The Story of the Freedom Center

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When Oryx Cohen and Will Hall met and co-founded the Freedom Center four or five years ago, there simply were no grassroots organizations in Western Massachusetts by and for those diagnosed with mental illness to go to for support, to advocate for and politically empower themselves. For someone done with being "in treatment," and ready to speak up for the rights of those diagnosed, there was nothing.

At the anarchist fair in the Amherst town green on Labor Day, 2003, I was milling around the literature tables and noticed an unusual booth. The sign on the booth said"”"The Freedom Center"”an organization by and for those labeled with mental illnesses." I noticed the crucial use of the word "labeled," but I still couldn't entirely believe what I was seeing.

So I asked a round smiling man standing at the booth"”"You know, I'm looking for an organization for ex mental patients that isn't pro-medication"¦"

"You've found us," he said, beaming down at me.

"But you know," I stammered, "I'm also looking for an organization that isn't anti-med, cuz, you know, personally I decided to stop taking medication myself, but a lot of my friends still swear by them and I don't necessarily disagree with them"¦"

"You've found us," he repeated, still grinning.

I took a flyer, saw that the meetings were in downtown Northampton where I lived, and a month later I went to my first Freedom Center support meeting.

I was lucky enough to have found what I was looking for, and I've stayed with the Freedom Center for the past two years as an active organizer. I speak at workshops and colleges, organize and participate in events and protests, and perform a variety of other functions to promote education and activism around issues of mental health and the establishment that surrounds it. I agree with"”and in fact, am wildly vehement about"”every single component of the Freedom Center mission statement, which runs something like this (off the copy on our website)

Freedom Center is the area's only group run by and for people labeled with severe "˜mental illnesses.' We call for compassion, human rights, self-determination, and holistic alternatives. We stand against the mental health system's widespread despair, abuse, fraudulent science and dangerous treatments.

Our goals are to end all force and coercion, including involuntary treatment and forced drugging; to ensure that all treatment decisions are based on true informed consent; to support effective alternatives to toxic psychiatric drugs such as nutrition, exercise, and holistic health care; to promote voluntary, non-paternalistic social supports such as peer-run programs, housing, and therapy; to expose psychiatric and the pharmaceutical industry myths, propaganda, and corruption; to make true client control and empowerment the center of all mental health services; to defend our human rights; and to end fear and misunderstanding of "madness" and extreme states of consciousness.

Despite how excited I am about how we've politicized "crazy" people's rights in general, I think we've really achieved the most through our support group. The peer-run model that we follow is everything therapy isn't. It makes such a difference to work through one's problems among peers rather than trying to solve them within a hierarchical model. In our support groups, we try to help people make decisions based on their values rather than judging them according to an APA-approved notion of what is "adjusted", "functional", and "mentally healthy." These standards can literally terrorize people.

A year ago, a young college student came to our group struggling to escape an abusive relationship. We emotionally supported her through many weeks of terror, and finally helped her talk to her college administration about securing emergency housing. Now, a year later, she is one of our most accomplished activists, representing us in our alliance with local domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers as they work to build better access to services for trauma survivors diagnosed with mental illness.

When this woman is asked why she chose to come to the Freedom Center for help rather than a domestic violence shelter or other more traditional services, she says that she was afraid being committed or thrown out of the shelter because of her cutting. And, "who were they going to believe"”the hysterical young girl crying and cutting herself with a kitchen knife or the calm, forty year old man who claimed that she was crazy?"

At the FC support groups, we honored her cutting as a coping mechanism she was using to get through an extremely difficult situation"”she told us how the cutting left a tangible mark of her pain that she could see so that she could remember that the abuse was occurring, despite her abuser's denial. We also suggested other, less damaging coping mechanisms that she could use when she was ready to move on to them. We didn't fly off the handle and become overly interventionist, thus making her feel even more powerless in a situation that was already disempowering her. Because some of us had been cutters, we did not judge her from a supposedly superior position. We let her control her own recovery, treating her as our equal"”and that made her recovery possible.

The support group is non-directive, allowing each person to focus on what they want to focus on. It's amazing how much more you can feel like a self-actualizing, adult human being when you're actually allowed the privilege of deciding what's important in terms of your problems, your life, and your self.

When I started going to the support group, people actually considered the possibility that, just like a "normal" person, I was affected by my surroundings, for better or for worse. My bad mood didn't have to be my "bipolar disorder""”it was probably just the fight with my lover I had that day, or the fact that I was a queer first generation sex worker, or because I'd missed my bus. Being treated as if I had a rational reason behind my responses did wonders for my sense of myself as a person rather than a mental patient.

At the Freedom Center, we're agnostics about the cause of the emotional extremes that the mental health industry calls "mental illness." At the support group, we give people enough respect to allow them to be the final authority on the "cause" of their problems. Some people feel that they have no problems besides the ones foisted upon them by a mental health system in which they have been deeply misunderstood. After all, the people who are most likely to be labeled with "mental illness" are members of marginalized groups"”poor people, people of color, and women. We also fully support people if they are firm believers in the biochemical model of mental illness, if that's the model that helps them live the lives they want to lead. By acknowledging that people are experts when it comes to their own selves, we create an environment in which people are best able to help themselves progress towards recovery, using the means they feel work best for them"”whether that's holistic healthcare, participation in community, making an effort to self-actualize and more fully live out their dreams, working through the trauma in their past, or taking psychiatric medication.

Being in community is a central thing that we can offer a population that's often characterized by its isolation. We agree with mainstream psychiatry in that we believe that those diagnosed with "mental illness" often suffer from loneliness and alienation and would do well to be embraced by a supportive community. Members of the Freedom Center support group see each other every week. We listen to each other's problems, and offer support, humor, and advice. We do each other little favors the way every interdependent community does, helping with rides and gas money and stepping in during emergencies, "psychiatric" or otherwise. During the week we worry about one another, we e-mail and call one another, politically collaborate with each other and even go to movies and activist events together. We celebrate each other's successes and mourn each other's losses. In this way, people labeled with severe "mental illnesses" who are used to nothing but isolation get to experience what being a part of a vibrant, living community is like"”that is, what being truly cared about is like.

Finally, the Freedom Center does "crazy" people the biggest favor of all by acknowledging that they can give help as well as receive it. By inviting all support group members to participate in our activist campaigns if they have a mind to do so we remind people who may have spent years internalizing the message that they are hopeless invalids that they are actually competent enough to have a part in changing the world if they so choose.

In a sense, I think we have more hope for the recovery of "mental patients" than the mental health industry does. Mainstream therapy's highest hope for the "cured" mental patient is that he or she is once again able to conform within the society that cast him/her out. We believe that (ex)mental patients are a group of people who have the creativity and dynamism necessary to change that society.

You can find out more about the Freedom Center on their website, http://freedom-center.org.