Laura Delano on Psychiatric Liberation
On the future of mental health
Posted Mar 21, 2016
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 Laura Delano
EM: You write and speak about a post “mental health” world. What do you mean by that?
LD: A lot of critically-minded people talk about the problem of the medical model as though it’s solely about “mental illness,” problematizing how suffering, struggle, non-ordinary states of consciousness, and non-conforming behaviors are turned into “symptoms” of medical pathology needing “treatment.” But they don’t often critique its flipside, which is just as oppressive—if not more so—in my opinion: “mental health.”
This concept is really just a synonym for “normal,” and is often perpetuated by the message that you need to be balanced, “put together,” happy, free from emotional pain, productive and high-functioning in order to be “mentally healthy,” no matter what your life circumstances are, and that you shouldn’t feel satisfied or okay with yourself until you get there. But this desperate pursuit of “normal” is really fueled by broader interests that have trained people—through advertising, marketing, schooling and of course the health industry, among others—to feel insecure, ashamed, and afraid of their inner darkness and thus believe that they need to consume—whether it’s goods like clothes and cars or services like “therapy”—in order to feel better and “get mentally healthy.”
To be human is to feel darkness, and I believe we must build a society that embraces this, and celebrates it, and no longer uses the individualistic, decontextualized, depoliticized language of “mental health” and its pursuits as a way of disempowering people by keeping their focus on themselves as “the problem,” rather than the horribly dysfunctional and destructive world we live in. There is meaning in suffering and struggle that we must listen to if we’re to ever make our world a better place, and as long as we’re fixated on getting rid of that darkness within us, we’ll never feel empowered enough to act on the world and truly transform it.
EM: You call yourself a “psychiatric liberation activist.” Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that and what you do?
LD: The activism I do today through my writing, speaking, and organizing arises from the fourteen years I spent as a mental patient, which were entirely about oppression and control. When I was labeled “mentally ill” as a child, I was stripped of my humanity, my bodily integrity, my connection to the oneness of the world, and my trust in myself. That is oppression, both external and internalized. And when I made the decision to leave that all behind, it was an act of liberation, especially of my own consciousness—I woke up to the fact that all the “mental health care” I was getting were actually chains and prison bars disguised as pills and labels and psych wards and all of those experts I’d come to rely on.
As an activist, I try to help raise consciousness around the fact that this is not about “illness” and “wellness” or “mental health challenge” and “recovery”—that language really gets my goat, actually! It’s about oppression and liberation. And as I mentioned in my first response, that liberation does not mean happiness and pink roses and smiles—it means liberation from the belief that those are the ideals one must obtain to be “normal.” It means embracing all the emotional pain that comes from being alive, leaning into it, listening to it, and defying those around you who tell you there’s something “wrong with” you because you feel it. Every day I feel great emotional pain—I cry, or I get overwhelmed, or I have dark thoughts in my head, for example—but I’m no longer afraid of this, or see this as something I must get rid of. This, to me, is psychiatric liberation, and it’s the message I try to convey through my activism.
EM: What are your thoughts on the ways that a person can engage in withdrawal from so-called psychiatric medications, if a person wanted to engage in that withdrawal?
LD: I could write a whole book on this, but I’ll offer what I see as the three most important starting points before beginning to come off. First, make time to educate oneself. Knowledge is power, and the more people understand what these drugs are—psychoactive chemicals—and how they act on the central nervous system (CNS)—by impairing it and forcing the CNS to acclimate in profound, long-lasting ways—the more informed people can be in the choices they make about how to then come off.
Second, make time to think through one’s life circumstances. Things like physical health, a support system (or lack thereof), nutrition, a relationship to one’s prescriber, work situation, etc., are really important factors in the withdrawal journey. Just because a person wants to come off doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best time—and if it’s not the best time, trying to come off can actually lead to really horrible things like getting locked up and put on even more drugs than before—so it’s important to plan, think carefully about the reality of one’s situation, be really intentional about taking care of one’s body, and build in as much unconditional support as possible.
Third, explore the why. Why is a person thinking about coming off? What is it she’s hoping to achieve, to move towards? I often call it one’s “beacon,” and I think it’s really important to have it in place prior to beginning the coming off process. It’s what guides a person through any difficult times that emerge along the way, and it’s important to keep it on the horizon.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find safe, reliable information on how to withdraw—I’m actually working on an initiative around this very issue at the moment—and even some well-intentioned doctors out there are ripping people off way too fast (by that I mean over a matter of weeks or months; “slow” can often mean a year or longer). I’m confident that increasingly more safe resources will come online over time, and I encourage people to connect with the online withdrawal community through social media and forums, and at my website.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
LD: Questions like this are tough to answer, because they hint at the notion that distress requires something “needing to be done,” and that very belief system, I believe, is problematic.
With that being said, the first thing I’d suggest is to listen to the distress. Even if it’s horribly painful or scary or confusing or disorienting, it’s a part of you that’s very meaningful, and it’s a messenger trying to convey something to you. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; in fact, quite the opposite, for it shows you’re sensitive and in touch with your surroundings.
Perhaps you’re in a destructive relationship. Or you are struggling to pay bills. Or your housing is in jeopardy. Or you’ve been eating toxic food full of chemicals known to impair the central nervous system and mess up the gut. Or your job is meaningless, but you feel stuck there. Or your only social interactions involve alcohol, which leaves you feeling alienated. Or perhaps there’s no visible thing in your life that’s leading you to this distress—that still doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong with” you. Maybe you’re feeling the violence, destruction, and neglect rampant in our society at a deep, spiritual level!
I’m not suggesting that the only thing to do is listen; of course, as human beings, action is how we grow and evolve. And much of the action that needs to be done has nothing to do with us as individuals—it has to do with acting upon harmful sociopolitical and economic systems, which of course is not an easy task. In the meantime, I find that when my pain becomes too much to sit with and listen to, it can be helpful to start with simple things like asking, am I getting enough exercise? Am I getting outside? Am I spending too much time on my laptop? Am I getting enough sleep? How’s my nutrition? Usually, I find something to work on when I ask these things.
And when it comes to taking other kinds of personal action, I’ll get out of my head by offering support to someone else, or channeling my pain into my writing. I still sometimes feel the need to escape, of course, and usually that means eating dark chocolate and watching South Park (best show ever). But I really do believe that emotional pain needs to be listened to and fully felt first in order to understand what kinds of actions (or non-actions) might help shift things, whether in your own life or in society at large. And while I certainly don’t encourage the message that we need to get rid of all of our distress, I do believe that the more one tries to avoid it or numb it out or push it down, the more unbearable and problematic it grows.
Laura Delano is an activist, writer, consultant, and community organizer living in the Boston area. She spent fourteen years in the mental health system before discovering that she needed to leave it behind if she stood a chance at reclaiming her life. Today, Laura works with individuals looking to free themselves from psychiatric labels and drugs, and communities seeking alternatives to the mental health system. She is the founder of Recovering from Psychiatry, LLC and serves on the boards of the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry and the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy. More about Laura and her work can be found at her website, www.RecoveringfromPsychiatry.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
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