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Oryx Cohen on the Film "Healing Voices"

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Oryx Cohen

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about your movie “Healing Voices,” its genesis and your hopes for it?

OC: Will Hall, myself, and a few others involved with the Freedom Center - a very grassroots organization run by and for psychiatric survivors - started talking about the possibility of a documentary film in 2008 after Freedom Center was featured as a philanthropic pitch on and somehow became one of the top rated “news” stories on the website for several days. I had also just met PJ Moynihan of Digital Eyes Film, the Writer/Director of HEALING VOICES, who worked with Will and me to produce the 5-minute video about Freedom Center for Forbes.

As a result of this project PJ and I began to seriously consider taking on a longer-term project – a feature length documentary. Our ideas and skill sets dovetailed nicely and we decided to take the plunge into creating the film that ultimately became HEALING VOICES. I had been working to try to change the mental health system for years, and was getting frustrated because it seemed so obvious the system was broken, and it felt nearly impossible to get the general public’s attention about it. The Forbes experience was inspiring and reinforced that the best way to educate folks and possibly change hearts and minds was through media and what could be more powerful than a well-produced documentary?

PJ and I officially joined forces in 2010. As with many independent films we have had many stops and starts. The film was shot on a relatively small budget including a few private donations and a KickStarter campaign. We have a very small and dedicated production team who were all willing to put their valuable time and sweat equity into an important social action film. We are very proud of the end product and really hope that this film will go a long way towards inspiring a hopeful conversation about mental health, and that people will take a hard, critical look at the current mental health system including the way it diagnoses more and more human behaviors as pathological without addressing root causes like trauma, poverty, negative effects of the treatments themselves, environmental destruction, the deterioration of our schools, lack of good jobs, the list goes on. I think that part of our message is that not only does our mental health system need a complete overhaul, but that many other aspects of society do as well.

EM: Who are some of the people you profile in the movie? Can you tell us a little bit about their stories?

OC: We profile three subjects in the film - Jen, Dan, and myself - over the course of nearly 5 years. Jen is in her 30s, a mom, a wife, and lives in Rapid City, South Dakota. Jen has heard voices, had visions, and experienced other altered states of perception for pretty much all of her life and these experiences are a part of who she is and how she interacts with the world. Like many people who hear voices, she ended up in and out of the psychiatric system for several years and on loads of psychiatric drugs. Luckily for her, she discovered the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement in mental health and through a process of self-discovery, has become quite a leader in that movement in spite of struggling with on-going physical health issues.

Dan is a young Brazilian-American man in his 20s who was brought up by a single mom and lives in Western Massachusetts. Dan has been a voice hearer for much of his life and was put on medications at a very young age, and spent time later in his adolescence in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Dan is now no longer reliant on psychiatric drugs, works full time, and is dealing with many of the same challenges of life and growing up that we all do. He is brilliant, funny, and relatable.

I was in my late 30s for most of the film and I live in Central Massachusetts. I’m a product of Hippie parents who met on a commune, hence my creative name (which is an African Antelope). My parents divorced when I was 5 but all in all I had a fairly happy childhood until I ran in to some (verbally) abusive basketball coaches in high school, that really was the start of having some mental health issues. Despite some hard times, I’ve been able to get a Master’s in Public Administration and now have a great job as the Chief Operating Officer of the National Empowerment Center and a wonderful family, a wife, two young children, a house, and a dog. One major thing that keeps me grounded is being able to get away to our local golf course and chase a little white ball around.

EM: Who are some of the experts you interviewed for the movie? Any of their thoughts or comments particularly stand out to you?

OC: A few of the experts we interviewed for the film are Robert Whitaker, Bruce Levine, Will Hall, and Celia Brown, but several other notable people appear throughout the movie.

Robert Whitaker is a Pulitzer-nominated journalist whose books, including Anatomy of an Epidemic, have been a driving force behind the current movement to rethink mental healthcare. I love how Whitaker relates what we are going through as a human rights struggle and also shows us how these issues fit in to a greater historical context.

Bruce Levine is a dissident Clinical Psychologist and author from Cincinnati, OH who works extensively with young people and their families. It impacts me deeply whenever I hear Bruce talk about how we once thought of kids as being stubborn, or a handful, or shy, or active, and now very sadly we think of them as Oppositional Defiant, Social Anxiety Disorder, or ADD. Bruce speaks so articulately about these issues from a cultural perspective, which is very valuable.

Will Hall co-founded the Freedom Center with me and has gone on to be a therapist and travels the world delivering trainings on such topics as Hearing Voices, Suicide, Recovery, Meaning of Madness, and Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs. I think it is important when Will points out that his approach is not “anti-med,” that he doesn’t see drugs as good or evil but that we need to have an honest conversation about them, which is just not happening right now.

Celia Brown is the President of MindFreedom International, one of the first organizations to be established as a result of the modern consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. Celia talks about the power of the messages we get when we are “mental patients” - that we should not expect to work again, have families, etc. - and how we internalize those messages.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders” and the use of so-called “psychiatric medication” to “treat mental disorders” in children, teens and adults?

OC: I think I may have already touched on this quite a bit, but my personal opinion is that the current paradigm does a lot more to benefit the pharmaceutical and for-profit healthcare industries than it does to benefit the people it is supposed to serve. In fact, I think we are seeing a system that has spiraled very far out of control and is doing more harm than good. One statistic that is particularly frightening is the fact that people in the public mental health system are dying 25 years earlier than the rest of the population. If this was happening in any other area of health care there would be a lot more outrage, but because there is still such a taboo around talking about mental health, or admitting that everyone has mental health issues to some extent, people still see folks that end up in institutions or in long-term group homes as the “other,” rather than as a valuable, contributing member of society.

I also just have to say that the campaigns to “Reduce the Stigma of Mental Illness” drive me up a wall because the medical terminology, such as “mental illness” is so stigmatizing in itself. What removes stigma is realizing that these are natural human reactions to a traumatic and stressful world.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

OC: I have people coming to me all the time asking me about this and I welcome it. First I would say that these experiences have meaning and here is an opportunity to make a positive change in your life. Sometimes the experience is so distressing that the best thing to do first is find a way to go through it in a safe and nurturing environment. Are their trusted friends or family members the person can talk to, maybe a trusted therapist? Maybe there is a peer-run organization that is close where the person can go and meet people who have been through similar experiences. There may even be a peer respite the person could go to that is an alternative to a hospital where they won’t be forced to undergo any type of “treatment,” just be with people who have been through similar experiences and can be there to support them during a challenging time. What is challenging is that there are so few of these alternatives available that they simply aren’t accessible to most Americans.

Once a person is a bit more settled and out of “crisis” mode, then the options really become limitless. I think this is a huge problem in the current mental health system because so often people don’t realize how many options there are. There are all kinds of healthy supports including peer support groups, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, supplements, exercise, hiking, Meet Ups, reading, getting enough sleep, improving social relationships, etc. There is no magic bullet because we are all unique, but people should be encouraged and supported to find the strategies that work best for them. That is what has worked for me and countless others.


Oryx Cohen, M.P.A., is a leader in the international consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. Currently he is the Chief Operating Officer of the National Empowerment Center’s Technical Assistance Center. Oryx co-produced and stars in a feature-length documentary film called HEALING VOICES, which will be released in April of 2016.

The film HEALING VOICES has 70 confirmed screenings worldwide for its grassroots release called ONE NIGHT ONE VOICE on April 29, 2016, including in New Zealand, Australia, Romania, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, and of course the U.S. Several colleges and universities are also screening the film including Yale, Loyola, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Liverpool. To learn more about the film please visit here: To learn how to contribute to the film, please visit here:

For information on the film’s premier please visit here


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

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