Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Beyond Therapy: Autonomist Movements against "Mental Illness"

Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Beyond Therapy: Autonomist Movements against "Mental Illness"

Article excerpt

For autonomists, "mental illness" diagnoses and various psy practices are social constructions. Survivor and client movements provide spaces for examining those constructions and developing alternative constructions. These spaces can involve actual organizing spaces and resource centers such as the Freedom Center and its numerous workshops or venues and support networks such as the Icarus Group.

Autonomist movements also allow survivors to develop their own psychological and social practices based on their own needs and experiences. This contributes, as part of a holistic approach, to survivor self-determination, empowerment and independence, aspects that are central to biopsychosocial recovery models.

The concepts of autonomy, interdependence, and mutual aid that are central to autonomist movements are articulated in projects such as the Freedom Center and the Icarus Project contribute to the development of broader anti-psychiatry, psy survivor, and mad liberation movements. These movements pose crucial questions regarding what it means to be mad in an insane world, and create alternatives to coercive systems that currently manage and capitalize on notions of in/sanity. For autonomists, such systems are deeply authoritarian in nature, entrenched in patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist, and relations that serve to generate profit, justify incarceration, and enforce conformity (Dorter, 2007). This paper examines autonomist practices through a discussion of the Freedom Center and the Icarus Project.

Beyond Therapy: Autonomous Movements and Collective Alternatives.

Notions of mental illness exist through consensus and persist through convention. Despite programs and relationships that are structured around notions of self-determination, medical and psychological models are alive and well in recovery programs. Indeed, in many contexts they are still presented as essential truths, with their disease terminology, pathologizing and deficit-focus providing the powerful language of mental illness discourses (Walker, 2006: 72). As Walker (2006: 81) suggests, rigid abstractions such as "mental illness" are "linguistic 'balls and chains' when it comes to helping people become self-determining."

Medical and psychological models "position practitioners as expert and client as more or less passive recipient of 'treatment.' The focus of 'treatment' is on the elimination of 'symptoms'" (Walker, 2006: 74). There is a reliance on therapists, who supposedly have the expertise, to help one overcome their "pathology." Such vocabularies of "expert" and "patient," "treatment" and "symptoms" are actually creating and reinforcing a particular world and worldview. They also serve to diminish the experiences and insights of "clients" themselves.

   By seeing the medical and psychological vocabularies as 
   truths (as opposed to perspectives) we cannot see the 
   profoundly destructive consequences of them. These 
   vocabularies comprise closed conceptual systems in which 
   everything can be explained within them (not unlike a so-called 
   'delusional' system). Martin Heidegger called these 
   often impenetrable, closed interpretive systems 
   hermeneutic circles (Walker, 2006: 82, emphasis in 

As Walker (2006: 82) concludes from his years of practice as a therapist: "Equally disturbing is the fact that this 'hermeneutically sealed' conceptual system keeps us from hearing and taking seriously the emerging voice of the people we are trying to help (e.g. the Mental Health Consumer Movement)."

The objectives and values of disabled peoples' organizations and organizations of users or survivors of mental health services have not always been consistent with consumerism. Such groups have attempted to assert the legitimacy of experiential knowledge and their status as citizens against official responses that would identify and construct them as self-interested pressure groups. …

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