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As we move forward in our attempt to change the landscape for those currently living with mental illness, it is important to look back and acknowledge upon whose shoulders we stand. The only reason that our organization exists is due solely to our brave, pavement-pounding forbears in the consumer/survivor movement. To that end, I set aside some time to listen to a fascinating webinar from the California Association of Mental Health Peer Run Organization, a chance to listen firsthand to the voice of the mental health consumer movement for more than 40 years, the organization’s executive director Sally Zinman. She was joined in this endeavor by another stalwart member of the movement, Gayle Bluebird.
As they remind us, civil liberties were being celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s at the same time that large institutions were closing down. While many Americans were busy staking claims to legitamacy and justice in various segments of American society, inpatient psychiatric hospitals were finally winding down across the country, no longer the treatment of first choice for those living with serious mental illness. There was a growing awareness that those with MI should only be held against their will in the face of danger to themselves or others, a dramatic shift from the longstanding paradigm based on presentation, maintaining appearances, and “proper” behavioral standards.
As the institutions shut down, fomenting a move toward less-restrictive practices and community-based mental health, former residents of inpatient units (who often described themselves as former psychiatric inmates) began to meet and collect outside of these formerly-monolithic institutions, “sharing their knowledge and what had happened to them… and out of this came a liberation movement.” Sally Zinman was a co-editor of the 1970s quarterly magazine, Madness Network News, which bore the slogan, “All the fits that’s news to print.” The anger and frustration of these newly-freed people was reflected in the names chosen by their burgeoning organizations around the country, names such as the Network Against Psychiatric Assault, the Insane Liberation Front, and the Mental Health Liberation Front. An annual conference for Human Rights and Against Psychiatric Oppression was held in campsites and public spaces where people carrying placards demonstrated on the streets because there was simply no place for them at the “mental health table” at the time.
The speakers both recognize a gradual drift in the movement since then. While both applauded the inclusion of mental health consumers in decision-making roles within local agencies, as well as taking part in the process within state and federal government, they express some concerns regarding co-optation and recent shifts in core values. Even more alarming, Zinman notes that although consumer inclusion at all levels is on the rise, including a much-needed and welcome increase in recognition and support for peer-led agencies, the last five years have seen a rapid rise in scapegoating, discrimination, stigma, as well as a winnowing of our hard won advocacy as indicated by dramatic increases in rights-diminishing legislation such as ‘Outpatient Commitment’ statutes like California’s AB1421 or Laura’s Law. As I’ve already said elsewhere, American gun legislation is far crazier than anyone with schizophrenia that I’ve ever met!
Gayle Bluebird grabs the mic for the second hour of the webinar, singing the praises of artists involved in the movement from the beginning and through tomorrow. She highlights nearly a dozen artists and arts programs that have sprung up within the consumer movement. I also learned about some new reading material that I need to check out, On Our Own: Patient Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System by Judi Chamberlin, first published back in 1978 (when I was only six years old).
All of this convinces me that we at The Painted Brain are definitely on the right track, and certainly aligned with the creative endeavors of the greater ongoing consumer movement.
Dave Leon, is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of The Painted Brain. He is also a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News
Here’s the link to the webinar: