We are a Society that is Dangerously out of Balance

Mad in America Film Festival Talk
October 12, 2014
Arlington, MA

According to a recent CDC report, Americans are enjoying a higher overall life expectancy, yet the suicide rate is at a 25 year high. People with serious mental health diagnoses are still dying 25 years younger than the population. And if we look at America overall, our mental and physical health outcomes really lag behind the rest of the developing world. We spend a lot of money on expensive and generally ineffective interventions, but invest little in the well-being of our people. We do shockingly little to address the issues of social, economic, and political inequality, which all impact on our mental, physical, and collective social health.

I think the rise of biological psychiatry is a symptom of a much larger problem we face in America. It’s no coincidence that innovations like Open Dialogue and the Hearing Voices Network are coming from Europe and Scandinavia. Our American brand of psychiatry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We have a society that is organized in a way that it is driving people to madness, violence, and suicide. The sickness of our society is reflected in the disciplines and systems and the prisons and the institutions that it has created to deal with the people that it drives mad. Our way of life is killing us, and it is a way of life that I would argue is driven by the excesses of our economic system.

We are a society that is dangerously out of balance. This is reflected in our public spending priorities, our militarism, our inability to look at the root causes of the violence tearing us apart, our rising rates of suicide, mass incarceration, and increasing disability due to mental health issues. American politics suffers from a staggering lack of insight, with its desire to focus only on half-hearted, myopic responses to symptoms of the problems we face.

We, as people who have experienced trauma, distress, and psychiatric oppression, and have liberated ourselves, have an unprecedented opportunity to articulate a vision for society that is restored to balance, and must fight to see that vision implemented. That means that we have to get our hands dirty and get involved in the political process.

According to a 2013 report by the IOM and the National Research Council entitled U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, “the largest obstacle to addressing the U.S. health disadvantage is not a lack of evidence or uncertainty about effective interventions but limited political support among both the public and policy makers to enact the policies and commit the necessary resources to implement them.”

The report goes on to say, “Meaningful initiatives to address the underlying causes of the U.S. health disadvantage may have to address the distribution of resources that are now directed to other categorical priorities—a change that is likely to engender political resistance.” This is a prescription for radical activism around our economic and political systems.

I want more people to get angry about the fact that we don't have housing and health care and good social care in this obscenely wealthy country. I want more people to be outraged about the inequality and the injustice, the lack of public investment in our health and well-being. Because anger is a much better motivator than despair.

If we are to truly address the root causes of the problems we face, we must move beyond our narrow missions and embrace a paradigm of collaboration and solidarity. Activists have coined the term “intersectional justice,” which is defined as “the pursuit of justice emphasizing that no individual or community lives a single-issue struggle, specifically centering multiply marginalized folks.”

Being involved in the fight to defeat HR 3717, oppressive national mental health legislation over the last ten months has opened my eyes to the need for intersectional justice as never before. Because at its essence, this legislation represents a war against the marginalized, disempowered, and disenfranchised. What makes it so frightening is that it is cloaked in a form of benign paternalism, of "helping."

We find ourselves in a climate today that is quite Orwellian. A climate where coercion is referred to as “love,” and “assistance” is a euphemism for forcing people into unwanted services and often life-threatening medications. When we demand the right to choose and direct our health care, when we demand housing and education and meaningful work, we are accused of "lacking the insight" to achieve these things. It’s a climate where we are demonized and scapegoated in all the major media as part of the problem, instead of what we know we are: perhaps the best hope for a solution to help fix our broken world.

When I first was appointed as director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery six months ago, I thought about building the coalition as a true, peer-led NAMI alternative. And while I still think that is a worthy goal, I would like to go even bigger with it. I would like to see NCMHR be part of a much broader-based coalition of social justice and human rights groups, such as the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) working together to address the root causes of the intersecting oppressions that we face, and to galvanize the outrage necessary at the grassroots level to demand real change.

The fight before us, as I see it, is chiefly for social and economic rights, which are the essential pre-conditions of well-being. We must fight to create an America that re-distributes its resources and actually invests in the well-being of its people. And this means that we must fight against the excesses of free market capitalism, which would have us invest as little as possible in social welfare and protecting our planet, while concentrating wealth and power into the hands of an increasing few who would happily destroy it all to ensure the corporate bottom line.

I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but I wonder if we are frankly running out of time. I am reading Naomi Klein’s new book on climate change, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, and she points out that we are currently emitting carbon at a rate that could mean near-certain catastrophe for the planet in our very lifetimes. Klein comes to the conclusion that change will have to come from below, as the political system has been largely co-opted by the corporate agenda. She says, “either we embrace radical change ourselves or radical changes will be visited upon our physical world. The status quo is no longer an option.”

We as "mad" people, as psychiatric survivors, as people in mental health recovery, as wounded healers, can and should be an essential part of fomenting the grassroots revolution that will be needed to help save ourselves before it’s too late.

Leah Harris