Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective Building Alternatives to the Mental Health System

*Radical: From the Roots to the Extremes

The Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective is a group of people who have all struggled with mental health problems either in their own lives or as allies to friends and family. We are trying to open discussion about alternatives, provide resources, and get dialogue going about mental health in the radical community.

We are group of people who’ve decided to work together on specific projects. While we don’t offer each other support through the kinds of processing and group sharing that tend to happen in traditional “support groups,” we do find working side by side with people who share the same struggles and hopes for the world builds a sense of solidarity and connection that supports all of us in our daily efforts to build healthy lives and survive the madness of the world.

We’re probably best described as an activist or affinity group, which is usually understood as a small group of people who work together autonomously on direct actions or other projects. The concept of affinity groups and collectives goes back hundreds of years and was particularly successful in the Spanish Civil War, when groups of people in local communities organized to discuss ideas and plan actions.

You can form an affinity group with your friends, people from your community, workplace, or organization. Affinity groups challenge top-down decision-making and organizing, and empower those involved to take creative direct action. Affinity groups by nature are decentralized and non-hierarchical, two important principles of anarchist organizing and action.

Activist/affinity groups can form in all kinds of ways: some, like Food Not Bombs, are open to anyone who drops by that week and starts chopping vegetables; other groups form around specific political events or actions; others begin as discussion groups or support groups for the people involved.

The Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective began through dialogue in the community and partially through the gentle prodding of a mutual friend of many of the collective members. A handful or so of us received a mysterious email invitation:

“I’m e-mailing you because I’ve met you and know the active work that you do around radical mental health stuff, I trust the integrity of your work, and I would like to propose to you the idea of working together to create a new collective and/or mutual support network of East Bay anarchists/radicals actively involved in mental health/psychology areas. I envision that we could help each other in producing a number of different things – everything ranging from publication of new and old material, counseling, work-shops, support groups, developing radical mental health theory, and even the possibility of creating a new East Bay mental health free clinic. These are just a few possibilities among many. Actual activity, and organizational structure (or lack thereof), is all up to us to determine.”

One member of the collective felt partially motivated to join the collective because of the Bush Administration’s steady pressure to dispense psychiatric drugs to more and more children, diagnosing the very nature of childhood as mental illness. “I don’t want my child to grow up in a society where teachers are required to drug their students.”

After e-mailing back and forth for several days, a small crew of people agreed to meet around someone’s kitchen table on a Thursday night. We discussed our hopes and frustrations with the current systems of mental health support, shared parts of our personal stories, and started plotting projects we could undertake to start creating some of the changes we wanted to see. It became clear pretty quickly that all of us were burned out on collaborative efforts that involved taking on too much work and getting overwhelmed, so we agreed in the interest of our own mental health that we would begin by meeting weekly and committing to small projects we felt like we could actually complete.

After spending a few weeks getting to know each other and discussing possibilities ranging in scale from a mental health lending library at the local infoshop to a free clinic in the East Bay, we decided to start by facilitating a class on Radical Mental Health with the newly formed East Bay Free School.

Our class description ended up something like this:

The aims of the radical mental health class are many. We hope to inspire discussion about the mental health industry and valid institutional critiques of this system. We would like to analyze perceptions of “mental illness” within our culture and media. We aim to help create forums where those involved in the mental health system can locate and create alternatives that meet our needs in non-hierarchical, non-exploitative, and non-dominating ways. We see great benefit in encouraging self-care and awareness of one’s options for healing. We aspire to a world where there are strong communities that care for one another with compassion and justice. We recognize the complexities of the mental health system and continue on.

The class has turned out to be the most popular, consistent class at the Free School. We have a focused topic each week, and usually incorporate some mix of information compiled by collective members and open discussion into our class time. Topics for the classes have included: language and madness, race/class/gender and mental health, medication vs. herbs, and shamanism and mental “illness”. Some weeks we have a specific person facilitate the class, which helps us stay on topic and prevents any one person from taking up too much conversation space. Other weeks we have more of an open discussion led and shaped by everyone who’s come to the class that week.

Overall, it’s been a really effective structure that allows people to participate as much or as little as they want, and creates a space for dialogue where a whole diverse range of people return loyally to discuss their shared questions and concerns about the way mental health is understood in our society. This has worked really well for us and thus far none of our collective members feel like the commitment level required is going to make us go crazy.

In fact the momentum that we feel from this past summer’s free school classes has propelled us forward into inviting new collective members, continuing classes into the fall, and discussing new projects. We hope to have a Radical Mental Health Resource List out for the New Year and have plans in the works to start a radical mental health support group. Other projects that we aspire to in the future are creating a mental health lending library, group therapy, a hotline, free peer counseling, and ultimately the acquisition of our very own space where all of these things can happen.

We’re taking things as they come and flexibly working and making sure to meet ourselves where we’re at before moving forward in order to maintain our health and the sustainability of the project itself. We believe that this is a model that would benefit many other radical projects that time and time again fizzle out due to the common ailment known as “activist burnout” in our communities.

The need for mental health support and resources in our communities is glaring and this fact has been demonstrated to us through the participation, active involvement and enormous response we have had in the past several months.

If you are interested in mental health issues and would like to start a similar collective in your area, feel free to get in touch with us and ask questions. The need for such resources and support is so great that we have found here in the Bay that things really fell into place and happened organically. We suggest you start small, form a collective, have a weekly class, and help build an alternative to the current mental health system!

To join our listserv and receive information on the free school class schedule as well as other upcoming events and projects email radicalmentalhealthcollective@lists.riseup.net or call 1-800-MY-YAHOO, press the # key and enter the ten digit code (radicalnut) to hear upcoming events and classes. Feel free to leave a message if you have questions.