‘Occupying’ psychiatry

“We all talk about it,” said Joseph Rogers. “It’s a good way to get committed, unfortunately.”

Rogers is the executive director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse, which often organizes the annual Alternatives Conference. He was among dozens of people from mental health consumers’ groups protesting last weekend outside the national conference of the American Psychiatric Association. There in Philadelphia to “occupy psychiatry,” they spoke out against the labeling, medicating and forced treatment of a growing number of people in the U.S. The mood was cheerfully defiant. The conference attendees either looked on, curious, from the edge of the crowd or breezed on by.

For me, it was rare to have so many people outspoken on mental health in one place at one time. I wanted to hear their speeches on acceptance and see whether the issue of suicide or suicidal thoughts had a place there.

Just in private conversation, as it turned out. Suicide was outside the protest’s main themes, even though expressing thoughts about it can lead to the treatments at issue. But several people there had firsthand experience with suicidal thinking or action and didn’t mind talking.

“I once put a recording of the song ‘Suicide is painless’ on my voice mail, and my friend heard it and got me committed,” Rogers said. “They thought I was feeling suicidal. Which I was.”

His self-help organization fits the spirit of the protesters, who are looking outside the established system to deal with mental health in ways that maintain a person’s respect, creativity and sense of self and control.

Daniel Hazen was there with a busload of people from his group Voices of the Heart, which later this year will launch “learning circles” to discuss suicide issues openly and without the fear of being locked up. “We talk a lot about it at our respite house: What’s at the root of saying suicide? What does suicide mean to you?'” Hazen said. “The idea is to even have providers feel comfortable. Let’s hear what’s going on, instead of what I call the Band-Aid _ ‘Take this pill, etc.’ It’s not going to be an easy subject. We want a diversity of people to sit down and talk.”

The learning circles will read and discuss the book “Thinking About Suicide” by attempt survivor and suicidologist David Webb. “I think David’s book is beautiful,” said Hazen, who struggled in the past with suicidal feelings and lost a good friend to suicide when he was a teen. “Suicide is a big issue with me. In general, nobody wants to talk about it. But that’s what saves people’s lives _ the connection. Listening to people, why they feel the way they do.”

He added of suicide, “They have the right to do it if they choose to. I’m not going to interfere.”

Other protesters stripped away the idea that suicide is always linked to mental illness. “When you’re suicidal, there’s not something wrong with you, there’s something with your environment,” said Megan Osborn, who was at the protest with The Icarus Project. She said she was extremely self-destructive for a long time and most recently thought about suicide more than a year ago, when she was working 60 hours a week without overtime for a food service company. “My suicidal difficulties came from feeling dehumanized in the workplace,” Osborn said. She quit and now works with the Mind(ful) Liberation Project in Richmond, Virginia.

The protest and follow-up talks by “Mad in America” author Robert Whitaker and PsychRights founder Jim Gottstein attracted lawyers, documentary makers, PhD candidates, community organizers, bloggers and therapists with the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry. Almost all, if not all, were mental health consumers.

As everyone gathered in a Quaker meeting hall before marching on the conference, protest organizer David Oaks of MindFreedom International reminded the crowd, “We’re the 100 percent.”

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