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MindFreedom International: Advocating for human rights
and alternatives in the "mental health" system

By Janet Foner

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Please note:  When this article was written MindFreedom International was known as Support Coalition International.  This version of the article has been edited to reflect the new name.  The original article can be viewed at http://power2u.org/articles/empower/support_coal.html

MindFreedom International is a non-profit alliance of over 70 grassroots groups in eleven countries, advocating for human rights and alternatives in the "mental health" system. Recently, we launched a series of workshops designed to help people build support systems for themselves. We hope that, in time, enough people will have effective enough support systems around themselves that most crises will disappear. The need for crisis intervention by the police or the "mental health" system will become a thing of the past. To help that happen, one series is called "Take Charge of Your Mind: Listening Skills and Crisis Prevention for Community Leaders." By "community leaders" we mean people who care about what happens to other people, and take action about that.

During these workshops, people learn a practical set of listening skills for emotional healing, part of the theory and practice of Re-evaluation Counseling. The International Re-evaluation Counseling Communities is a leadership network of people in 93 countries who use the tools of Re-evaluation Co-Counseling to reclaim their intelligence. MindFreedom is a different organization that is offering these skills in workshops, but is not part of the International Re-evaluation Counseling Communities.

My experience using these skills may illustrate how they can be used in one's life. For 10 months in 1967-68, I was a "mental patient" on a locked ward in Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh. During that time I was on very heavy doses of Thorazine, was put in seclusion twice, and despaired of ever getting out of there. When I left the hospital, I was in much worse shape than when I went in, very depressed, and still on lots of Thorazine. I "knew" that my life was over at age 22, that I would never get a job or get married. With the help of my mother, my psychiatrist (a resident who cared), and some good friends, I got off Thorazine late in '68, got a job substitute teaching, married an old friend, and left Pittsburgh in '69. I also left the "mental health" system, never to return as a patient or client.

A few years later I was a new, very isolated, mother, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and how to raise children. A friend told me about a Re-evaluation Counseling (Co-Counseling) class. I learned about the natural healing processes of crying, trembling, laughing, raging, yawning, and unrepetitive talking. With a peer who cared listening to me, I saw that I could get the help I tried to, but got little of, in the "mental health" system. I figured out why and how I had ended up in the "mental health" system in the first place. (For that story, see my chapter in Psychosocial Approaches to Deeply Disturbed Persons, edited by Mark Stern and Peter Breggin, Haworth Press.)

I learned that if I could pay attention closely to my young son and let him cry and rage (e.g. have "temper tantrums"), laugh as much as he needed to, he would be able to function really well, and learn well. I found that I never needed to "discipline" him. He would either be cooperative, or need help emotionally with something. After I would listen to him long enough, he would clear up the problem himself. Both my sons are now in great shape as young adults. I also learned how to build my support system, how to make lots of friends, and get close to people. I now Co-Counsel regularly with about thirty people (lots of them via phone), many of whom I work with closely on "mental health" issues. Some of these people are psychiatric survivors like me, but many are not. About 100 people are in my larger support network of people I work closely with. I also now have many close friends.

Best of all for an ex-patient, I had found something that not only did not make me feel inferior, as I felt when analyzed by a psychiatrist, but required me to also be counselor for someone else. This allowed me to build my confidence and helped keep my attention off my problems. I began to realize there was nothing essentially "wrong with me" that no one else struggled with. I was not "unusual," the only person with "severe problems." As a client in a Co-Counseling session, I was never given "advice" or "guidance" but got lots of attention, love, peer support, and encouragement. As I became a better client, more able to "open up" and release my emotions, I automatically became a better counselor, too; more able to listen well to others and help them "open up" and release emotions. Eventually, I stopped getting depressed periodically, and began to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Around 1978 I decided that not talking about my history as an ex-"mental patient" was holding me back. I sought other Co-Counselors who were also ex-"patients." There were a few that I found. (The Co-Counseling Communities are not primarily made up of "ex-patients." There are people with all kinds of backgrounds, including teachers, carpenters, union organizers, feminists, "mental health" workers, young people in school, parents, nurses, engineers, doctors, etc.). Together we began to build a movement of psychiatric and therapy survivors within Re-evaluation Counseling.

Along the way in 1992, I was appointed the International Liberation Reference Person for "Mental Health" System Survivors in the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities. (That was later changed to International Liberation Reference Person for "Mental Health" Liberation). This summer our second International "Mental Health" System Survivors' Leaders Conference was held in London, England with 65 people from 13 countries attending.

Meanwhile, in 1981 I had made a commitment to myself to see that "mental health" oppression ended. I began working towards that outside of the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities, as well as within them. In 1987 I was hired by Pennsylvania Protection and Advocacy to help organize the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers' Association (PMHCA) and do training on rights advocacy. In 1988 I met and began working with David Oaks. In 1989 I left my job with PMHCA and in 1990 David and I co-founded MindFreedom International.

In 1998 MindFreedom began the Support System Construction Project. Within this project, we are teaching skills of self-healing and recovery, peer support, how to get off and stay off of psychiatric drugs, what to do instead of using drugs, healing "normality" (celebrating nonconformity), and community organizing.

When we titled the crisis prevention series "take charge of your mind," we hoped to get across to people the idea that humans are more powerful than any hallucinations, delusions, or other distresses that may occupy one's mind. When I say "take charge of your mind," I mean just that. I assume that your mind belongs to you and that you can not "lose your mind." If you think about it, where would your mind go if you "lost it"? Could it fly out of your head? Be taken over by an alien being that gets in your head and controls your mind? I don't think so.

I assume that whatever your beliefs about your mind currently are, YOU are in charge of them. This means you can reclaim your ability to decide how your life will be, what you will focus your attention on, whether or not you will sink into depression or whether you'll have a fun day. Some people may not feel like they can do that, but that's where these workshops can help them: by helping people understand and use the power of decision to focus their attention where THEY want it.

As part of taking charge of one's mind, people taking the workshops learn a five-part program of focusing one's attention away from stressful activities and thoughts, and onto empowering, fulfilling ones. The program includes these parts:

  1. Building your personal support network
  2. Creating space in your life for fun
  3. Restructuring your life to fulfill your dreams
  4. Refocusing attention while healing
  5. Making a commitment to focus on now, not on the past.
For example, during a recent crisis prevention workshop, I worked with a psychiatric survivor in a demonstration. She said she was hesitant to talk about anything because her experience in the "mental health" system had been so hard. She said she had very low self-esteem. I asked her to appreciate herself and to only talk about what is great about her. She laughed and laughed, releasing embarrassment, when she began to talk about herself as a good person. She ended up feeling better about herself at the end of the demonstration. At another workshop, I worked with two men who are still involved in the "mental health" system. The first man volunteered to make the commitment to focus his attention away from distress and on to pleasant, rewarding things. I gave him a sentence to repeat after me, making that decision. He did not seem open to the idea at all, even though he had volunteered, and repeated the sentence woodenly. But after a while, his mind took charge and he changed the words of the sentence so that the content was the same, but the sentence had meaning for him, personally. I said, "I NOW decide to focus MY attention away from distress and on to pleasant, rewarding things, and that means...." He said something like, "I NOW decide to focus MY attention wherever I damn please because NO distress is going to take over MY mind. And THAT means I'm going to be having FUN in my life." By the end of the demonstration he had really gotten into it.

The second man wanted to work on building his support system. I pretended to be someone he wanted to make friends with. He told me what a great friend he would be for me, again, laughing off a lot of embarrassment along the way. Without so much embarrassment, it will be easier for him to make friends.

At a third workshop, two psychiatric survivors and I demonstrated how to run a peer support group using this method. Each of us took five minutes to talk aloud about any subject he wanted to, while the others listened. During our turns to talk, one of us cried, another laughed, and another got angry. Afterwards, workshop attendees saw how they could do a similar kind of thing with friends, in order to "let off steam."

The above are just a few examples of some of the skills practiced at the crisis prevention workshops. These skills are not like cooking with a cookbook, by the way. That is, there are no "recipes for success." Each example is unique; the same topic would probably be approached differently with a different person. By learning to use these skills consistently, people can help themselves and each other enough to be able to stop using psychiatric drugs. These skills are a very practical alternative to using psychiatric drugs, as well as to using alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and any other addictive drugs.

Besides the crisis prevention workshops, we also offer workshops facilitated by David Oaks on community organizing, workshops facilitated by David Cohen (a sociology professor at the University of Montreal) on how to withdraw from psychiatric drugs, workshops on leadership development, healing "normality," and other subjects.

David Oaks's community organizing workshop includes the basic steps for community organizing and how it differs from advocacy. Additionally, he summarizes MindFreedom campaign issues, actions participants could take in relation to these campaigns, and discusses how to pick an issue strategically. People get a chance to role play various strategies and/or begin planning their own local campaigns.

David Cohen's workshop, called Stopping Psychiatric Drugs Prudently and Effectively, covers taking the necessary steps to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards of withdrawal, understanding the withdrawal process and the fears that accompany the decision to withdraw, and common withdrawal effects. It covers the planning and preparation stages, how to seek support (and what to do if you don't get any), how to obtain information, how to reduce drug intake, and other key topics. David Cohen and I have a combined workshop that includes how to get off drugs and what to do instead of taking them. The leadership development workshops take the skills learned in the crisis prevention workshops one step further. At these workshops, people who have mastered the above skills learn how to use them to enhance their abilities to lead others. The workshop covers how to eliminate internalized oppression (eliminating beliefs in the lies perpetuated about one's oppressed group), reclaiming power, and dealing with conflicts.

The healing "normality" workshops are based on the "Ten Warning Signs of Normality." They cover how to help other people get out of being total conformists; how to combat "normality" in yourself; and breaking the stereotypes of what "mental patients", psychiatric survivors, and "normals" are like.

If you are interested in finding our more about any of these workshops, you may contact Janet Foner by email at: jbfoner@ptdprolog.net