Peer Values Versus Violence: A View from Lived Experience

Until recently, I lived in Portland, Oregon, working as Senior Director for a community mental health organization where I saw the employees giving everything to help struggling people. I witness great caring and sometimes great healing. And because it was human, there was a range of behaviors that included love and dedication but also anger and frustration. There rarely was violence, although it sometimes happened in the greater community.

On May 16, I moved to Kerrville, Texas.

Eight days after I moved, there was a horrendous mass killing in Uvalde at an elementary school seventy miles from my new Texas home.

I clearly remember a day about ten years ago when the mass killing at the school called Sandy Hook took place. The peer support team I supervised didn’t know about it yet. I needed to share the awful information about it at that day’s team meeting. That meeting held many tears, and today, I find myself weeping again as I am writing about another mass killing of children and their teachers.

Often when an individual takes a gun and shoots other people, we hear people say, “this murderer must have had a mental illness,” or “this individual was sick and evil.”

But we know from statistics that persons with psychiatric diagnoses are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.

As peer support and peer wellness specialists, it’s our work to use our experience of healing from our mental health and addiction challenges to support and walk side by side with our peers who are also reclaiming their lives. Some of us have survived violent, coercive forms of socially condoned mental health treatments. I have personally been tied down in leather restraints for nearly 24 hours and forcibly drugged against my will. This was a response to my refusing to eat or get out of the psych ward bed. I’ve seen another of my peers in a mental health treatment program with their limbs covered with massive purple bruises from their “treatment.”

But instead of becoming violent, many of us grow past the pain into poignant models of healing and compassion.

Some years ago, a psychiatrist named Dr. Sandra Bloom visited where I was working in the community mental health program. She had developed a powerful, inspired concept called “The Sanctuary Model” (www.thesanctuaryinstitute.org).

Briefly put, this model rejects the use or practice of violence in any form—no violent actions or speech. Instead, everyone, both patients and providers in mental health treatment, agrees to create a “sanctuary” and find other ways to communicate about and solve and challenging complex issues. No violence of any kind, including guns or other weapons, threats, or words. People non-violently connect with each other and community members instead of being isolated and shunned, as many with mental health diagnoses are. The Sanctuary Model involves humans agreeing to find different ways to resolve our difficulties rather than physical, verbal, or other manifestations of violence.

Some people don’t believe that this non-violent model is even possible. Some of you might question if human beings can withhold violence and find non-violent means to resolve varying points of view and differing values. In our culture today, it is often an assumption that we must counter violence and anger with more violence and anger—that non-violence and the people who value and practice it will be crushed by violence.

Indeed, old-school psychiatry was founded on the principle of justifying violence. This stereotypical psychiatric position is that at any time they may be called upon to use force or coercion to imprison and medicate—against their will—those with psychiatric diagnoses in order to protect them or their community from potential future harm. Countering the possibility of future violence with actual violence in the present. The lack of humanity and creativity is antithetical to healing and health for individuals and communities.

But can you be healed from violence by having more violence done to you? It is the non-violent model that is truly healing and compassionate.

Sometimes animals can be our teachers. We have seen examples of a threatening animal, such as a dog or cat, with a history of being beaten and starved. But then, when some loving person takes in the animal and is gentle, feeding it, treating it in a new way, the animal heals and becomes a source of love. This healing can be true with humans too.

I recently heard a description of planet Earth that an astronaut reported. They looked out from their spacecraft, saw our small, alone planet, and were struck by how beautiful and fragile it is. There is no room for violence on our vulnerable planet. And we are all vulnerable living beings sharing it.

The fragility of our planet communicates several truths: we cannot afford violence directed at each other, ourselves, or our environment.

And we who live here on our fragile planet are all connected, even if we are unaware of it.

There is no basis for the “othering” in which human individuals and groups sometimes engage. Persons with mental health challenges are often “othered.” Prejudice and discrimination are everyday experiences for many of us with psychiatric diagnoses.

So here we are. It has been nearly two years since George Floyd was murdered in a culture that still demonstrates the violence of racism –and less than two weeks since a racially motivated mass murder in Buffalo, NY. Personal and systemic violence happens when we negate our common humanity and when the culture is not innovative or motivated to look honestly at itself, say no and instead create positive responses.

I’ve been crying because of my sorrow for the little children and their teachers who were gunned down and killed in Uvalde. I find myself asking what I can do to keep this from happening—at a time when it is only more widespread than ever before.

As a person with the lived experience of psychiatric issues who has had culturally endorsed violence inflicted upon me in response to my psychiatric problems, I ask, “What can I do to break the cycle of violence?”

The Governor of Texas and others say the answer to mass murder is more “mental health.” While we need expanded resources for mental health, if our culture continues to accept and feed an environment of more violence, we won’t be able to save innocent, vulnerable lives. The context of mental health treatment is as important as the treatment itself. If we perpetuate the acceptance of weapons of mass murder, there will still be more mass murders. Also, if mental health treatment uses forms of violence such as physical restraints and over-drugging, we will perpetuate more violence. People will not have the opportunities or expectations of creating change in their behavior or the hope that change is possible.

Instead, those who give and receive behavioral health support can put our energy into creating individual and systemic kindness. In some ways, it can be easy to perceive our world and culture as frightening and dangerous. And yet, if we dare to model kindness and gentleness, there becomes an alternative to the violence. Despite the common stereotype that behavioral health issues frequently lead to violence, we can create something different that is commonly considered impossible or unlikely.

And perhaps because it is not commonly expected, it can be surprising and help the rest of society question some common assumptions about violence.

We know that there are countries outside the United States where violence is rare. They demonstrate that non-violence is possible.

Perhaps those who have experience with psychiatric diagnosis and treatment can call attention to the emperor’s lack of clothes. The suffering person can reflect on what needs to be done to create peace.

I don’t mean this in a romantic way—Emotional pain can fuel extreme behaviors. I am pointing to how a view from outside the everyday cultural norm can introduce valid new perceptions into the fabric of the culture.

I don’t have any simple answers. I think that because of my lived experience of violent mental health treatments and the contrast of experience of treatments that are caring, perhaps I have gained heightened sensitivity to the issue of violence. My choice of non-violence and compassion are better examples of what my mental illness has encouraged in me—the opposite of the violence often ascribed to people with a psychiatric diagnosis. Those with a history of “mental illness” who have been given the non-violent support we need to recover can help lead our culture away from violence. I value sanctuary and non-violence and vow to dedicate my life to live it.

We must reject worn, inaccurate stereotypes and build healing connections and non-violent options. It only creates prejudice and discrimination when persons with psychiatric issues are immediately blamed. Our culture suffers from egregious stereotypes and biases. And yet those of us with mental health challenges can be essential in helping to build a socially integrated, just, and compassionate culture.

I hope that as we express gentleness and kindness towards our peers and others with whom we share this planet, we will create a world of sanctuary—a world with safety for all people and this very planet itself. We can help lead to the creation of healing from the sheer pain of our lives, creating a model of wholeness within our communities.

It’s not easy, but every choice and action we make matters.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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