Confronting Bigots Intolerant of Alternative Mental Health Treatment

Despite the success of alternative mental health treatments for many people, there still exists bigotry against these approaches.
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"Webster's Dictionary" defines bigot as "a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion." Despite the success of alternative mental health treatments for many people, there still exists bigotry against these approaches.

For many self-defined "ex-mental health patients," "mental health treatment consumers," and "psychiatric survivors" who attended Alternatives 2010 Conference (September 29 through October 3 in Anaheim, California), D.J. Jaffe's September 30, 2010 The Huffington Post piece, "People with Mental Illness Shunned by Alternatives 2010 Conference in Anaheim" was insulting. Mr. Jaffe writes of the Alternatives 2010 Conference:

By failing to include 'people with mental illness' in the list of 'consumers' and 'survivors' who are invited, they are sending a not-so-subtle message: mentally ill not welcome.

Mr. Jaffe's statement can most politely be described as disingenuous. Mr. Jaffe knows full well that the Alternatives Conferences are attended by many people who have been in fact diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and other serious mental illnesses, but who have found that neither their diagnoses nor their standard treatments have been helpful. In other words, not only does the Alternative Conference welcome people who have been labeled as mentally ill, the conference celebrates them, and provides them an arena and a platform.

Why is there a need for alternatives to standard drug treatments? A long-term outcome study of schizophrenic patients who were treated with and without psychiatric drugs was published in 2007 in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, research psychologist Martin Harrow, at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, discovered that after 4.5 years, 39 percent of the non-medicated group were "in recovery" and 60 percent had jobs. In contrast, during that same time period, the condition of the medicated patients worsened, with only six percent in recovery and few holding jobs. At the fifteen-year follow-up, among the non-drug group, only 28 percent suffered from any psychotic symptoms; in contrast, among the medicated group, 64 were actively psychotic.

Mr. Jaffe states, "For the 'labeled' participants, there will be a workshop on how to go off medications. That could be a dangerous, if not deadly, 'alternative'." And Mr. Jaffee also implies that the keynote speaker is anti-medication. It is Mr. Jaffe who is dangerous here, dangerously misleading. Neither Will Hall who led a workshop called "Coming Off Medications" nor keynote speaker Robert Whitaker are "anti-medication." I know both of them, and they are proponents of people being able to make informed choices.

Whitaker, as a medical reporter for the Boston Globe, won a George Polk Award for medical writing, a National Association of Science Writers Award for best magazine article, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. In the solutions section of Whitaker's recent book "Anatomy of an Epidemic" (Crown Publishers, 2010), he describes how doctors in northern Finland use antipsychotic drugs sparingly and in an extremely selective, cautious manner when treating first-episode psychotic patients; also, a variety of alternative therapies are provided, and treatment decisions are made jointly with patients and their families. The results? "The long-term outcomes are," Whitaker notes, "by far, the best in the Western World."

Mr. Jaffe is again misleading when he states that Alternatives 2010 did not include people like his sister-in-law, "who suffers from the most devastating and debilitating mental illness: schizophrenia." Mr. Jaffe, I assure you, that both you and your and sister-in-law are welcome to any and all Alternatives Conferences.

David Oaks is director of MindFreedom and an attendee of Alternatives 2010. Oaks, as a young man, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. However, for several decades now, with alternative solutions and without psychiatric drugs, Oaks has not relapsed, and he has been a highly effective advocate for the rights of those diagnosed with mental illness. Oaks, understandably, was more than annoyed with Mr. Jaffe's piece. Oaks responded:

For 25 years the United States federal government has done at least one thing really well in mental health: They've funded an annual gathering of mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors who lead innovative peer-run programs for mental health. You'd think a blog like The Huffington Post would be intrigued about how a marginalized population has been finding its own voice, creating its own groups providing effective peer-delivered services, and influencing Washington, D.C.

To David Oaks, I say, Mr. Jaffe doesn't speak for The Huffington Post or its many bloggers. Mr. Jaffe sure as heck doesn't speak for me.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America's Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing).

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