I was treated. But no, I would be exposed to the same system of overwork and negligence. My peers would be doing things to teens I would not agree with.

Likewise, after surviving psychiatry myself, being in close proximity to people in crisis, working in a place that treats children, adults, seniors, anyone with mental illness as cattle or slaves is not really what I want to do with myself. I hated that environment. I still remember to this day the screams of children being assaulted by adults for being depressed and having bad childhoods. Kids with PTSD made even worse by the *intervention* of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists.

I really do not want anything to do with the system as it stands.

I would rather spend my energies helping people recover from these horrible things than partake of them or beat my fist against the cold indifference of societies' institutions.

I agree that to bear witness without intervention is to grant tacit approval to the violations, and like you said, it is a trick for brainwashing people into torture.

God knows that after a few years of watching my parents modeling violence, I was not a nice person to be around back then.

Verbal and physical assault to get my point across was the norm for my family and that is all I knew how to do. I am not going back to that and I am not going to put myself in a place where I have to witness that happening.

It goes against my own 12 steps to recovery from mental illness. One of the most important steps is to distance one's self from toxic or violent environments.

Mental health institutions are both toxic and violent.

Marian said...

Thanks everybody for your comments!

Gianna: mixed emotions, here too. As said in my post, it's definitely a good thing to have at least SOME people inside this system, who are a bit more conscious about what it does to people. Nevertheless, the possibilities to act according to this consciousness are more than limited, unless you want to get sacked, or, at least, pushed out, as Loren Mosher was. And there actually are several examples of people, who got sacked or pushed out because they dared to speak up, here in Denmark, too.

Anonymous: through my membership in a Danish users organization, I regularly get invitations to do some CPS training. Apart from the fact that I haven't been officially in the system and thus don't qualify for the training for "practical" reasons, I wouldn't last five minutes in the system, since I just can't - and won't! - keep my mouth shut. Just as Larry Simon says in regard to himself: no chance to get taken on anywhere in the system, the system wouldn't want me. "Lack of cooperation". You bet!

Jane (and everyone else): I think, you can, and actually do, make a far greater difference by making your knowledge available outside the system. Just because you here can be completely true to yourself, don't need to put your soul at risk. This system has an enormous amount of negative energy - fear and aggression - inherent in it. It's toxic and violent, yes. And you would really have to be Buddha himself, or Jesus for that sake, in order not to get damaged by it in some way, sooner or later (while each and everyone of us in a way IS Buddha, or Christ, at the core of our being - now I definitely qualify for "megalomania" ;) ). If there were no other possibilities, I'd say: go for it! But as other, and much less toxic, possibilities do exist, I think, your decision to stay out of the system is just as wise as Larry Simon's one to leave it is. - BTW: love your comment at Gianna's blog. Right on. You can't force anyone to have insight (apropos of coerced "treatment"...) against their will.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian

A bit late.

I worked in the mental health system for a number of years and during this time was also a service user. I was trying to change the system from within

After being forcibly detained and subjected to horrendous treatment and conditions like many others, I knew that I could not tolerate seeing or being around such bullying and de-humanising attitudes, behaviours and conditions anymore. I quit my job as a service manager whilst still in hospital. I was not willing to cultivate further the anger that I felt.

I don't know how psych survivors cope with working in the system... Your analysis was food for thought ... Thank you

Marian said...

Welcome Keener! The birds didn't touch the raspberries, nor the red- and blackcurrant in our garden - there's a pool nearby :) 

How to cope with working in the system: I guess, you'd have to have experienced the system as helpful, at least to some degree (some degree of Stockholm Syndrome, maybe - sorry, that was a nasty one). Or you'd have to have managed to keep the narcissist within alive and thriving (with the help from a system that effectively suppresses ego-erasing crises). The more narcissist, the more eager to "help" others (another nasty one). And maybe you'd also have to suffer from a profound lack of imagination and historical and cultural consciousness/knowledge in regard to alternatives. "We can't do without ect/drugs/psychiatry." I hear that all the time. People in crisis did without these until about 80/60/250 years ago. They still do without these in some few cultures (most of them usually called "primitive" by our modern and highly privileged (?) western culture). And were/are actually better off (since recovery rates have only gone down ever since the medical profession entered the business - or more like: CREATED the business).