Friday, June 17, 2016

Have You Noticed the Two Americas in Mental Health?

In a 1967 speech at Stanford University, Martin Luther King described Two Americas.  While King was talking about the Two Americas of race and poverty, the operative dynamics of prejudice and oppression in mental health appear to be pretty much the same. 

As a case in point, there recently has been a lot of talk about the need for national policy and standards on mental health. Bills drafted, committee hearings, etc. So far, so good.  Yes, we all need to feel safer, healthier and more connected to ourselves and each other.  Undoubtedly, we have to find a way to stop violence and terrorism.  We also clearly need to address the trauma, exclusion, fear, confusion and desperation that so many Americans are facing, and which many of us think generates and perpetuates the very violence we fear.

On the other hand, en route to a solution, politicians and mental health experts would have us believing that there are two kinds of Americans.  One kind of American is 'normal' - rational, hard-working, well-intentioned. Such Americans have respectable values, make meaningful contributions and consider the impact of their actions on others.  They are knowledgeable of life and the task of living. They are capable of weighing costs and benefits, learning from experience and making socially responsible decisions.

Those who live in this 'normal' America are seen as deserving of freedom and capable of handling it. They have a right explore options, think for themselves, accept or reject expert advice. Their decisions in matters of reason, conscience and personal preference are respected.

Government in this America is seen as a servant of the people.  Assistance, if any, is voluntary. Support, if any, is taxpayer-oriented and consumer-driven. The importance of listening to what people want and need is understood.  The right to refuse is a given.

Pretty much everyone wants to live in this America.   It is a model for mutually respectful human relations that inspires and begets more of the same.

There is another America, however, where the rules are totally different.  Citizens are herded into this other America based on a perceived need for mental health treatment.  We are seen as incapable of surviving safely in a free society or as lacking the capacity for socially responsible decision-making.

Once there, normal legal protections are thrown out the window.  Authorities decide what is best for us. Rights and freedoms are stripped away based on institutional opinion.  Compliance is expected. Normal appeals to reason and human decency do not apply. Resistance, disagreement, honest statements of discontent are met with the show of force. We are locked up, drugged, secluded, restrained, electro-shocked, operated on against our will.

Decisions - even minor ones like what to eat, when to go to bed, what to watch on TV, what to wear, whether we can write an email, see our kids or give a friend a hug - are made by those 'in charge.' The fate of our lives - where we live, who we live with, whether we can parent, work or communicate with the outside world -  is decided not based on personal attributes, interest or effort, but by other people's opinions of our merit and worth, rendered behind closed doors, about us without us.

Almost no one wants to live in this other America.  For many of us, it the anti-thesis of America.  It is a nightmare, a hell on earth. It brings out the worst in human beings and perpetuates the very negative outcomes that mental health services are supposedly funded to cure. The natural human desire to escape such controlling surveillance is what inspired the American dream of freedom in the first place.

Yet, the federal government is now considering a law that despite its friendly name ("The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, HR 2646) would reify these two Americas.  In terms of parity with other social justice issues, the proposed mental health legislation is tantamount to Congress passing a law saying, 'Yes, we believe poor people or nonwhites should live in segregation.  That is all they are capable of.  We are washing our hands of them. They are a different class of human, not worthy of the rights and dignity that others enjoy. The best our society has to offer - and the only option we will offer in the face of outcomes we don't like and pain we don't want to experience - is coercion and control.

As fellow human beings, it is up to us to consider these issues and make principled choices.  As always, freedom is not free.  Perhaps, as a nation, we are no longer willing to do the work we need to do as a people to stay a free society. Perhaps we are just too tired, too demoralized and too burned out to deal with it any longer.  Perhaps the dream is dead, and the time really has come to cede our free will and moral responsibility to the institutions, experts, the pills, procedures and coercive strategies that are being billed to us - individually and collectively - as the only option.

If so, let's admit to informed consent and be honest about it.  Here we go, here's the statement, in blaring, shameless, bold-faced print:

We the Normal Majority of the United States of America hereby decide that honoring the human and civil rights of citizens labeled by psychiatry is either not practical or just too much effort. Accordingly, henceforth, we abrogate their personhood and agree that it is ok to deal with them in any way that will make the rest of us feel better off.  It's all we have the energy or national will to do.   If that's you, tough luck.
That was the Nazi solution.  That was the thinking that justified slavery.  Essentially, it's ok to sacrifice the rights of some groups so that other groups will be better off.  

However, if that seem untenable to you, as it does to me: LET'S FIGURE OUT A WAY TO KEEP THE DREAM ALIVE.  There has to be one.  Do you - or anyone you know - really want to settle for the kind of world we've been creating...?

That's the purpose of this blog.  For my part, I'll come here every day, search my conscience, and try to write something meaningful that seems to me to be part of a solution.  If this inspires you please join in.  

Also, if you like you can join us nightly for a living conversation at the Peerly Human conference line. Dial 331-205-7196 or click   This is a space is committed to finding and offering accessible, meaningful, coercion-free alternatives to the mental health system as usual.  Our hope is to create a living, vibrant online community that feels like human family, advances human rights and is there for anyone in need.  We're a long way off from that, but little by little we can get there.  Our current schedule of calls and topics is here:

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