Healing Voices

Several years back, I was presented with an opportunity to produce a short film for Freedom Center, a growing community of people identifying as “survivors of psychiatry”. They had come together around rethinking how we support individuals experiencing extreme mental states, or what is commonly referred to as psychosis. Oryx Cohen and Will Hall – Freedom Center co-founders – had been offered an opportunity to tell the story of their work, replete with this short film at center, as the featured “Philanthropic Pitch” on Forbes.com. Big visibility for a community organization that started out meeting on the sly in church basements. Hoodies up, voices hushed. With no budget and on very short notice, we pulled the film together, and the story of Freedom Center became one of the top-rated articles on Forbes.com for several days running. This response awakened me to the cultural significance of a story that needed to become part of a broader social dialogue.

 Since that time, I have had the good fortune of immersing myself in the world of “alternatives” to mainstream psychiatry. And what I discovered were countless individuals who had been given a singular message: their extreme states or emotional distress were a disease of the brain from which they would never recover, and that they would need to take powerful medication for the rest of their lives. The irony is that they were now living meaningful lives in their community. Holding jobs, starting families. Many had gone through the difficult process of getting off the psychiatric drugs that were doled out to them like insulin for diabetes. Moreover, they were paying it forward by supporting others going through similar experiences. In short, living proof that the status quo for mental health “treatment” in the United States was doing more harm than good for many, and ground zero of a decades old human rights battleground.

The upshot is, these individuals, groups, and organizations were helping people reframe the message they had been given by psychiatry – that they were genetically broken, dysfunctional human beings – in order to move forward with their lives. Evolving to view what was labeled as “mental illness” as a natural response to trauma or life circumstances, that needed to be understood, journeyed through. And that, by doing so, they could emerge more whole, and find meaning in these experiences.

Through a camera lens, I have been privileged to hear hundreds, maybe thousands, of people’s personal stories. And I learned this: that the relationship between trauma – childhood trauma in particular – and individuals who end up with a psychiatric diagnosis, is staggering. That giving emotional distress or life difficulties a diagnosis combined with powerful psychoactive drugs, contributes to the chronicity of the issues it portends to treat. And that the biological model of mental illness as a “chemical imbalance of the brain” that has been packaged and sold, alongside the notion that the solution to our problems reside in the specious promise of a tiny plastic bottle, is neither grounded in real science, nor acknowledging the complexity of human experience. The list goes on.

But enough of all that. Like so many social movements to precede it, ‘”Mad Pride” has taken root, and begun to turn the tide. Less than 10 years ago, Oryx and Will and the other members of Freedom Center were gathering underground, fearful of being seen or heard. But in short order that paradigm has shifted. Today, along with countless others, they speak loudly about the message of hope and recovery from even the most severe mental health conditions. Of harm reduction approaches to coming off of psychiatric drugs. About the resiliency of the spirit, and the depths of human experience. About our capacity to learn, and to grow.

Movies can be a social tool, and I feel privileged to bring this story to light. As a father and a husband and a son and a friend I have no choice but to take what I have learned and present it to the world. Not to prove or politicize a point of view, but to help change the story. With the hope that, if this documentary can reach a family, or a young person going through a crisis, it may inform their choices. Because they are not alone, and there is no such thing as broken.

PJ Moynihan – Northampton, MA, USA (circa 2014)