-We are not violating the human rights. -Yes, you are! by Anne Grethe Teien

http://agteien.blogspot.no/2016/03/we-are-not-violating-human-rights-yes_74.html

Introduction

Psychiatric human rights violations are often  denied and trivialized, even distortedly re-defined as “human rights” and “right to necessary health help”. The UN convention for the rights of persons with disabilities, CRPD,  is changing that. CRPD demands an absolute prohibition of forced psychiatric treatment and involuntary commitment. These are important requirements in giving people with psychosocial disabilities equal human rights. In this text, I will look at different aspects of the CRPD related to that demand. I will illustrate with some references to Norway, the country where I live, showing ways in which the Norwegian Mental Health Act does not comply with the convention. I will also share some further reflections. Towards the end I have written a short version of my own experiences from forced psychiatry.  Mental health laws may vary between countries, but some elements are prevalent: the laws are typically directed specifically towards people with psychosocial disabilities and involve forced treatment and involuntary commitment . This text is written for the Campaign to Support CRPD Absolute Prohibition of Forced Treatment and Involuntary Commitment (17). Procrastinations must stop – CRPD-based law reforms must begin!

Norway and the CRPD 

Norway ratified the CRPD June 3rd 2013, but came up with some interpretative declarations of article 12, 14 and 25 that undermine central parts of the convention (1).  Norway uses these declarations to try to defend the Mental Health Act and forced psychiatric treatment. In February 2015, the president of the Norwegian Psychological Association, Tor Levin Hofgaard, wrote an article asking for a clarification from the government whether health personnel violate the human rights when they follow the coercion regulations in the Mental Health Act (2). He referred to a report sent to the authorities in December 2013 by the then Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud –  LDO, Sunniva Ørstavik (3). The report said that the Mental Health Act is discriminatory and does not comply with the CRPD. LDO also urged Norway to quickly withdraw its interpretative declarations. In public, the LDO report was met with a noisy silence by the authorities.  So, as time had went on, Hofgaard asked for the mentioned clarification.  Anne Grethe Erlandsen, State Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Care Services, answered on behalf of the Norwegian authorities: “Vi bryter ikke menneskerettighetene” / – We are not violating the human rights (4). That answer is absolutely not right.

Norway uses much coercion in psychiatry. In spite of reduction strategies, the use of coercion stays at stably high levels (3: p.6-8; 5: p.20-23). Also, reduction strategies instead of CRPD-based abolishment strategies do not go to the core of the issue. Norway is used to see itself as a human rights protective nation and often does not hesitate to criticize other countries for their human rights violations. So it is maybe hard for the authorities to take in that the state of Norway  is actually accepting torture and other severe human rights abuses in its own mental health system, via the Mental Health Act.  Point 42 of the CRPD General Comments No 1 says as follows:

As has been stated by the Committee in several concluding observations, forced treatment by psychiatric and other health and medical professionals is a violation of the right to equal recognition before the law and an infringement of the rights to personal integrity (art. 17); freedom from torture (art. 15); and freedom from violence, exploitation and abuse (art. 16). This practice denies the legal capacity of a person to choose medical treatment and is therefore a violation of article 12 of the Convention. States parties must, instead, respect the legal capacity of persons with disabilities to make decisions at all times, including in crisis situations; must ensure that accurate and accessible information is provided about service options and that non-medical approaches are made available; and must provide access to independent support. States parties have an obligation to provide access to support for decisions regarding psychiatric and other medical treatment. Forced treatment is a particular problem for persons with psychosocial, intellectual and other cognitive disabilities. States parties must abolish policies and legislative provisions that allow or perpetrate forced treatment, as it is an ongoing violation found in mental health laws across the globe, despite empirical evidence indicating its lack of effectiveness and the views of people using mental health systems who have experienced deep pain and trauma as a result of forced treatment. The Committee recommends that States parties ensure that decisions relating to a person’s physical or mental integrity can only be taken with the free and informed consent of the person concerned.“ (6: #42)

Neglected harms and traumas – and the need for reparations

Long-term studies have shown higher recovery rates for people who were not on neuroleptics and on very low doses (14, 15). The list of potential harmful effects from neuroleptic drugs is long, including tardive dyskinesia, brain damage, cognitive decline, neuroleptic-induced supersensitivity psychosis, Parkinsonism, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, diabetes, demotivation, anxiety, aggression, suicide, akathisia [ an extreme form of restlessness which in itself can lead to suicide], neuroleptic malignant syndrome — a potentially lethal complication of treatment etc (14, 18). In a research summary on possible harms from forced psychiatry done by nurse and researcher Reidun Norvoll, she listed the following main categories:  1) violation of autonomy and of psychological and physical integrity. Deprivation of freedom of movement (deprivation of freedom). 2) Physical harm and death. 3) Violence and abuse. 4) Trauma, retraumatisation and posttraumatic stress syndrome. 5) Offences/violations, loss of dignity and experiences of punishment. 6) Psychological agony in the forms of shame, anxiety, feeling unsafe, anger, powerlessness, depression and loss of self esteem. 7) Social problems  and loss of social identity. 8) Loss of access to own coping skills and of possibilities to self development. 9) Loss of access to voluntary treatment. 10) Harmed therapeutic relationships, resentment against- and distrust in mental health services. (7: p. 16; 8: #5.3).

It can be hard to process traumas that are not acknowledged and understood as such by society in general. When mental health services represents the abuser and as it is officially seen as the mental health helper, one can be left in a very lonely situation trying to handle psychiatry-induced traumas.  I think, as part of the implementation of CRPD, there should be provided access to help and support to those who struggle with traumas and other harms from forced psychiatry.  I imagine a reality where it is possible for everyone to ask for help when they feel they need it, knowing that they have the CRPD on their side; that the state can not expose them to torture and other terrible human rights violations for being in mental pain (!).

When the necessary abolishment of discriminatory mental health laws and the prohibition of forced psychiatric treatment and commitment has become reality, I think that representatives from politics and psychiatry should publicly perform statements about- and apologies for -the severe human rights abuses that have been going on for so long towards people with psychosocial disabilities. After all the societal acceptance, silence and denial of these kinds of abuses, I think such an acknowledgement and apology is of significant importance for starting reparation work. Compensations  is also a relevant part of this.  At the same time, there should be no pressure towards victims of forced psychiatry to forgive and get over.  I strongly recommend survivor and lawyer Hege Orefellen’s appeal on the urgent need for effective remedies, redress and guarantees of non-repetition regarding torture and other ill-treatment in psychiatry (9). Her appeal was held during a CRPD side-event about article 15 and its potential to end impunity for torture in psychiatry (10). Also, in Guidelines on article 14 of the CRPD, point 24 (a-f) one can read about “access to justice, reparation and redress to persons with disabilities deprived of their liberty in infringement of article 14 taken alone, and taken in conjunction with article 12 and/or article 15 of the Convention” (11).

Danger- and treatment criteria 

The Norwegian Mental Health Act has, in addition to its danger criteria, a criterion called the treatment criterion, which does not require danger to oneself or others. The treatment criterion allows for psychiatric coercion if the person is claimed to have a severe mental disorder,  and application of forced psychiatry is seen as necessary to prevent the person from having his/her prospects for recovery or significant improvement seriously reduced; alternatively that it’s seen as very possible that the person’s condition in the very near future will significantly deteriorate without coercion (12: Section 3 – 3. 3 a). A very wishy-washy criterion indeed, which is much in use. In 2014 the treatment criterion alone was used in 72% of the cases among people commited (16: p.37).

Both the treatment criterion and the criteria regarding danger to oneself or others discriminate against people with psychosocial disabilities in that disability, or ‘serious mental disorder’,  is a premise for psychiatric coercion to apply. In other words, this discrimination is a violation of CRPD article 14 which says that the existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty (13). Secondly, as the Mental Health Act allows for forced psychiatric treatment, it violates the right to personal integrity (art. 17); freedom from torture (art. 15); and freedom from violence, exploitation and abuse (art. 16). (6:#42).

Points 13-15 in the Guidelines on article 14 are also relevant in this context:

VII. Deprivation of liberty on the basis of perceived dangerousness of persons with disabilities, alleged need for care or treatment, or any other reasons. 

  1. Throughout all the reviews of State party reports, the Committee has established that it is contrary to article 14 to allow for the detention of persons with disabilities based on the perceived danger of persons to themselves or to others. The involuntary detention of persons with disabilities based on risk or dangerousness, alleged need of care or treatment or other reasons tied to impairment or health diagnosis is contrary to the right to liberty, and amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
  1. Persons with intellectual or psychosocial impairments are frequently considered dangerous to themselves and others when they do not consent to and/or resist medical or therapeutic treatment. All persons, including those with disabilities, have a duty to do no harm. Legal systems based on the rule of law have criminal and other laws in place to deal with the breach of this obligation. Persons with disabilities are frequently denied equal protection under these laws by being diverted to a separate track of law, including through mental health laws. These laws and procedures commonly have a lower standard when it comes to human rights protection, particularly the right to due process and fair trial, and are incompatible with article 13 in conjunction with article 14 of the Convention. 
  1. The freedom to make one’s own choices established as a principle in article 3(a) of the Convention includes the freedom to take risks and make mistakes on an equal basis with others. In its General Comment No. 1, the Committee stated that decisions about medical and psychiatric treatment must be based on the free and informed consent of the person concerned and respect the person’s autonomy, will and preferences.  Deprivation of liberty on the basis of actual or perceived impairment or health conditions in mental health institutions which deprives persons with disabilities of their legal capacity also amounts to a violation of article 12 of the Convention.” (11: #13-15)

The laws that apply to people in the rest of society regarding acute situations and in the criminal justice system, must apply to people with disabilities too in non-discriminatory ways. The CRPD’s demand for absolute prohibition of forced treatment and involuntary commitment means that it applies both in criminal justice- and civil contexts. (11: #14, 16, 20-21, also 10-12). For people with psychosocial disabilities who come in contact with the criminal justice system, necessary support must be provided to ensure the right to legal capacity, equal recognition before the law and a fair trial. Forced psychiatric treatment and involuntary commitment can not be applied as sanctions for criminal acts and/or for the prevention of such.

Replacing substituted decision-making with supported decision-making

Substituted decision making must be replaced by supported decision making systems. Giving access to supported decision-making for some but still maintaining substitute decision-making regimes, is not sufficient to comply with article 12 of the CRPD (6: #28). From General Comment No 1:

A supported decision-making regime comprises various support options which give primacy to a person’s will and preferences and respect human rights norms. It should provide protection for all rights, including those related to autonomy (right to legal capacity, right to equal recognition before the law, right to choose where to live, etc.) and rights related to freedom from abuse and ill-treatment (…).” (6: #29)

Some who agree with the CRPD in that diagnostic criteria for coercion should be abolished, still seem fine with the idea that ‘mental incapacity’ can be used as criteria for psychiatric coercion. This is not in line with the CRPD, which neither accepts disability criteria for the deprivation of freedom nor psychiatric coercion. Here is a relevant point to note, from General Comments No1:  “The provision of support to exercise legal capacity should not hinge on mental capacity assessments; new, non-discriminatory indicators of support needs are required in the provision of support to exercise legal capacity.” (6:#29 i)

A summary of my own experiences from forced psychiatry 

I was not suicidal when psychiatry put me under the Mental Health Act and decided I should get forced neuroleptic “treatment”. I had never been suicidal. The former mentioned treatment criterion is the criterion that was used on me.  Forced psychiatry, with its locking me up, restraining me, drugging me, and keeping me on CTO when discharged from hospital, certainly did not make my life better  in any way– everything became indescribably much worse. I experienced forced psychiatry as one long punishment for having mental problems. After having been on neuroleptics for a while, my cognition, my intellectual abilities, were severely affected and reduced – and so was my language: from usually having a rich vocabulary I could just utter short, simple sentences. My body became rigid and lost its fine motor skills so I couldn’t dance anymore. A period I also had akathisia, a terrible restlessness which made me walk endlessly back and forth, back and forth. I’m trained a professional dancer and having my dance abilities medicated away was a big loss in itself. The medication took away my vitality, my sensitivity. My emotions were numbed. My personality faded away.  Then a severe depression set in – just a complete state of hopelessness – and for the first time in my life I became suicidal. Again and again I said to the staff, psychologists, doctors: – I can not be on meds. I tried to have them understand that the neuroleptics were destroying me and my life.  They communicated to me that they thought I was being fussy. They were a big wall that just would not listen to me. Respectlessly enough, some even told me –yes, told me -that I was doing better. The doctors said I would need to be on meds for the rest of my life. That was a message which just manifested the complete hopeless situation. From entering psychiatry, indeed having mental problems, but being a vital, thoughtful, and expressive person who was dancing several times a week, psychiatry  had coercively medicated me away from myself and iatrogenically made me severely depressed and suicidal . In effect a slow form of forced euthanasia . One day, while on CTO, shortly after a new forced injection in the buttocks with those horrible meds, I did a dramatic suicide attempt. I was put back into the hospital. I am very glad that I survived. Because unbelievably, a couple of months later, I was told that someone had made a bureaucratic mistake: the coercion documents had not been renewed in time, so there was nothing they could do to hold me back. Of course they would recommend me to stick to the treatment (Ha!) and not leave the hospital too fast (Ha!). I left the hospital the same day. It took me about half a year to become myself again, to be able to think and speak freely, to get my sensitivity, my emotions back, to dance, to feel human again, to feel life. I have never been in a mental hospital since then. I have never had another dose of neuroleptics. And I have never been suicidal again.  More than a decade later, I am still traumatized by my experiences from forced psychiatry.

Conclusion

I am very thankful to the CRPD committee for their important work. The CRPD represents a paradigm shift, and there is clearly a resistance out there to accept the full width and depth of the convention. That human rights and non-discrimination applies equally to people with disabilities should not be seen as a radical message in 2016, but sadly, it still is. Societies with their leaders need to realize that systematic, legalized discrimination and abuse of people with disabilities is based on tradition and habitual ways of thinking –not on human rights. That something has been brutally wrong for a long time does not make it more right. Forced psychiatric treatment and involuntary commitment need to be absolutely prohibited.

Thank you for your attention.

References:

1) MDAC:  Legal Opinion on Norway’s Declaration/Reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities http://mdac.org/sites/mdac.org/files/norway_declaration_-_legal_opinion.pdf

2)

Tor Levin Hofgaard:  Bryter vi menneskerettighetene?

http://www.dagensmedisin.no/blogger/tor-levin-hofgaard/2015/02/19/avklaring-etterlyses-bryter-vi-menneskerettighetene/

3)

In Norwegian: Equality and anti-discrimination ombud (LDO): CRPD report to Norwegian authorities 2013 – summary http://www.ldo.no/globalassets/brosjyrer-handboker-rapporter/rapporter_analyser/crpd–2013/crpd_report_sammendrag_pdf_ok.pdf

4)

Anne Grethe Erlandsen: Vi bryter ikke menneskerettighetene http://www.dagensmedisin.no/artikler/2015/02/27/vi-bryter-ikke-menneskerettighetene/

5)

In Norwegian: LDO’s report to the CRPD committee 2015 – a supplement to Norway’s 1st periodic report http://www.ldo.no/globalassets/03_nyheter-og-fag/publikasjoner/crpd2015rapport.pdf

6)

Link to download of CRPD General Comment No 1:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRPD/Pages/GC.aspx

7)

In Norwegian: Equality and anti-discrimination ombud (LDO): CRPD report to Norwegian authorities 2013- full version  http://www.ldo.no/globalassets/brosjyrer-handboker-rapporter/rapporter_analyser/crpd–2013/rapportcrpd_psykiskhelsevern_pdf.pdf

8)

NOU 2011: 9. Økt selvbestemmelse og rettssikkerhet — Balansegangen mellom selvbestemmelsesrett og omsorgsansvar i psykisk helsevern. 5. Kunnskapsstatus med hensyn til skadevirkninger av tvang i det psykiske helsevernet. Utredning for Paulsrud-utvalget https://www.regjeringen.no/no/dokumenter/nou-2011-9/id647625/?q=&ch=12

9)

Hege Orefellen: Torture and other ill-treatment in psychiatry – urgent need for effective remedies, redress and guarantees of non-repetition https://absoluteprohibition.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/hege-orefellen-on-reparations/

10)

CRPD 13: WNUSP side event on Article 15: Its Potential to End Impunity for Torture in Psychiatry  http://www.treatybodywebcast.org/crpd-13-wnusp-side-event-on-article-15-english-audio/

11)

Link to guidelines on article 14 of the CRPD under “Recent Events and Developments” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRPD/Pages/CRPDIndex.aspx

12)

Norwegian Mental Health Act translated to English http://app.uio.no/ub/ujur/oversatte-lover/data/lov-19990702-062-eng.pdf

13)

CRPD Convention http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRPD/Pages/ConventionRightsPersonsWithDisabilities.aspx#14

14)

Via Mad in America / ‘Anatomy of an Epidemic’ (Robert Whitaker):  List of long-term outcomes literature for antipsychotics http://www.madinamerica.com/mia-manual/antipsychoticsschizophrenia/

15)

Lex Wunderink et al: Recovery in Remitted First-Episode Psychosis at 7 Years of Follow-up of an Early Dose Reduction/Discontinuation or Maintenance Treatment Strategy. Long-term Follow-up of a 2-Year Randomized Clinical Trial http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1707650

16)

Bruk av tvang i psykisk helsevern for voksne i 2014 (report on the use of coercion in psychiatry in Norway 2014) https://helsedirektoratet.no/Lists/Publikasjoner/Attachments/1161/Rapport%20om%20tvang%20IS-2452.pdf

17)

Campaign to Support CRPD Absolute Prohibition of Forced Treatment and Involuntary Commitment https://absoluteprohibition.wordpress.com/

18)

RxISK Guide: Antipsychotics for Prescribers: What are the risks? http://rxisk.org/antipsychotics-for-prescribers/#How_likely_are_the_listed_side_effects_of_antipsychotics_to_happen

Other:

Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard – Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities http://indicators.ohchr.org/

Una campaña en contra de los internamientos involuntarios y las intervenciones psiquiátricas forzadas, por Ana María Sánchez

http://congresovisible.org/agora/post/una-campana-en-contra-de-los-internamientos-involuntarios-y-las-intervenciones-psiquiatricas-forzadas-por-ana-maria-sanchez/8152/

Escribo en apoyo a la campaña contra la prohibición absoluta de los internamientos involuntarios y las intervenciones psiquiátricas forzadas. Me piden argumentar con base a la Convención de los Derechos de las personas con Discapacidad y lo haré, aunque el argumento que expongo es el de la salvaguarda de la dignidad de todas las personas con respeto absoluto a sus derechos.

Me motiva escribir esta invitación a sumarnos en la insistente y motivada convocatoria que hace CHRUSP, Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, pero también ante la posibilidad de generar los cambios profundos que den un vuelco a paradigmas que estigmatizan y discriminan. Me sumo contra los internamientos involuntarios y las intervenciones psiquiátricas forzadas porque:

1. Reducen a la persona a un objeto al quien se le busca controlar, aniquilan la voluntad y la creatividad, acabando con su libertad.

2. Atemorizan, estigmatizan y desinforman sobre la discapacidad psicosocial.

3. No resuelven la parte estructural de una sociedad que actúa desde el paradigma de la “normalidad” encerrando a todos los que no se adaptan a los convencionalismos sociales.

4. Es una respuesta política cómoda e insuficiente que no responde a las necesidades específicas de las personas con discapacidad psicosocial y de sus familias.

5. Descarta y abandona a las personas con discapacidad psicosocial, las confina a vivir en aislamiento, privadas de su libertad y sometidas a tratos crueles e inhumanos.

6. Promueve el olvido social y la negligencia política ante los abusos y violaciones de los derechos de las personas con discapacidad psicosocial.

 

Me sumo hoy a esta causa, convencida desde mi propia lucha a favor del reconocimiento de los derechos de las personas con discapacidad. Desde las experiencias de personas que se han visto coartadas y obligadas a vivir aletargadas, forzadas a un tratamiento y confinamiento, separadas de una sociedad que busca normalizar, homogeneizar y catalogar a quienes somos diferentes. A partir de los testimonios de personas con discapacidad psicosocial y sus familiares que sufren rechazo y discriminación, padecen la falta de servicios adecuados y el abandono en reclusión o en calle, entre otros. No nos olvidemos por ejemplo, de la violencia contra mujeres con discapacidad psicosocial, sus derechos son negados y olvidados y por lo general no se retoma la lucha desde los movimientos a favor de los derechos de las mujeres.

La Convención de los derechos de las personas con discapacidad y otros instrumentos internacionales nos hacen la invitación a pensar y actuar para que los derechos de todos y todas se promuevan y respeten. No es suficiente estar en contra de los internamientos y tratamientos forzados, se requiere pensar creativamente para hacer del modelo de derechos humanos una realidad y exigir al estado las políticas públicas que promuevan y garanticen la realización de los derechos de las personas con discapacidad psicosocial.

Para más información sobre esta campaña: https://absoluteprohibition.wordpress.com/page/2/

 

 

Post on psychiatric torture by Initially NO

Initially NO has brought together art, graphics, narrative, essay, and articles of the CRPD containing rights that were denied to her, in a beautiful and moving composition asserting a claim for justice.  Since the art and graphics are integral to her work and I cannot reproduce the layout here, I am sharing her introduction and a few samples of the art work and urge you to visit the original for the full effect.

of our human rights

Rights denied me, again and again over a 14 year period (1998-2012) brings back such feelings that make me not wish to attempt to talk about this again. It hurts so much, it was so painful, it upsets me to remember, but it upsets me even more knowing that over 5700 people are subjected to such horror, every year in the state of Victoria, Australia, people who actively say no I don’t want this, very clearly and are then put on Community Treatment Orders, and tortured with forced injections, electricity, and verbally abusive appointments, that must be met, or they’ll be put into arbitrary detention again. It hurts me that the people who say no they do not wish to take psychiatric prescriptions are then subjected to the system longer.

When you refuse to be injected they do this. One ambulance man said to me he was just a small cog in a big wheel. That’s the symbolism here and the bombs in the body profiteering, Otherwise, that many hands on a small young lady, as I was, as strip her and stick her.

This is what happens when you’re given threats of worse treatments such as electro-shock and detention if you do not turn up to a fornightly ‘depo’ injection. I had to pretend to be happy with this senario to a point. (I’ve cut out the true-feeling related swear words here to fit with #UN CRPD Absolute prohibition.)

Article 15 – Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

1. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his or her free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.

 

Poetry and Art by Jhilmil Breckenridge

Jhilmil IMG_0503
Solitude, by Jhilmil Breckenridge

 

Staring by Jhilmil Breckenridge

Sarah Knutson: Einstein, Social Justice and the New Relativity

Sarah Knutson’s second post for the Campaign.  Original is on Mad in America.

To create his theory of relativity, Einstein had to see things differently.  He had to view the universe not as an object of mammalian proportions, but from the perspective of a subatomic particle.  Essentially, he used imagination and empathy to come to know a new ‘reality’ of existence.

This essay is the second in a series.  We previously outlined a rationale for a 100% voluntary mental health system (read about it here). Now, we take a deeper look at the nature of human experiences that lead to public concern.  We delve deeply into the perspective of that experience and discover ourselves in a whole new realm.

Three ways of seeing experience

To understand where we are going, let’s first take a look at where we’ve been.  Here are some competing models for approaching socially troubling human experiences.

1. The DSM Model of ‘mental disorders’

The DSM Model is based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by American Psychiatric Association.  In no small part, the DSM has been the product of insider turf wars, political compromise, industry needs and billing concerns.(1) It is said to be atheoretical, but unquestionably the DSM views certain aspects of human experience as abnormal/ disorders.  Possibly, this is just a nod to the practicalities of healthcare reimbursement.  However, the process of distinguishing the truly abnormal (insurance pays) from the common effects of a stressful life (you pay) has left something to be desired.

Rote symptom checklists determine whether your anxiety, mood, grief, trauma, substance use, sexuality is ‘normal’ or ‘disordered.’  At a minimum, this is a lousy way to get to know another human being on the worst day of their life. Painful experiences, like getting fired, ending up homeless or being raped in shelter housing are routinely ignored or overlooked. It’s like the teacher pronouncing you ‘learning disordered’ without asking if you studied.

Reliability and validity have proved problematic as well. Individual diagnoses tend to vary, as do predictions of violence and suicide.  Given that single bad call can change the course of a lifetime, concerns like these led whistleblower Paula Caplan, Ph.D., to report to the Washington Post in 2012: “Psychiatry’s bible, the DSM, is doing more harm than good.”  A year later, the National Institute of Mental Health (think science, research, evidence-based) went on record as looking for a more valid approach (full statement here).

2. The Medical Model of ‘mental illness’

In contrast to the DSM, the Medical Model has a crystal clear vision.  ‘Mental illness’ is a real disease.  It is caused by pre-existing genetic, biochemical or physiologic abnormalities. Those affected are susceptible to disregarding personal welfare or that of others. Aggressive treatment (drugs, CBT) is required to correct or mitigate deficiencies.

For all its theoretical congruence, the medical model hasn’t fared much better than the DSM. Treating ‘mental illness’ takes a whopping 15-25 years (on average!) off of the average life span.  The promised ‘chemical imbalances’ and bio-markers still haven’t materialized in the research.  Disability rates have sky-rocketed. Long-term outcomes and relapse rates have worsened overall. (2)  Many suspect that prescribed drugs increase violence and suicide.

3. The Social Justice Model of fundamental human needs

This model comes in no small part from the learnings of World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.  In the aftermath of atrocities, the nations of the world were interested in figuring a few things out.  They needed a way for those on all sides to move forward.  They wanted to set the stage for ‘never again.’  Their solution was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (UDHR).

The UDHR is premised on a simple idea.  For all our differences, human beings have much in common.  We all need certain things to live and be well:

  • nutritious food, habitable shelter
  • safety of person and property
  • dignity, respect and fair treatment
  • meaningful participation and voice
  • support for families to stay together and make a living
  • opportunities to develop ourselves across major life domains
  • freedom to make sense of experience in our way

Under the UDHR, advancing human rights is a universal, non-delegable obligation. Everyone everywhere is responsible for doing their part.  The peoples of the world understood that the basic requirements for human dignity must be accessible to all.   Without such access, neither individuals nor the human family as a whole will be well.

The theory of human conflict follows from this.  Under the UDHR, conflict arises when human needs are in competition.  It intensifies with time if only some of us have access to what all of us need.

Preventively locking someone up or drugging them against their will is a considerable human conflict. To meaningfully address such issues, the Social Justice Model counsels us to take a step back.  Those we are fearing (sick, disordered, untrustworthy) may be messengers, not madness.  Instead of privileging our perspective, what if we try to see the world through the other’s eyes:

  • Is it possible their experience might not be as senseless it seems?
  • Is it possible they may be expressing a history of social harms, rather than arbitrarily bent on inflicting new ones?

Before you immediately brush this off, consider the following:

If the nations of the world could adopt these attitudes in the aftermath of Hilter, concentration camps, kamikaze pilots and detonated atom bombs, then why not for modern public safety concerns?  

Support for the Social Justice Model

Nearly 70 years ago, the United Nations predicted the following (UDHR Preamble):

  1. ‘[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
  2. People everywhere long for a world in which ‘freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want’ are the order of the day.
  3. ‘t is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.’
  4. ‘[D]isregard and contempt for human rights’ leads to ‘barbarous acts’ that ‘outrage[] the conscience of mankind.’

Now consider this:

1. Research on public and behavioral health impacts

An estimated ninety (90!) percent of those in the public mental health system are ‘trauma survivors.’  We have grown up without reliable access to same basic needs that the United Nations recognized as essential over six decades ago.

The same applies to the other so-called ‘problem’ groups in our society.  Yep, ninety (90!) percent or more of us in substance use, criminal justice, and homeless settings are ‘trauma survivors’ as well.

This is not just about individual needs, but also family needs and the needs of entire communities. These issues affect all of us across demographics.

Don’t believe it?  Check out the following:

  • National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD), The Damaging Consequences of Violence and Trauma: Facts, Discussion Points, and Recommendations for the Behavioral Health System (2004). Full report here.
  • National Council for Behavioral Health (Breaking the Silence: Trauma-informed Behavioral Healthcare (2011). Full publication here.
  • Nadine Harris, MD, How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime (TED Talk here.)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach SAMHSA (2014). Full proposal here.
  • The School of Life, Sanity of Madness (1/18/2016). Full video here.

Yet, for all the fanfare about the need for more ‘trauma-informed care’, there has been little systemic response directed toward basic human needs.  Equally disturbing, behavioral health system involvement has become an independent, exacerbating source of harm for many.

The results speak for themselves.

2. Tremendous explanatory power

In addition to the public health data, the Social Justice Model has tremendous explanatory power.  It offers a straightforward way to make sense of experience (this essay), as well as principled ways to respond (future essay) that could easily be confirmed – or refuted – by research (future essay).

The basic paradigm is this:

  1. Resources are seemingly scarce
  2. People have basic needs
  3. They see a threat or opportunity
  4. This sets off a ‘high-stakes’ (aka ‘survival’) response
  5. Predictable physical, mental and social effects occur.

The above theory draws on work that has already been done.  In the trauma field, the human survival response (fight, flight, freeze) and its effects are widely known. See, e.g., ‘The Body Keeps Score‘ by Bessel van der Kolk.  As it turns out, you can tweak the same theory to make sense of a broad variety of human experiences that lead to public concern.

3. The ‘normal’ response when the stakes are high

For our purposes, there are two basic nervous systems:

(1) ‘All-is-well’ (parasympathetic) for everyday routines. This covers stuff like eating, sleeping, relaxing, hanging out, having sex, small talk, hobbies, tinkering around…

and

(2) ‘High-stakes’ (sympathetic/ ‘survival response’/ fight-flight-freeze) for responding when the stakes are high.  This is the ‘get your butt in gear’ reaction that takes over when something feels like a big deal.

High-stakes can get involved in all kinds of stuff.  This includes both threats and opportunities.  The critical factor is that (from the person’s point of view) the stakes are high.  For example, here are some things that can set off the high-stakes response for me:

  • Discovering new possibilities, new gossip, twenty dollars or my cat in the road
  • Taking tests, exams, the best donut or advantage of someone else
  • Scoring a point, contract, bargain, victory or high
  • Getting paid, laid, yelled at, ripped off, excluded, assaulted or stopped by police
  • Going on first dates, adventures, job interviews or a personal rampage
  • Performing on the job, in sports, in college, during public hearings or psychiatric exams
  • Resisting temptation, peer pressure, arrest, detention or a doctor’s opinion

Suffice it to say, the definition of ‘high stakes’ is a personal matter.  It depends on what you have lived or come to know.  Thus, one person’s ‘high stakes’ might not even register on another’s radar.

4. Explaining intense or extreme responses

To discover relativity, Einstein had to take the perspective of atoms.  To see the value of high-stakes responses, we have to experience what is happening from the high-stakes viewpoint.

When the stakes seem high, human beings are wired to respond in one of three ways:  fight, flight or freeze.

  • Fight’ goes after threats and opportunities.  It takes them on or brings them down.
  • ‘Flight’ avoids threats and opportunities.  It gets away (runs, hides) as fast as possible.
  • ‘Freeze’ hides in plain sight.  It shows no apparent reaction (de facto disappears), giving others nothing to notice or chase.

Despite their clear-sounding names, fight, flight and freeze are not fixed forms of expression.  They are directional tendencies that can occur across many life dimensions. This allows personal strengths, past experiences and familiar (‘tried and true’) behaviors to be optimized for survival value.  Here are some ways that I have expressed fight-flight-freeze when the stakes felt high to me:

 


Dimensions of Fight-Flight-Freeze

  • Physical
    • fight: striking out, yelling, swearing, telling someone to ‘get out! breaking stuff
    • flight: leaving the room, not showing up, running away, cutting, trying to kill myself
    • freeze: doing nothing, hiding in bed
  • Emotional
    • fight: raging, hating, envying, craving
    • flight: avoiding, cowering, dreading, numbing with food, drugs, sex, spending, computer, games
    • freeze: poker face, going numb
  • Social
    • fight: verbally attacking, ridiculing, blaming others, complaining, rescuing
    • flight: obeying, begging, flattering, apologizing, backtracking, blaming self, compensatory romantic interest
    • freeze: saying nothing, playing along, going with the flow, withdrawing
  • Intellectual
    • fight:  arguing, planning, plotting, obsessing, out-smarting
    • flight: distracting, fantasy
    • freeze: forgetting, going blank
  • Spiritual/ existential
    • mostly fight:  praying, seeking visions, looking for signs, exploring energy, becoming a deity
    • mostly flight: bargaining with God, trying to be a good person, wishing I were dead
    • freeze: losing time/ awareness/ consciousness

(Please note: Depending on context and underlying intent, the same response may fit in multiple categories.)


 

The wide variability of high stakes responses is a tremendous asset to our species.  It ensures that people will respond in numerous rich and creative ways.  When an entire community is facing a threat, this promotes resilience and survival overall. If we all responded the same way to danger or opportunity, a single threat (predator, disease, disaster) could wipe us out. We need the extremes that people tend to under stress to safeguard group survival.

On the other hand, when the stakes are seemingly individual, the virtue of diversity can get obscured. Since only one person is reacting, this can look rather odd to everyone else. Imagine Beatlemania, but only you can see the Beatles. Visuals here if you need them (with a little help from my friend, JH).

It’s also worth noting that there is a dose-response effect.  In other words, the higher the stakes and the longer I’ve been in that frame of mind,  the more intense or extreme my responses tend to get.  Over time, this has become a good way for me or others to gauge how important the needs involved are to me.  For example, if things seem relatively manageable, then my responses tend to be manageable – both by me and others.  On the other hand, if I can’t imagine living or being happy if the needs aren’t met, my responses tend to flair accordingly.

 

6. ‘Sarah, are you calling inappropriate the new normal?’

If you are nodding along with me at this point, thank you for getting it!  On the other hand, if you are feeling confused or disgusted, you are not alone.  Clearly, my experiences violate conventional norms. They routinely get seen as unacceptable, disordered or ill.

On the other hand, like the vast majority of the world, you may be seeing my life from an ‘all-is-well’ perspective.  And, for ‘all-is-well’ living, my responses sure aren’t the norm.

But that is precisely the point I am trying to make.   In behavioral health populations, all-is-well is not the norm.  The norm in behavioral health populations is violence, deprivation, poverty, injustice, and marginalization. In other words, the stakes are high all the time. Problems build on each other, then compound exponentially.  We rarely, if ever, get a break.  We feel like we constantly have to defend our right to be.  In dose-response terms, the dose is enormous.  So, predict a pretty big response.

From my experience, despite a lifetime of trying to learn how to do it differently, that is what keeps happening.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Here is 18-year-old Sabrina Benaim“Explaining My Depression to My Mother.”

And before you say, stop making excuses for yourself and take a little responsibility, consider the following (apart from the 20 years of therapy, thousands of dollars out of pocket, 20+ drugs tried, studying this stuff at the doctoral level, devoting my life to trying to understand it):

There is a really good reason that high-stakes responses are hard to turn off:  Any conscious, reality-based human being should be bothered by high-stakes conditions.  As a practical matter, the high-stakes response is a message. It is like your hand burning on a hot stove. The intense feeling (pain) tells you to move your hand. This prevents further damage. If you just rationalize or drug that sensation away, there is no telling how bad you’ll end up.  (We have the scars to prove it.)

Equally important, it is not an accident that high-stakes responses come across as ‘inappropriate’ and alarming. This is by nature’s design, and it serves a dual purpose:

  1. Predators/ competitors are unable to anticipate or plan for what we’ll do.
  2. Well-intended others will know that something is wrong.

Hence, while high-stakes responses no doubt alarm and baffle others, that is why it has actual survival value.

This highlights the futility of trying to classify so-called ‘mental disorders’ in a high-stakes population. The very purpose of our responses is to defy explanation. Outsiders are not supposed to know what is going on.  It’s a plus, not a minus when potential predators can’t agree.

The same survival function also explains why observers find these responses so distressing.  High-stakes responses are supposed to cause alarm. This scares outsiders off and alerts those close to us that all is not okay.  If society worked the way nature intended, the outcome would be great.  Opportunists are deterred.  Allies rush to your aid.  Real friends stick around and try to find a way to help.

That’s also a message for would-be helpers.  The assessment tool is built right into the high-stakes system.  The rules are fairly clear if you know what to look for:

 


High Stakes Rule #1: When something makes it worse, the stakes go up, and responses get increasingly extreme.

High Stakes Rule #2: When something makes it better, the stakes go down and all-is-well eases in over time.


 

In other words, the so-called ‘ravings of lunatics’ are actually  ‘rational’ from a high-stakes perspective. They scare off opportunists, attract available allies and weed out would-be helpers who don’t help. If no help is found, they keep us alive and free to keep looking.

From this vantage point, perhaps now you can appreciate the violence – the actual soul torture – of forcing survivors to present as if ‘all-is-well.’  Not only does that obliterate what we have experienced, it takes away what is often the only means we have to communicate our pain to the culture at large.

Suffice it to say, given the state of the world today, you should find us painful to be around.  You should find it difficult if asked to bear witness. That is what puts your hand on the stove burning with ours. That is what motivates you – everyone – to look for the source of the burning.  That is what makes it possible for human beings, in the spirit of Einstein — to get curious about the little guy, wonder what it is like to feel that small and discover a whole new reality outside of ordinary vision.

With the benefit of hindsight, what do you say we also look for a better energy source to power human relationships?  Instead of splitting dissenters off or leveling resistance, how about this time we stick with imagination and empathy and learn to create a  workable, honest fusion?

References:

(1) Caplan, PJ (1995) They Say You’re Crazy: How The World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal  (Perseus Books: http://www.aw.com/gb).

(2) Whitaker, RH (2010). Anatomy of an Epidemic. New York: Random House.

This blog is a contribution to the Campaign to Support the CRPD Absolute Prohibition of Commitment and Forced Treatment. To see all of the Mad in America blogs for this campaign click here.