Reflections on the AOT dialogue

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The personal is the political. My thirteen years as a mental health activist have been fueled by deep tragedies. I was born to two parents who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I had the misfortune of spending 30 years of my life helplessly watching them steadily decline until they both died quite young. My mother, once a promising young artist and poet, was under some form of outpatient commitment and guardianship for large swathes of her life. She was so traumatized by the coercive “treatments” that she was subjected to in Milwaukee state hospitals — including forced medication with antipsychotic drugs, as well seclusion and restraint — that she fought further help, until she died at age 46 due to the effects of antipsychotic-induced metabolic syndrome and a broken heart.

My father, who had an encyclopedic memory and was full of ambitions in the technology sector, largely complied with his mental health treatment, but never had a good quality of life, either. Though our family did our best to support him through a maze of broken systems, he was largely isolated in his community, and was so overmedicated that he slept for 18 hours a day. No one would hire him, and he was thwarted from achieving his dreams. He died suddenly and shockingly at age 63, also due to toxicity from extreme overmedication and a broken spirit.

And I myself have also struggled with psychiatric disability and the medical/social responses to it for all my life. As an adolescent, I spent much of my adolescence marking off the days in various facilities and institutions. I was given many diagnoses and plenty of pills, but was denied compassion, education, dreams, opportunity, and hope. As a young adult, I almost ended up spending my life in a decrepit, filthy, frightening group home, where I was told I “belonged.”

But I managed to get on a different path — in large part, due to the support of my family and supportive educators, as well as discovering the movement of my peers who understood me, because they had similar experiences with psychiatric care and society’s stunning apathy and lack of compassion. There, I found true belonging.

We all agree that our systems are broken. The problems we face are grave. Young men in distress are opening fire in schools and communities. Four people with psychiatric disabilities have been killed by the police in the last two weeks. People are warehoused in prisons and systematically abused; left to wander the streets fighting their voices; are dying by suicide in droves; lack access to basic human needs such as housing, education, meaningful work, and social connection; face blatant discrimination and scorn in all spheres of life; and have little to no options in empathic, services or supports for themselves or their loved ones. I think the folks who are reading this letter are well aware of what we are dealing with here.

But advocacy groups, the general public, and Congress, face a clash of perspectives about what to do to fix this mess. Over the last 13 years, I have come to see how opposing views in the mental health advocacy world around liberty and privacy, whether “right” or “wrong,” have blocked the social justice we all want to see.  These divisions have led to a situation where we all lose. But the people who lose most are the most voiceless and powerless in our society. People like Kajieme Powell, a man with a psychiatric disability who was gunned down by police in St. Louis recently. Or Andre Lane, an inmate who was brutalized by COs at Riker’s Island. Or Esmin Green, who was involuntarily committed to King’s County Hospital and died after 24 hours in the waiting room, in line to get “treatment.” Or foster children who are given drugs, not love

Breaking the cycle of violence and suffering 

I’ve been learning about the concept of dialogue since I was in college working for justice and peace in the Middle East in the mid 1990s. I found mentors in Len and Libby Traubman. Len and Libby have been champions of the “public peace process,” based on the premise that while governments are the official bodies that make laws and agreements, “newer ideas and sustainable implementation depend on public consent and involvement.”

I’ll be honest: when Scott asked me to participate in a dialogue with some folks who have been diametrical opponents in the policy sphere, my first internal reaction was fear and “hell no.” But then I remembered what my mentors had written years ago – the first step is simply willingness to engage and to keep an open mind and heart: 

So I immediately said yes, despite my trepidation, and joined the “Defiant 8.”

Dialogue is very foreign to our conflict-ridden, debate-based society, which starts from our most divisive issues and invites endless rounds of verbal and written combat that generally serve to deepen entrenched positions. I suspect that all too often, debate shuts off the very innovation and creative thinking that we desperately need right now. We’ve got lots of intelligence in this world. What is lacking is heart.

Getting together as we did, in the spirit of dialogue and a willingness to listen, reconfirmed for me that we have far more common ground than issues of contention. 

I don’t know what is to come, but I have no choice but to remain hopeful in these challenging times. I can’t afford to sit in despair.

My hope is that we can begin a small ripple effect in our communities, generating the will for social justice. Until we do that, these deep and painful divisions will continue to be played out in our communities and in Congress, and we will never get the kind of excellent, comprehensive bipartisan legislation (and the public will to implement it) that struggling American people and families need to achieve our most cherished ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

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Leah Harris is a mother, storyteller, survivor, advocate and the Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery. She has written widely to promote human rights, dignity, healing, and self-determination, and has spoken at advocacy/activist gatherings and conferences including NARPA, Alternatives, and the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR). Her writing has appeared in publications including Off Our Backs: a Women’s Newsjournal, Adbusters.org, CounterPunch, Street Spirit and theicarusproject.net. Her spoken word album, “Take Refuge,” chronicles her journey from suicidal patient to human rights activist. 

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