I am part of both the Quaker community and a radical mental health community. My experiences with Quakers suggest that many Friends still conceptualize mental health using the old biopsychiatry model—a perspective that creates situations that stigmatize people. I invite Friends to consider reframing their view of mental health. I feel that my Quaker friends and the group I call my “Rad Mad” friends hold similar core values and that a radical mental health perspective would make Quaker communities more inclusive and Quakers better equipped to work for peace and justice.
Before I found the radical mental health community, I used concepts from the the biopsychiatry model to describe my experiences with mental health. When I experienced emotional distress, I would tell others (and myself) that I needed to “have my meds adjusted.” I used this language—even though it didn’t really match my lived experience—because I was afraid to resist the biopsychiatry model that said my emotional distress was the result of a chemical imbalance. I perpetuated the stigma and isolation I experienced by disconnecting my emotions from the context they were created in. The radical mental health community gave me alternative ways to frame my experiences.
Finding the radical mental health community helped me live with a greater sense of integrity. We don’t universally reject the idea that there is something problematic happening in our brains, but we do believe that psychological distress is much more complicated and nuanced than can be explained by brain chemistry. When I stopped pointing to the chemicals in my head as the explanation for my problematic behaviors and emotions, I was forced to address factors found elsewhere: in my environment, soul, communication style, and habits.
What I learned about myself in silent worship contradicted the limits psychiatry had imposed on my identity and hopes. This friction caused me a great deal of inner unrest, and for a short time, I left my Quaker meeting. It was during this period that I found the radical mental health community. In this new community, I stopped using my diagnosis as an excuse to avoid responsibility. Finding more authentic ways to describe my mental health made me a better Quaker, so I returned to my meeting feeling more prepared to take part in community. I also came back feeling led to share a radical view of mental health with Friends.
Quakers and my friends in the radical mental health community are already very similar. Both groups share the idea that a person’s experience doesn’t need to be mediated by an outside authority. In Quakerism, one can have an experience of God that does not need to be mediated by clergy, while in the radical mental health community, one is empowered to understand his or her experiences and identity without relying on mediation from mental health professionals, family members, or a diagnostic manual.
Quakers can be more inclusive of people with mental health concerns by eliminating disempowering language. I have heard Quakers say, “I didn’t know if it was a leading or if I was crazy.” I feel offended when people dismiss the ministry of those who have a psychiatric diagnosis. I need to be in a spiritual community that understands and accepts that I experience God during extreme states and emotional distress. My experience of God isn’t often associated with Zen-like bliss. I experience God in my anger about injustices, in the voices in my head, and in the energy I feel when I am compelled to work all night on a writing project.
I am offended by casual diagnosis, and I reject the idea that I should cease to have mad experiences. I understand that my unique perspectives and experiences are gifts from God. I believe that, given proper self-care and a commitment to the good of my community, I can use my spiritual discernment skills to harness the madness and create gifts that serve the needs of others.
As a person with lived experience of both madness and stigma, I suggest using principles from permaculture to better understand people with neuro, psychic, or mental diversity. In permaculture, there are no weeds to be pulled out or poisoned. Everything is used toward the overall garden design. A dandelion is not considered a weed; instead, it is appreciated for its deep roots that can pull nutrients to the surface. Is that “difficult” person a dandelion that is pulling truths to the surface, truths to which the rest of the group may not have equal access? Perhaps the difficult person gives the community needed movement.
Quakers and my radical mental health community share the idea that we need to remove the systems of oppression that cause harm if we are to create a truly just world. A tagline for the Icarus Project, one of the leading organizations in this movement, is “radical mental health in a crazy world.” Radical mental health activists recognize that emotional distress happens within a context. Quaker Friends would be better peacemakers if they understood this approach.
Many times, I have had the unfortunate experience of observing those Friends who are still bound to the old biopsychiatry model of mental health frame people with lived experiences as fundamentally different from themselves. It seems to me that many Quakers don’t have a sense that they are in the same community as those who have a diagnosis. The words I often hear are, approximately, “a mentally ill person came to our meeting for a few years.”
Aside from the meeting I currently attend, I have rarely, if ever, heard Quakers use the labels common to this religion—words such as “Friend,” “member,” or “attender”—to describe a Friend who has overt mental health concerns, as if this Friend isn’t a complete Friend. Yet, I don’t think of myself as a quasi-Quaker; I am not someone who has just been “showing up” to worship; I don’t “drop by” committee meetings. When we “other” people in this way, we have forgotten that people with diagnosis have real feelings, experiences, and needs.
Quakers who separate themselves from those they perceive as having a chemical imbalance are more likely to turn a blind eye to suffering and oppression. I feel completely disempowered when someone dismisses my reality. Explaining away my distress by saying it’s entirely the result of a chemical imbalance denies that I suffered abuse. Explaining away a condition such as homelessness, for example, by supposing that a chemical imbalance is the cause of a person’s housing crisis denies the fact that sleeping on the street is psychologically traumatic. In this way, biopsychiatry is a lie that emotionally enables us to claim helplessness and turn our backs on the most vulnerable people.
If I am going to work for peace and justice with a faith community, I need for the people I am working with to understand that mental trauma is the result of real experiences and not simply the result of chemical imbalances or cognitive distortions. Trauma is real. As Friends, we should be doing things to prevent trauma, not dismissing those who experience it. Radical mental health activists know that the causes of pain are real: racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, violence, terror, physical pain, emotional threat. Biopsychiatry says, “Your pain is imagined; your brain is broken; go away or take a pill.” What do Quakers say?
The next time you witness someone struggling with psychological distress, instead of wondering “what is wrong with this person?” try asking “what could have happened to this person?” If you have an intimate connection with the individual, ask him or her directly. When you reframe the question, you open yourself up to learn more about this person’s unique experiences, which may include traumas such as abuse, poverty, assault, or identity oppression. Acknowledging the resulting feelings and honoring the complete story is a helpful way to respond.
Sometimes people experience emotional distress because of how they are being treated by other Quakers. It is difficult to acknowledge that these experiences are real, but it is important that we don’t fall back on psychiatric labels and mental health stigma just to avoid uncomfortable feelings. The key features of psychological distress are disconnection and disempowerment, so dismissive language and avoidance can both cause an escalation of distress. Instead of falling into patterns of avoidance or dismissal, we can change our behavior to actively acknowledge feelings, honor experiences, and honestly ask: “What is needed for healing?”
Biopsychiatry blinds us to the truth about suffering. It is a veil; we need to be able to see truth in order to bring forth justice. Let’s allow this veil to fall. Sometimes, biopsychiatry is used as a tool to manipulate or violently force people to comply with power structures, and in these instances, we need to recognize biopsychiatry as the weapon it is. I look forward to the day when Friends no longer carry the biopsychiatry sword.
Both my friends in the radical mental health community and my Quaker friends understand the interconnectedness of all of creation, value the individual’s lived experience, and believe that transformation is possible. Quaker communities are said to be places where righteous people gather to co-create peace and justice. It’s time for Friends to include everyone.