How to Accept Dangerous Gifts

Cut the Strings

Image from the Icarus Project website

As I struggle with maintaining mental health in my life, I can’t help but feel that “getting help” for mental illness means little more than a consumption of a certain set goods that are culturally designated as “help”. My mental health seems to be a commodity I can buy, and therefore if I am low-income, I cannot afford mental health.  I’m looking for a new paradigm, and I have lots of questions!

Is mental health and illness something internal or external? Individual or collective? Curable or incurable? Biological or environmental? Static or dynamic?

How can I be in charge of my own mental health, i.e. hold the power to my own well-being? Access to psychiatrist visits, pharmaceuticals and therapy all depend on your socio-economic class, your geographic location, and your ability or inability to trust psychiatrists and therapists and drug companies to have your best interest in mind. I do not believe I struggle with my mental health because I am queer, or because a psychologist tells me I had a cold mother… I don’t tend to believe anything these people tell me, because I am not convinced they have my best interests in mind, but yet they control my access to medicines I may want to use. Is there another paradigm for addressing mental health?

The Icarus Project seems to think so:

The Icarus Project envisions a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences of ‘mental illness’ rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework. We are a network of people living with experiences that are commonly labeled as bipolar or other psychiatric conditions. We believe we have mad gifts to be cultivated and taken care of, rather than diseases or disorders to be suppressed or eliminated. By joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness and creativity can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world. Our participation in The Icarus Project helps us overcome alienation and tap into the true potential that lies between brilliance and madness.

I see the obvious connections between mental health liberation and social justice. It is easy to recall countless instances in the history of modern psychology and psychiatry of abuse towards those already abused by society: pathologizing women, gays, trans people, people of color, the poor.

I was recently introduced to an extremely useful metaphor by Janet Foner, an international leader in the psychiatric survivor movement as well as co-chair of Support Coalition International, the broader coalition whose purpose it is to eliminate what many of us call “Mental Health System Oppression” (MHSO). The metaphor is that MHSO acts as a STOP sign on the road to liberation from other oppressions (e.g. racism, sexism, adultism, …).

…Even a brief exposition of Mental Health System Oppression must make mention of the so-called Federal Violence Initiative. This incredible program, more aptly known as the “Racist Violence Initiative,” was put forth by Frederick Goodwin, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NINH). This initiative includes ongoing research “into the supposed biological basis of inner-city violence and includes proposals for biomedical social control. Our U.S. government asks “Are Black People Genetically Violent?” and plans a psychiatric screening program which would lead to mass drugging of innocent inner-city children, the vast majority of whom are young people of color. The National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Justice Department are all involved. Elaborate pseudoscientific language, and much of the federal government’s effort, goes into obfuscating and/or directly denying this initiative’s clearly racist intent. Meanwhile, “research” has begun in Chicago.

John Breeding

So I don’t have all the answers to my own questions. I am not 100% anti-psychiatry, nor am I 100% convinced that there is no biological basis for mental illness. I do not believe that all pharmaceuticals are bad. However, I am convinced that when we look at the history of psychiatry in the West, we see a very troubled field of knowing. Historically, the way Westerners labeled mental illness, defined who had it, and treated those who had it does not lead one to feel trustful of mental health professionals- especially when one belongs to one or more groups who have been singled out for especially cruel treatment at the hands of mental health professionals. I continue to seek new ways to be healthy and to be a full person. I still look for ways to feel like a real person even when those around me clearly do not share all the mental experiences I have.

Looking for insights, answers and inspiration has led me to a bunch of interesting websites, which I will provide here for the curious. A description from each website follows the link.

The Icarus Project

“We are a website community, support network of local groups, and media project created by and for people struggling with bipolar disorder and other dangerous gifts commonly labeled as “mental illnesses.”

…Together, we call for new space and freedom for extreme states of consciousness, and alternatives to the medical model and the traumatic legacy of psychiatric abuse. We recognize that we live in a crazy world, and insist that our sensitivities, visions, and inspirations are not necessarily symptoms of illness. Sometimes breakdown can be the entrance to breakthrough. We call for more options in understanding and treating emotional distress, and we believe that everyone, regardless of income, should have access to these choices.”


“The Law Project for Psychiatric Rights (PsychRights) is a non-profit, tax exempt 501(c)(3) public interest law firm whose mission is to mount a strategic legal campaign against forced psychiatric drugging and electroshock in the United States akin to what Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP mounted in the 40’s and 50’s on behalf of African American civil rights. The public mental health system is creating a huge class of chronic mental patients through forcing them to take ineffective, yet extremely harmful drugs.

Currently, due to massive growth in psychiatric drugging of children and youth and the current targeting of them for even more psychiatric drugging, PsychRights has made attacking this problem a priority. Children are virtually always forced to take these drugs because it is the adults in their lives who are making the decision. This is an unfolding national tragedy of immense proportions.”

Theory for the Liberation of the Psychiatrically Labeled

Mental Patient Liberation Front

“For Freedom and Democracy for All – End Psychiatric Abuse Now!”

Critical Psychiatry Network

“Critical psychiatry is part academic, part practical. Theoretically it is influenced by critical philosophical and political theories, and it has three elements. It challenges the dominance of clinical neuroscience in psychiatry (but does not exclude it); it introduces a strong ethical perspective on psychiatric knowledge and practice; it politicizes mental health issues. Critical psychiatry is deeply sceptical about the reductionist claims of neuroscience to explain psychosis and other forms of emotional distress. It follows that we are sceptical about the claims of the pharmaceutical industry for the role psychotropic drugs in the ‘treatment’ of psychiatric conditions. Like other psychiatrists we use drugs, but we see them as having a minor role in the resolution of psychosis or depression. We attach greater importance to dealing with social factors, such as unemployment, bad housing, poverty, stigma and social isolation. Most people who use psychiatric services regard these factors as more important than drugs. We reject the medical model in psychiatry and prefer a social model, which we find more appropriate in a multi-cultural society characterised by deep inequalities.”

Safe Harbor

A big list of resources!

Freedom Center

“Freedom Center is a support and activism community run by and for people labeled with severe ‘mental disorders.’ We call for compassion, human rights, self-determination, and holistic options. We create alternatives to the mental health system’s widespread despair, abuse, fraudulent science and dangerous treatments. We are based in pro-choic harm reduction philosophy regarding medical treatments, and include people taking or not talking medications.”


“In a spirit of mutual cooperation, MindFreedom leads a nonviolent revolution of freedom, equality, truth and human rights that unites people affected by the mental health system with movements for justice everywhere.”

Wildest Colts

“This site offers an alternative perspective to the bio-psychiatric industry, and to the millions of psychotropic prescriptions written for children and adults. We really do have natural, built-in ways of psychological healing. With attention and adequate resource, anyone can reemerge from even the greatest distress and most extreme states of mind.”


4 thoughts on “How to Accept Dangerous Gifts

  1. Pharma stuff gets complex when it comes to psyche meds. I’ve taken over 10 different drugs in four classes over my lifetime, and have been ‘drug free’ since about April. A good book to thumb through is “Comfortably Numb,” which is basically agruing that America in general is overperscribed and that these drugs have side effects that doctors and patients sideline as negligable. One of the most enlightening things I learned about serotonin is that serotonin controls our bowels. Side effect!

    To that end, I’ve found that it’s best for me to live without psyche meds. Moody? Maybe. But I can learn to deal with it.

    Surprising enough to myself, I find that the Icarus project holds truth. Just for being depressive and ‘down’ in general, I can provide a slightly different perspective when I’m feeling pessimistic. I recall dating someone two years ago who was the eternal optimist. And, what better way to exercise optimism than being on credit in a big way? Pessimistically, but REALISTICALLY, I told her to get a job, and she did and was happier for it. Her optimism, for me, was excellent because she pushed me relentlessly to follow dreams and accomplish goals. It also enabled her to secure a book deal and write a memoir.

    The only thing that the Icarus project needs to recognize is that some people are trying to shake their mental illness like the worst cold ever. I’ve known people haunted by demons more real than the worst nightmares. I knew one person who drowned himself as soon as he had a chance, in the Kansas river. A mental illness can be something that, if the sufferer had a choice, they’d like it lifted. I can see, though, how some people kind of like their mental state. The mania of bipolar is supposed to be like some great rush. Even I have savored the descent into depression (but not the depression itself).

    Another book that is worth thumbing through is “The Time Paradox” by Phil Lombardo (he was behind the Stanford Prison Experiment). It shows how different perspectives on the past, present, and future affect how we interact with the world and how likely we are to accomplish goals and be happy in relationships. Also, how there is a corollary between a mental illness and time perspective. I won’t summarize it anymore…it’s on my desk in my room! Easy read, easy to flip through.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Wellsmus! I’m glad to hear from someone who has been through some of this.

    “A mental illness can be something that, if the sufferer had a choice, they’d like it lifted.”

    Of course. I agree with that- I would prefer not to have to think about my mental health ALL THE TIME.

    I don’t necessarily think the Icarus Project’s goal is to make “dangerous gifts” sound so awesome everyone will wish they are schizo or bipolar. I think their point is that a bunch of people are going to have these conditions for life, and are looking for new paradigms for their conditions other than those in current cultural vogue. That’s my interpretation.

    I would love to go off meds. I’ve tried twice, but I always revert right back to the condition that caused me to go on them in the first place. I admire that you’ve been able to do it for a good chunk of a year now.

  3. i guess i have been arguing about this in other areas, but i never thought about it in the realm of mental health – why do i let other people dictate what i am (abnormal, bipolar, so forth) and what i am to do to ‘treat’ it (meds, counseling, doctors, mental wards)? wouldn’t i know best what i am and need? or… is this a special case where that is not true? it could be a really sticky area… but for my own self, i am starting to think more and more that i should be able to speak on my own behalf and not simply let strangers decide for me.

    i was always told to fear my own self/mind by doctors and counselors. but why? sure, it can be hell, but i also have a whole way of being in the world that others do not get to experience. and honestly, i frequently enjoy it and feel bad for those whom do not get to be a part of it. maybe it isn’t that my way of being is fucked up or fragmented, maybe it is everyone else who has a partial world. regardless, my differences are my own and i am tired of being told they are wrong, unhealthy, strange, and so forth.

    interesting post and i hope to visit more of the websites that you linked to!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s