Group Efforts: I'm OK, you're OK, even if we're not OK | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Group Efforts: I'm OK, you're OK, even if we're not OK

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A poster listing the "10 Warning Signs of 'Normality'" hangs in Katherine Hodges's Ukrainian Village kitchen. It cautions that such qualities as being obedient, boring, and gullible may be psychiatric problems like "adjustment prone," "hyper-inactivity," and "naivete disorder."

"I don't like seeing emotions and behaviors as illnesses," says the 24-year-old Columbia College student. "Your emotions and thoughts, no matter how troubling they might be, are not illnesses just because they are troubling."

Hodges is part of the psychiatric survivors movement, which agitates against forced psychiatric treatment and the increasingly cozy relationships between pharmaceutical companies, government, and the mainstream mental health system.

Two years ago she saw a psychiatrist for depressive symptoms and panic attacks. The doctor gave her an antidepressant that turned her into a sleepless cleaning machine. A few weeks later she reported the mania and received new meds--a sedative and a mood stabilizer. By the sixth month of treatment she was on yet another antidepressant and feeling increasingly uneasy about the regimen.

"It was very expensive, I felt condescended to, and I wasn't getting accurate information on these drugs," she recalls. "But the most disturbing part was, as soon as I got into the system, I started seeing myself on their terms. I started seeing myself as deficient...fitting myself into the diagnosis." For example, she says, she dyed her hair three times one week trying to achieve the right shade. But instead of feeling a little silly, she felt pathological. "And if this was happening for me, I wondered how much worse it must be for people getting more severe diagnoses. And I started finding out."

Hodges discovered revelatory information in books like Toxic Psychiatry, by Dr. Peter Breggin. And she found comrades on a multitude of Web sites, the most prominent of which is run by Support Coalition International at www.MindFreedom.org.

Empowered, she founded an advocacy group, Mad Lib, this May. Five days later Mad Lib held its first protest, outside the American Psychiatric Association convention here, carrying placards reading "Hugs Not Drugs" and chanting--in an echo of the shrinks' own words--"We're only trying to help you!"

While the movement attacks the mental health system in general, its current focus is on outpatients who are forcibly committed for refusing to follow the prescriptions of their doctors. "People are being severely punished on the chance that they will commit a crime. And that fits the category of preventative detention," says Hodges. "That was the same rationale for the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps. The idea was, this is an entire class of people--never mind what they are individually--that is an internal enemy."

She says mental illness has a shifting definition according to what society will tolerate, citing homosexuality--formerly considered a sickness--as an example. High-strung children are the latest targets, with expanding diagnoses of ADD and skyrocketing Ritalin scrips. And now, hotheadedness is referred to as "intermittent explosive disorder," shyness as "social anxiety disorder." If chemical imbalances are to blame, she asks, then why the malleable definition of what is an illness? "There's no legitimate basis for the medical model and there's no moral justification for forced treatment. People should be able to accept the drugs and diagnoses if they want to," she says.

Increasingly, people seem to want to. "It's sad," she says. "People think in order to have their problems taken seriously, it has to be an illness--something you go to an expert for. It takes things out of context, not looking to what else is going on in their life, not addressing how they might help themselves. It's just putting them into this view of themselves as damaged in some way."

This dynamic also generates corporate profits, says Hodges. "Essentially what we have is the drug companies paying millions of dollars to so-called advocacy groups like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill for those groups to push for laws to force drugs on people. Even the tobacco companies don't do something so devious."

Hodges wants people, especially twentysomethings, to look holistically at their lives to find constructive solutions to their problems, not just a diagnosis to hang them on. "We have been totally surrounded with a view of emotional problems that the drug companies want us to hear. People at the very least deserve some alternative information."

Mad Lib will provide just that on Monday at a party and discussion with David Oaks, a pioneer in the movement and the editor of its chronicle, Dendron magazine.

As for her own drug-free recovery, she says, "Getting active in something I care about tremendously made me feel better."

"Celebrate 30 Years of the Psychiatric Survivors/Alternatives Movement" starts at 5:30 PM on November 27 at Access Living, 310 S. Peoria, second floor. Call 773-227-9374 for more information.

--Joy Bergmann

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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