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Punk Rock and the Dream of the Accepting Community

Are alternative communities more accepting of people with mental illness?

You call us weirdos/you call us crazy

Say we’re evil/say we’re lazy

Say we’re just the violent type

Kind of dumb, not too bright

The above lyrics open the classic punk song “F- You,” originally recorded by the Vancouver, Canada band The Subhumans in 1979 (more well-known versions were later recorded by DOA and the trash-metal band Overkill). The lyrics referred to the way many people viewed fans of punk rock (who often endured stares, slurs and assaults at the time), but they could just have easily been about people diagnosed with mental illnesses, who are frequently looked down upon as crazy, violent and unintelligent. Later in the song, the punk rock community is posed as a non-judgmental alternative to wider society with the lyrics:

Come on man you’ve gotta jump right in

Cause this is the game that everybody’s in

Don’t care where you been, don’t care how you look

Like many others, hearing lyrics like these as a young person made me feel like there was a place where I could belong, where I would be welcomed regardless of whatever “baggage” I carried with me. But are alternative communities, such as the punk rock, hippie, metal, LGBTQ and Afro-punk communities, to name a few, actually more accepting of significant human differences, such as mental illness?

A long-standing and influential theory regarding disability is the “social model,” initially advanced by Mike Oliver. The social model argues that “disability” does not reside within individuals, but is actually created by a mismatch between social structures and individual capacities. These structures can include obvious physical barriers (such as stairs, which could make it impossible for people in wheelchairs to enter a school or workplace by themselves), but can also include intolerant social attitudes which make it very difficult for people who don’t act in a manner that is considered “acceptable” to participate socially or avail themselves of community resources. Imagine, for example, how a person who speaks in a loud and pressured way might be reacted to when attempting to form contacts at a house of worship. In theory the person might be able to participate in the community, but if they are not seen as “one of us” as a result of their presentation, they may in reality be unable to become part of the religious community. British human right activist Liz Sayce has specifically extended the social model to explain much of the disability that is experienced by people diagnosed with mental illnesses, and has argued for the establishment of “inclusive communities” to facilitate greater community participation among these individuals.

This brings us to the relevance of alternative communities. If these communities are actually more welcoming of non-mainstream persons such as those diagnosed with mental illnesses, perhaps this can indicate that human society can change in a way that removes one of the major barriers to the social integration of such individuals. There are a wealth of personal accounts attesting to the positive impact of alternative communities. For example, Patricia Deegan, a psychologist and influential figure in the mental health “consumer” movement, described how living with a group of ex-hippies while going to college helped her feel more “normal”:

“In that environment my roommates were quite open to all sorts of unusual experiences and their world-view included experiences like auras, astral travel, etc. In such a tolerant atmosphere my psychotic experiences were not viewed as terribly deviant and nobody overreacted.”

Sascha Altman Dubrul, co-founder of the peer support network The Icarus Project, similarly spoke about how the acceptance of the punk rock community helped prevent him from feeling like an outcast after initially experiencing a mental health crisis. Similarly, Craig Lewis, a veteran of the Boston punk scene, compiled the book “You’re Crazy,” about the mental health experiences of people involved in the punk movement, with the healing impact of being a part of a non-judgmental scene a major theme in the stories.

No empirical research that I am aware of has systematically examined whether participation in alternative communities is associated with less social marginalization among people diagnosed with mental illnesses, but there are some research findings that are consistent with this view. For example, in a 1970’s study of the neighborhood characteristics associated with the community integration of people with mental illness in California, researchers found that outcomes were best in “liberal non-traditional” communities, in contrast with “conservative middle-class” communities. More recently, researcher Tally Moses studied the mental health stigma experiences of adolescents and found that identifying as a member of the “popular” social group was associated with more stigma experiences. These findings suggest that communities, large and small, with narrower bands of what is considered to be “appropriate” behavior tend to be less welcoming of people with psychiatric histories.

None of this is to deny that alternative communities can have their drawbacks. Many complain that these communities can be just as excluding, but in a different way, than mainstream communities. Examples of racism, sexism and homophobia abound in alternative communities, as they do in mainstream ones. But the possibility that social groups that are more welcoming and less judgmental can help people belong at least offers the promise that, some day, society at large can convey the message that they “don’t care where you’ve been, don’t care how you look.”

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