Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Conferences on mental health

For my concluding remarks at a workshop presentation to the Canadian Mental Health Association's "Thriving in 2010 and Beyond" conference, I wrote:

No brain research or fine-tuning of neurochemistry will ever replace an ability to communicate with a single individual face-to-face, no matter how insane, and change his or her mind. When you fail to do that, and when you are afraid, all the medicine and all the science of the past, present and future cannot rescue you from mental illness.

This essential point comes from my own nine years of experience as a legal advocate in forensic psychiatric institutions in Illinois. My clients are murderers, etc., found not guilty by reason of insanity. My job has been to get them released into the community though they refuse to take psychotropic medication.

I suppose I could have put mental illness in quotes, or made that last sentence read, "... cannot rescue you from what you call mental illness." But the presentation was, after all, to an audience of people who my friend Rodney Yoder has always insisted are professional mental patients. I guess it was unnecessary to rock the boat with Szaszian purity.

It also seems that the mental health world is fracturing. At the Canadian conference, it was clear (at least to me) that only a minority retain any orthodox "medical" view, wherein hope lies exclusively with research into brains and neurochemicals, and stigma is fought by making people believe schizophrenia is the same kind of "disease" as diabetes or cancer.

Most people are becoming aware that medicalization reinforces stigma, and that the best-financed parmaceutical researchers are admitting they can't even tell whether psychotropic drugs work.

The mentally ill are simply people with problems in living and relating to others. Little or nothing new about such general human complexity was discovered in these very recent centuries, or mere decades, which comprise the history of modern medicine. Psychiatrists have taken to descriptions which are a bit more standardized, and they've been clever about enforcing those descriptions to obtain a commercial advantage. Nothing more than that, and needless to say it hasn't helped.

Maybe there is hope for a shorter mass historical delusion than the 300-year Great Witch Hunt. Maybe we will not coerce people into "treatment" they don't want too much longer. Maybe we can soon stop dehumanizing and neuroleptizing and disabling people, "for their own good and to protect the community." That's what I'm working for, and prospects don't look that bad to me.

I have submitted a proposal for a workshop at the national conference of NAMI in July, 2011, based on what was pretty well received in Canada last month. The response from NAMI will tell me more. Stay tuned.