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What creative responses can prevent future tragedies like the Tucson, Arizona shooting?

The MindFreedom community sends our heartfelt support to everyone impacted by the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona on 8 January 2011. Unfortunately, those who push more forced psychiatric drugging are using this opportunity to advertise their agenda. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, a question needs to be asked, "What creative peaceful approaches might be used in the future to help avoid atrocities like this?"

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Maladjusted

Read MindFreedom's look at mainstream media coverage of mental health issues raised by Tucson shooting.


17 January 2011 - Martin Luther King Day

 

by David W. Oaks, Director, MindFreedom International

It feels like a lifetime ago, but I was once a college student teenager who experienced severe mental and emotional problems, that led to five psychiatric institutionalizations.

I was given very serious psychiatric diagnoses, including "psychotic."

I was told I would have to stay on psychiatric drugs the rest of my life.

So as an American, as a psychiatric survivor, as a human being, as an activist, I've been personally affected by the atrocities in Tucson on 8 January 2011, and my heart goes out to all those directly and indirectly impacted.

Today is the day our nation celebrates Martin Luther King (see his photo above after one of his 69 arrests for civil disobedience).

Perhaps MLK Day can remind us all we can each make a difference.

MLK frequently said "creative maladjustment" is the salvation for humanity. What is our creative maladjustment to the tragedy in Tucson?

Of course, the facts about the mass shooting of Rep. Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords and others last week are still being gathered. This has not stopped those who seek laws making it easier to forcibly drug us from speaking out, even though Arizona already has extreme laws allowing forced outpatient psychiatric drugging.

The media have been quick to quote hundreds of people about Tucson, including several who promote more forced drugging as the simplistic bumper-sticker answer to major mental health challenges.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media have largely ignored the voices of groups representing mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors. (You may read MindFreedom's comment on the failure of mainstream media coverage of Tucson here.)

In my senior year back in the 1970's, my college's volunteer agency - Harvard's Phillips Brooks House - referred me to work as an intern in the field of human rights for mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors. I found peer support in that grassroots group that helped me get out of the mental health system, and as a result this year year marks my 35th as a community organizer in this field.

So this past week, I have spent some time in personal reflection about this national tragedy in Arizona.

Please pardon this long blog entry, but I have a few heartfelt things to share.

 

What Can Colleges, Families and Society Do in the Future?


What can be done to help prevent future tragedies? While there may be countless helpful ideas, at least I hope so, I'd like to look at what colleges can do.

There is a need for a large-scale initiative of, by and for mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors in colleges throughout the USA, and internationally. Our campuses need to hear our movement's voice, now.

There have been a few under-funded excellent efforts, such as by Icarus Project. There ought to be resources for a significant, united effort for college students either in or at risk of receiving mental health care.

While it's still early in this crisis, there's an apparent parallel to the Virginia Tech killings on 16 April 2007.

In both situations, there was a window of opportunity that may have been missed for a troubled college student. Their families apparently did not have many humane resources to turn to. The colleges both referred the student to the conventional mental health system, that we know is inherently and deeply flawed.

The individual charged with the recent shootings - 22-year-old Jared Loughner - was a student at Pima Community College. The Associated Press reports that he repeatedly disrupted the campus in ways that violated  campus guidelines that apply to everyone.

Seung-Hui Cho was a 23-year-old college student at Virginia Tech who also violated campus guidelines that apply to everyone, related to his severe mental and emotional problems.

I emphasize that the campus guidelines they violated applied to everyone, because these students raised a red flag not just because they were peculiar, but also because they appear to also have broken reasonable written rules.

Since each student violated at least some campus guidelines, the campus had an opportunity to respond in some way, including with the families themselves. Eventually, campus authorities in both cases referred the troubled students to the traditional mental health system.

After Virginia, the main response of society was tougher mental health procedures. After Arizona, let's try something different.

 

Were there creative opportunities that were missed?


Mental health systems can vary, and, yes, sometimes help offered can be effective, creative, humane and respectful.

But those of us who have walked through the doors of the conventional mental health services know there's a very high likelihood one will receive a psychiatric diagnosis and prescriptions for multiple psychiatric drugs without adequate information and alternatives.

Lack of money is not the real issue. The mental health system has overwhelmingly and widespread problems, despite wasting billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars. More resources are needed, but these scarce funds ought to be spent carefully.

While some of our members have luckily had positive experiences in mental health care, many of our members have experienced years and even decades of heart break and severe human rights violations after entering the conventional mental health industry.

All of our members agree the mental health system can be a very frightening experience, and there ought to be far more alternatives available other than the drum beat of label, label label... drug, drug, drug. In fact, because of abuses like this over-drugging, studies show those entering the public mental health system may expect to have a lifespan 25 years less than the average person.

I believe many people, deep down, are vaguely aware of the mental health system's astounding shortcomings, and many avoid mental health services all they can. But the public has also been frightened enough about the vision of violent mental patients to increase funding to the current mental health care by the billions of dollars in the name of public safety.

Even though many states are in a budget crisis, mental health systems continue to demand for more money for more conventional mental health care.

The recent book by journalist Robert Whitaker - Anatomy of an Epidemic - looks at the massive increase in psychiatric drugging these past two decades, and finds that - overall - mental health outcomes have gotten worse. His book also looks at some working alternatives that tend not to be widely available in the USA.

 

More Than "More Money"


For 200 years, when the mental health system has faced a disaster, the answer has been an outrageous two-word mantra:

More money!

In a way, you could say the mental health industry has been built, by feeding on its own catastrophes these past two centuries. But simply expanding the current mental health system in response to each disaster has not worked.

We need more than reform this time, which has meant more of the same. We need nonviolent revolution.

So the question arises:

When educational facilities - or businesses or families - learn that one of their own is in crisis and is acting in a way that violates reasonable rules that apply to everyone, what else can be done, other than coercing a visit to the conventional mental health system?

Our opponents are once again using this chance to promote their simplistic agenda of more involuntary psychiatric drugging. However, Arizona already has laws allowing involuntary psychiatric drugging, including on an outpatient basis. Is adding even more fear and coercion to the current mental health system, which so often severs trust between client and helper, the answer?

The best of scientific evidence shows that psychiatry can't predict exactly who will become violent and who will not, so draconian laws that "mentally profile" the general population and pick them up for forced mental health care, would certainly lead to more forced drugging of many people who are and will be totally innocent and peaceful. American justice is based on the idea that one is innocent until proven guilty.

Since the typical forced mental health care is drug, drug, drug... then the fact that the main psychiatric drugs used for forced drugging - neuroleptics, also known as antipsychotics - can cause brain damage brings up immense ethical issues.

 

Ask Those With Lived Experience


No one has the ultimate certain answer. But mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors who are leaders in our 40-year-old movement have plenty of suggestions about creating more humane and welcoming approaches for mental and emotional support, that lessen the trauma of asking for help, including for families.

It's time to include leaders in the mental health consumer and psychiatric survivor movement in the discussion.

At this moment, society and mainstream media and blogs are discussing possible factors that may have been involved in the recent tragedy, including:

  • A charged political climate
  • Access to guns
  • Substance abuse
  • Security for political leaders

But we need to remember that "Gabby" Giffords has been well known for her concern about people in the mental health system. While I do not know her exact views on mental health, I think her history of at least caring about our people means we should try to go deeper.

What kind of prevention is possible through investment in people, rather than just more forced drugging?

Because of a lack of creativity in mental health care, our society is typically caught flat footed when it comes to truly offering a nimble and compassionate creative response during a window of opportunity with a troubled young person.

What apparently did happen in both Virginia and Arizona, is that the campuses simply referred the individual to traditional mental health care. And that's it.

So the system has its hands tied by its own lack of creativity, as much as any limits on coerced psychiatry. In Loughner's case, educational leaders become aware a young person is in trouble. Classmates and a teacher are even afraid, noting characteristics similar to people who have done violent things. He's disruptive, violating rules that apply to everyone. 

And what happens?

With Loughner, apparently campus representatives visited the family to say, essentially, "Get him a mental health check-up or he can't come back."

But what kind of help would have been offered if he had gone through that mental health clinic door, voluntarily or involuntarily?

What kind of creative approaches could have instead been offered?

What opportunities were there for prevention?

For just one small example, was the entire family offered extensive counseling and support?

We need more than "more of the same." We need a paradigm shift.

 

Let's Have Major Empowerment Initiatives on Our Campuses!

 

This topic is similar to the "emergency room" issue.

Even when a family somehow gets a loved one in crisis to an emergency room... The environment is often cold, clinical, the family may wait hours, and what do they often get in the end? A pile of pills, and if the subject resists in an aggressive way maybe restraints, lock-ups, and possibly entry onto a conveyor belt that can mean a lifetime of mental health care.

Can't we do better?

This is similar to where childbirth and end-of-life care were in the mid-20th century. Today, a mental and emotional crisis can be traumatically overly-medicalized in an authoritarian way.

For many people today, society has changed a bit when it comes to childbirth and end-of-life care. More people are now offered a less mechanical experience at the beginning of life through midwifery, and end-of-life through compassionate hospice care. Even so-called trivial details like decor become important, when non-medical needs are more recognized.

The emergency room challenge is a symbol of the whole mental health system.

When an individual or family - or their campus or employer - reaches out for help in crisis, we ought to have a huge humane range of voluntary alternatives.

This starts by including mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors in the conversation, and public education. Typical public education campaigns today on mental health typically push a narrow ideology that our problems are largely medical and biological. The public needs to hear a more accurate message. Our mental health system needs a truth injection.

While we may not have all the information yet about Tucson, we know that there are many troubled young people with psychiatric diagnoses on college campuses who - studies show - could benefit through peer support, empowerment, and a voice about what they really need.

Why not turn to those who already run such effective peer services, to ask how youth and young adult leadership can be supported as never before on campuses? Some college students might even choose this field as a career, as I did 35 years ago.

 

Look to Other Oppressed Groups

 

Those of us with psychiatric diagnoses are not the only marginalized constituency in our culture. We can learn from other social change movements.

If a so-called "Islamic extremist terrorist" had done these shootings, at this moment representatives of peaceful Islamic groups would be respectfully contacted by the media, and these groups would be effectively contacting the media. These leaders would be expressing in the mainstream media calls for calm, calls for resisting the pull of prejudice, calls for creative alternatives to peace.

Similarly, now, we ought to hear from leaders of the mental health consumer and psychiatric survivor movement about peaceful, creative approaches that can be offered to individuals, families, campuses and businesses when a similar "window of opportunity" for involvement presents itself.

It is a sign of how disempowered those with psychiatric diagnoses are in our society, that more than a week after this terrible catastrophe in Tucson, there is still a missing perspective in mainstream media:

The voice of groups representing those who will be most impacted by proposed changes to mental health laws and services.

What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do about this sanism?

I know he would have explored some kind of "creative maladjustment" to such oppression, including nonviolent protest. This call for action is something for us all to reflect upon.

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Laura Prescott

Laura Prescott is the President and founder of Sister Witness International Incorporated. The organization focuses on addressing the multiple forms of violence and retraumatization in the lives of women and girls who have been institutionalized in psychiatric and criminal justice settings.
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