Monday, May 14, 2012

What I Learned From the Psych Out 2011 Conference

By Melissa Farrell

Seeking a new vision for mental health care, I attended the Psych Out 2011 conference at the City University of New York (CUNY)’s Graduate Center in Manhattan on June 21, 2011. The conference was sponsored by the PhD Program in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY. The main organizer of the conference was Lauren Tenney, along with Dally Sanchez and Eva Dech, and many others.

Robert Whitaker, a journalist, spoke about his monumental book, Anatomy of an Epidemic. Whitaker was critical of modern medication treatments for mental illnesses. Whether you’re for medication or against it or whether you have found some kind of middle ground, Whitaker presented valid data about the subject. Whitaker’s first book on mental illness was Mad In America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill published in 2001. In it, he presented the history of the mentally ill in this country going back to the nation's beginnings. Whitaker argued that society does not have time for moral treatment. It is much cheaper and more time efficient to use medications even though they are not as effective as we would like to think.

Dr. Philip Sinaikin, through his book, PsychiatryLand provided a raw assessment of the field of psychiatry and recommended that drug therapy be replaced by empathic talk-therapy. He gave us a handout that included the stories of individuals termed “Poor Pete” and “Helpless Bill.” According to Sinaikin, no one tried to get to the root of their problems. Instead they were given medications and sometimes forced to take them against their will. Dr. Sinaikin described PsychiatryLand as a Disney Land, which has been hyped-up as a great place, but in reality is just a hot, overcrowded, noisy and expensive amusement park. Similarly, PsychiatryLand is where millions visit to reap the benefits of a rapidly advancing “brain science” to identify and treat the underlying physical cause of painful emotional conditions. Since we don't know exactly how the brain works, let alone how to fix it, is this not also a case of “image” supplanting “reality?”

I also learned about Soteria House in Alaska, a home-like alternative to hospitalization for people who are newly diagnosed or having their first break. The original Soteria House was created back in the 1970s in California by a psychiatrist named Loren Mosher. He advocated for a home where patients who were suffering from “extreme states” could heal as naturally as possible. The environment was meant to be a safe haven with caring workers who were not trained in the medical model. Research indicated that more patients were able to recover in this model without drugs, though some were not. If a person was not able to recover without drugs, attempts were made to help the person minimize their need for medication. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) eventually withdrew funding for this project possibly because it is cheaper to give someone medication and discharge them then to allow them to heal naturally in this type of setting.

Ann Rider, MSW, CPRP presented and discussed many revolutionary ideas in mental health including the use of “Narrative Therapy.” Narrative Therapy focuses on the stories of people’s lives and is based on the idea that mental health problems arise in social, cultural and political contexts. Each person produces the meaning to their life, so critical for recovery, from the stories that are available in these contexts.

Darby Penney, one of the authors of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic presented a social history of everyday patients in a state hospital and what they went through. It chronicled various individuals’ lives from what their lives were like before and what became of them after being admitted to a state hospital in New York. They were people with careers, ambitions and livelihoods at various points in their lives. These people “fell from grace” as so often happens in the mental health system. I am happy that their stories live on.  

Hopefully, the Psych Out conference will promote the inclusion of alternatives to traditional mental health practice in a realistic and practical way that does more good than harm for patients’ well-being.

Note: Melissa Farrell is an advocate and writer. You can reach her at

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