The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Sascha DuBrul
EM: Can you tell us about the history of The Icarus Project, the vision of the organization and what it has accomplished?
SD: I would be happy to! Back in 2002, my friend Jacks McNamara and I founded The Icarus Project, a support network and education project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness.
We were both writers/artists and social justice activists in our 20s and had spent years navigating the psychiatric system because of our diagnoses of “bipolar disorder.” We used the myth of Icarus to talk about the ways our “mental disorders” could be seen as dangerous gifts, like having wings made out of wax: the kind of gifts that can feel like curses and need to be nurtured to unleash their power.
Early on we expanded our project to encompass many different experiences of psychic difference/extreme states of consciousness, really opening up a lot of space for thinking about mental diversity and ways that society challenges those of us who are sensitive and struggle to fit in. We ended up becoming a magnet for brilliant people trying to figure out how to be healthy and survive in a world that often pushes the sensitive ones to suicide and psych wards. We helped to carve out a lot of space for new ways of thinking about mental health and illness, and it grew way bigger than we ever expected.
The Icarus Project started as a website, we then wrote a series of publications, and eventually it developed into a network of support groups that were explicitly peer run, meaning that we saw ourselves as equals engaging in mutual aid and solidarity. People with clinical degrees and positions as therapists and psychiatrists could join our community, but only on equal ground, only if they were able to speak from their own personal lived experiences and struggles, outside their role as a clinician.
One of the foundational aspects of Icarus has always been that it’s a place both for people who take psychiatric drugs and those who don’t, people who use diagnostic categories to define themselves and those who reject the labels – we believe strongly in harm reduction and self determination. We have also always had a commitment to social justice, recognizing that so much of what gets called “mental illness” is interwoven with oppression: a system set up to divide us from one another and marginalize the people who aren’t viewed as productive. From the beginning Jacks and I saw that if we were going to create a healthier safety net we would actually need to create a new language and culture that could reflect and hold the beauty and complexity of many people’s diverse experiences.
In 2015, after twelve years, I stepped back from working on The Icarus Project so that I could focus on social work school and developing a clinical practice. Icarus still very much exists as a national organization with an advisory board, a loose network of international support groups, and an inspiring vision for many people who remain engaged struggling to change the mental health system. For a lot of us there remains a community that we have built through shared history and struggle. These days, more than ever, there is a commitment from the national organization to center the experiences of the folks most marginalized in society, raising up the voices of people of color, LGBTQI and all those at the center of multiple existing intersections of oppression. Here’s a link to Icarus’ most recent publication Madness and Oppression.
EM: You write about “Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness.” Can you tell us a little bit about your thoughts on that?
SD: As someone who has spent my adult life struggling to find a balance between visionary creativity on the one hand, and destructive manic behavior that gets me in trouble on the other, I find it useful to work towards a space between the two where I can engage with my intensity without crashing and burning.
Our society is so quick to pathologize difference and there is an institutional tendency to quell behavior that appears out of line and put it back in a labeled box in the service of the monoculture. That said, sensitive people like us are often our own worst enemies because we aren’t taught the skills to recognize the signs of impending internal chaos and to know what to do.
When you add growing social and economic oppression into the mix we find ourselves with a heavily medicated and/or incarcerated population of people who might otherwise be contributing to making our world a better and more beautiful place. I truly believe that the ones who have been the most harmed and damaged often have the most to share and teach if given the opportunity to heal and use their experiences to guide others.
Meanwhile, on a very personal level, I know that so much of the most important parts of my being—the parts that allow me to feel connected to something larger then myself, that give me the capacity to connect with others intensely through their art and music and words, the parts that allow me to build bridges between multiple ideas and develop creative new visions for the world with others—ALL of these aspects of my personality walk the line of what is considered “pathology.” So many of the most important parts of myself and the most treasured memories I carry with me on this journey, could easily be labeled “manic” or “hypo-manic” behavior if we were diagnosing them using the lens of the DSM-V.
At some point I decided that it was really important for me, personally — not for any doctor or institution — to figure out when I feel like I’m healthy and when I cross over a line into a space that feels pathological. And the metaphor of ‘navigating’ between extremes feels really useful if what I’m trying to do is stick around and build a meaningful and vibrant life for myself.
So much of it is actually very basic: getting enough sleep, eating good food, exercising every day, having a routine and sticking to it, keeping good company. My style of navigating is a lifelong practice and I find it’s a much more useful and interesting than a classic clinical conversation about pathology and symptom reduction for my biological illness.
EM: Tell us about Transformative Mutual Aid Practices (T-MAPs), the origins of it and the vision for where it’s going.
SD: Transformative Mutual Aid Practices (T-MAPs) is an emerging set of workshops I’ve been developing that grew directly out of my experiences organizing with The Icarus Project. T-MAPs is basically a set of communication tools for building a personal written and illustrated “map” of resilience practices and cultural resources.
T-MAPs was initially inspired by advanced directives and related recovery tools for planning mental health treatment options in times of crisis. The T-MAPs practice goes beyond the usually defined mental health concerns to articulate larger strategies, life-goals, and social visions that are helpful not just in times of distress but also in times of flourishing. Rather than approaching advanced directives as primarily a mental health practice, in The Icarus Project we turned it into a group practice of mutual aid, imagination, and prefigurative cultural change.
In recent years I’ve developed an adaptable workshop curriculum that’s a mix of collective brainstorming, creative story-telling, theater games, art/collage making, and breath/mindfulness practices. Each participant collaborates with the group to complete a personalized booklet (or “T-MAP”) that’s a guide for navigating challenging times, coming back to what we care about, and communicating with the important people in our lives.
We ask each other questions like “What is most important to me?” and “What am I like when I am most alive?” as jumping off points for conversation and leaving written trails for ourselves. There are a few different versions of these map-making tools, Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) being the mother of them, and I think they are an emerging practice that’s going to continue to have a big impact on our growing peer based radical mental health movement.
EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?
SD: I think we need to begin by simply acknowledging how fundamentally flawed the current paradigm is – how little room it leaves for alternate views of health and wellness, how it privileges the knowledge of scientists and experts, and belittles the resources of local communities, families and alternative health care practitioners.
We need to draw a clearer distinction between the usefulness of some modern psychiatric medications, and the reductionist biopsychiatric model that reduces our emotions and behavior to chemicals and neurotransmitters. We need to talk publicly about the relationship between unhealthy economic policies, the pharmaceutical industry, and our mental health. We need a vibrant social and political movement that has the wisdom and reverence for the human spirit and that understands the intertwined complexity of these things we call mental health, wellness, social justice and global solidarity.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
SD: I think that whenever someone we care about is struggling with emotional or mental distress, it is often incredibly useful to seek the guidance of other people who have struggled with similar issues–learned from their experiences–and now have wisdom to share. I am a strong believer in the power of mentorship and peer support, the power of the wounded healer who has been through the fire of suffering to use their scars as guides to help others.
I think one of the most important gifts we receive from our personal struggles is the ability to empathize and help others who have struggled like ourselves. This vision is missing from our current medical model, which puts so much of the power for healing into the hands of doctors and other experts. Anyone who I work with I see as a potential healer, a potential guide for others. I think having that vision reframes a key piece of what’s wrong with the system.
I’m actually graduating from the Silberman School of Social Work next month and I’ve been working as a clinician in a New York City program that uses Dialogical Practice to engage with people diagnosed with psychotic disorders and their families. I’m basically obsessed these days with a vision of changing the mental health system from the inside by introducing models such as Open Dialogue and Intentional Peer Support into traditional social work agencies that use Peer Specialists.
I think the Peer Recovery Movement has a lot of potential to change the mental health system if there is an investment in good training for everyone involved. There is so much untapped potential in people’s hard life experiences: rather than isolating them and pretending they don’t exist, or clinically diagnosing them and putting them in a box, our society would be much better served by honoring the pain and struggle of those seen as mad and letting their voices be a healing force for change.
Sascha Altman DuBrul is the co-founder of The Icarus Project and the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library. He is the author of Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer. He is a social worker and lives in New York City.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today.
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