Radical mental health in Occupy — open minds and open source

There is a problem of diagnosis in just about any resistance movement: Either the status quo has become psychologically unhealthy, or the resisters are. On some level, the answer is usually both. Yet a prevailing stigma against talking about mental illness means that neither side of the conflict will admit to its own ailment, or its need for help.

That’s part of why Jonah Bossewitch is facilitating the creation of a new, collaborative zine-in-progress: Mindful Occupation: Rising Up Without Burning Out. In addition to being an organizer in several Occupy Wall Street working groups, Bossewitch is a software architect and is working on a doctorate at Columbia University about how questions of surveillance and transparency relate to psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. For years, he has been involved with The Icarus Project, an organization devoted to “navigating the space between brilliance and madness” — a space that the group resolutely recognizes as being politically charged.

Bossewitch and I met at a recent event hosted by Triple Canopy magazine in New York about Anonymous, where he showed me a draft copy of Mindful Occupation, and where we began the conversation that follows.

What prompted the writing of Mindful Occupation? Was it a response to a particular need or crisis?

When Occupy first began, some of the mental health activists I knew immediately started talking about occupying mental health, although nobody knew exactly what that would look like. We knew we had important knowledge and skills to contribute to the movement. We wanted to talk to people about the ways that psychiatry and big pharmaceutical companies contribute to social and economic injustice, to emphasize how important it is take care of the basics and each other in order avoid burnout, and how these themes are related through the language we use to describe each other’s behavior. Would Occupiers alienate and pathologize each other through languages of oppression, or unite and support each other with languages of compassion?

The movement generally scorned turning to the criminal justice system to resolve conflicts, but there was no such consensus when it came to dealing with emotional crises and behaviors outside the norm. Reports began to surface of protesters being forcibly hospitalized and medicated, and people were desperate for materials that offered alternative perspectives towards handling emotional trauma and navigating crises. Even amongst the most progressive circles of activists, few were equipped with the tools for dealing with these crises beyond the mainstream DSM — the Diagnostic Statistical Manual — and the pathologizing gaze of the psychiatric biomedical model.

Through some of the “mad pride” networks I was connected to, I began hearing more and more stories about protester burnout and emotional crisis at the occupations. Given the exacerbating conditions — lack of sleep, poor nutrition, exposure to the elements, and the violence and police brutality — it is unsurprising there were many frayed edges amongst the protesters. I wanted to help. One night in Zuccotti Park at the very beginning of the occupation, I found myself in a conversation with someone from the Sanitation Working Group, and was struck by the humility of someone focusing their energy on sustaining the community instead of clamoring to be heard by the rest of the world.

How did Mindful Occupation come together?

I’m a free-software developer and am a big believer in openness, collaborative processes and remix culture. In the past, I had worked on the booki platform, an open-source wiki that is designed to create print-ready PDFs, as well as ebooks in a range of digital formats. I knew that this tool had been used to support “book sprints,” in which teams would author a book in as little as a week. Our project took slightly longer than a week to assemble, but the inspiration came directly from prior booki projects, such as How to Bypass Internet Censorship and Collaborative Futures.

The idea of working on this book excited radical mental health activists from around the country, as well as street medics and mental health professionals involved in Occupy working groups. Some wanted to create materials to support teach-ins and workshops, and others found the work itself to be liberating and therapeutic. We also saw the publication as a device for provoking important conversations about community, peer-support and mutual aid.

And resources?

All of the labor on this project was completely voluntary, from the cover art, to the layout, to the fundraising video. We also made extensive use of prior materials that had been released under Creative Commons licenses. Since print remains an important medium of distribution and dissemination, we set up a Kickstarter project to help fund our print run and raised over $3,000. We released a draft version of the hard copy in time for May Day and the May 5 occupation of the American Psychiatric Association conference in Philadelphia.

What do you think characterizes what’s distinctive about radical mental health, as opposed to how mental health is typically practiced?

Radical mental health is about interconnectedness, diversity, embodied expertise, options and politics. For example, The Icarus Project is a network of people who envision 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 have been working to create a new language that talks about “dangerous gifts” instead of “mental illness.” One of the main ways we invent and enact this language is by creating safe spaces for people to share their own subjective narratives with each other, without judgment. Strangely, the idea that healing is fostered by community, peer-support and mutual aid has not been widely adopted by the mainstream. Mainstream psychiatry also fails to critique society and injustice, and incorporates this analysis into their explanations of trauma and suffering.

What kinds of background knowledge does the book draw upon for its approach to radical mental health? 

The Icarus Project has been creating and distributing materials that support people struggling with emotional crises for almost a decade, and we decided to begin compiling, remixing and authoring similar materials in the context of Occupy. We brought together materials on emotional first aid, navigating crises, preventing and healing sexual assault, as well as facilitating peer-support groups and coping with stress. Many of the preexisting materials needed to be re-contextualized. For example, we would find a great resource that was part of a PDF alongside one less relevant to Occupy, and had to do a lot of mixing and matching. When revisiting our older materials, we also found that some of it had aged poorly, and we reworked these portions with revised sensibilities.

We also authored a great deal of original content, including the introduction, sections explaining radical mental health, and an effort to connect corruption in psychiatry and pharma directly to the core concerns of Occupy. We are hoping that these sections will stimulate much more discussion, analysis and action.

Does the Occupy movement, in turn, bring any new ideas into the radical mental health community?

Personally, I developed fresh insights into radical mental health through many encounters at Occupy, which opened my eyes to much of what I had come to take for granted. I learned that radical mental health has less to do with any particular dogmatic position — around hospitalization, medication, coercion or diagnoses — and everything to do with authority and knowledge production. I learned that it is hard to find a proposition more radical than the disability rights mantra — “Nothing about us without us.”

One of the big challenges that the movement is still grappling with, it seems to me, is moving from the short-term mindset of the occupation to a longer-term strategy. What does this transition require, in terms of mental health?

Our country has been in a social recession far longer than the financial one. It will take a long time to unlearn our self-defeating habits and embrace languages of compassion and liberation, instead of mistrust and fear. First, we need to believe in the future — vividly imagine it, talk about it and manifest it. This movement, and activism in general, is notorious for its cycles of energetic bursts of creativity, followed by a crash. We have to be self-aware of these patterns, and take better care of ourselves and each other. We need to be more honest with ourselves about what we can tackle, learn how to recognize our triggers, learn how to say no, and learn how and when to bottom-line, delegate and collaborate. We especially need to avoid replicating habits of exploitation and oppression in our day-to-day interactions. We need to actively build our support networks when we are well, and create wellness plans that our friends can use to help support us when we aren’t. But, mostly, we need to re-learn how to breathe, share and love.

I remember, in the first week of OWS, several women were apprehended by police and taken away for psychiatric evaluation. To what extent has mainstream mental health been used as a tool of repression in the movement?

I have a good friend who joked that they could shut the entire movement down by diagnosing us all with oppositional defiant disorder! Occupy has had its share of incidents with psychiatry, though many of the stories have been covered up or never told. At one point, some people in the Zuccotti Safety Cluster wanted to recruit more psychiatrists. I thought that was nuts. It would be like bringing in off-duty police officers to help the deescalation folks patrol the park. Psychiatrists have the state-sanctioned power to forcibly lock someone up and medicate them without any due process. And this power is often abused, arguably systemically.

What bothers me most is the movement itself unwittingly using the concepts of mainstream mental health as a tool of repression. Initially, I thought that the mental health professionals volunteering at Zuccotti would be very receptive to questioning psychiatry’s mainstream medical models (and some were). Overall, I was stunned by the systemic efforts to silence and marginalize voices from outside the mainstream. While many in the Safety Cluster were fully engaged in critiquing social and economic injustice in the world at large, few seemed prepared to apply a self-reflective critique of their entrenched beliefs and professional norms.

It wouldn’t be the first time that people in a movement failed to live up to their own ideals. Do you have any insights into what makes this so difficult?

Activism can be paradoxical. We are trying to create safe spaces that are also designed to provoke and agitate. It is all too easy to locally reproduce the abusive power relations that afflict society at large.

Overcoming oppression helps everyone’s liberation. It is the group’s responsibility to challenge racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice, whenever they occur. Concentrating on these kinds of interpersonal issues within our organizing gives us a chance to model the kind of society we want to live in and, at the same time, functions as a performative critique of the mainstream. There is an urgent need to talk publicly about the relationship between social injustice and our mental health, and we need to start redefining what it actually means to be mentally healthy — not just on an individual level, but on collective, communal and global levels as well.

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