The mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 young school children and seven adults (including the shooter himself) has not only reignited the debate over gun control in the United States, but also a discussion over how communities deal with madness in their midst. Adam Lanza showed signs of mental illness before the killing spree — as have other recent perpetrators of mass shootings.
Psychiatrist Lynne Fenton of the University of Colorado says her patient, James Holmes, alerted her of his plans before strolling into a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colo., this July and spraying the crowd with bullets. Fenton informed school officials, but she says they did nothing because Holmes was in the process of dropping out. Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded 14 others with a 9mm Glock pistol in a Tuscon parking lot in January 2011; in the two years prior to the shooting, the state of Arizona had slashed mental health services from its budget, services that could have diagnosed, medicated and provided therapy for Loughner’s schizophrenia and possibly prevented the deaths. The 1999 Columbine High School massacre took place at an epicenter of high-tech weapons production, part of the military industry that consumes more than half of our yearly income taxes.
There is a tendency in this country to regard mental illness — as if in deference to the antiquated notion of “possession” — as the personal property of those who exhibit the most alarming symptoms. But the circumstances of each of these shooters indicate the social character of mental illness, and the need for a social response to it.
On a Wednesday night in October at the Brecht Forum, a Marxist community center along the Hudson River in Manhattan, the crowd of about 50 gathered to look back on the first decade of the Icarus Project. It’s a network meant to foster “radical mental health” for those and by those grappling with the “dangerous gift” of mental illness — or, as participants often say, “madness.” Many were veterans of Icarus’ early group sessions or had been nourished by this community, which uncovered a seething madness under the surface of the metropolis.
Sometime in the early 1990s, police found Sascha DuBrul, then a young punk rocker fresh out of high school, walking in New York’s subway tunnels and talking to himself. “I thought the world had ended,” DuBrul explains. “I was the only person alive and everything I did was being broadcast on prime-time television.” DuBrul later recounted the story of that and subsequent lock-ups in a 2002 article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “Bipolar World.” There, DuBrul laid out the conflicted feelings he had towards his illness and the medication that mitigated its effects. He mused that perhaps there is something mad about the world that induces or intensifies mental illness.
DuBrul’s article struck a nerve, and letters started pouring in from people who identified with his story, recounting their own tales of grappling with madness. Among the people to contact DuBrul was artist and writer Ashley McNamara. The two began a correspondence and eventually met in person at a San Francisco cafe. They decided to start a website on which they and other people wrestling with dangerous gifts could find and learn from one another. Theicarusproject.net eventually grew into a national support network with chapters across the United States. From the beginning it was a forum for both healing and activism; the process that takes place in the rings of folding chairs at Icarus Project gatherings is a fight for a healthier world as well as a glimpse of what one might look like.
In 2011, sales of anti-psychotic drugs in the United States reached $18.2 billion, up from about $14 billion in 2008. Their closest rival in the drug market is medication used in the treatment of cancer, whose sales have risen steadily since the proliferation of petroleum-based products and agricultural pesticides began in the 1940s. Is madness, like cancer, on the rise? Are Americans getting crazier, or is big pharma taking advantage of a deep-seated illness that already existed?
This is a society where we are seemingly convinced that happiness rests on such trivial matters as what soda we sip, where 40 percent of us walk for fewer than 10 continuous minutes at a time during the course of a week, where we labor for increasingly long hours with diminishing returns. Prospects for change, we are led to believe by the multitude of jabbering voices that flood the airwaves, boil down to paper-or-plastic political candidates. Our jails are full and our psychiatric wards are closed or closing. Arcane financial instruments can go south seemingly arbitrarily, leaving millions of people without means of subsistence. Nature is something that grows in a square carved out of the sidewalk or in a narrow strip along our superhighways. Amidst this vision of dispossession, conformity and derangement, the pharmaceutical industry offers us a compounded ball of powder that blocks the dopamine receptors in our brain’s mesolimbic pathway while feeding our prefrontal cortexes a warm dose of contentment.
“Medication is just one tool in your toolbox,” says Sascha DuBrul. “There’s a lot of different experiences people end up having with psychiatric drugs. A lot of people have negative reactions.” Icarus has published a harm reduction guide for quitting medication but does not necessarily try to dissuade people from medicating. DuBrul says that, for him, drugs have been helpful. But while pills treat the symptoms of madness, Icarus seeks to tackle madness itself.
There are a lot of support groups out there, and what makes Icarus unique, says DuBrul, is “the combination of talking about our own personal struggles within a larger analysis about the political and economic factors that make people sick.” He explains, “Brain chemistry and neurotransmitters are semi-irrelevant. People are sick because of poverty. People are sick because we live in a traumatized environment where people are the edge because of fear. That’s social.”
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Max Smith, a writer and zine artist who has been involved in Icarus for five years, describes what drew her in. “About 15 years ago I was locked up for being depressed,” she says. “I’ll tell you, it was pretty depressing. Three days without freedom, without sunshine, without exercise or vegetables is not going to get you in touch with that better force. And there are millions of stories like this; psych abuse, non-consensual treatment or treatment that just exacerbates existing mental stress.” By contrast, radical mental health, Smith says, is collaborative. “It’s not done to you, its done with you. To me that’s what radical means, whether it’s radical health care, radical teaching, economics, sex — whatever.”
It’s also about participants defining health and functionality for themselves. “Mainstream shrinks love to say, ‘Your symptoms interfere with your functionality,’” Smith says. “You wake up in the morning and can’t get out of bed. You can’t make yourself go to work. So, you take yourself to a therapist. The therapist says, ‘Well, obviously you have depression. Here, take these pills.’ But maybe you just need a job you wanna wake up for.”
Many of those who helped create the Icarus Project in the early days were baptized in the global justice movement against corporatized globalization. “I met Sascha right after I came back to New York after organizing in Montreal,” recounted Marse Mitchell-Brody, who held a homeless weiner dog in her arms while she spoke at the Brecht Forum event. “We had been deeply, deeply ‘anti’ for many years. It was right after September 11. We were dealing with the war. We were dealing with Abu Ghraib. We were dealing with what was clearly a sick world. But our response at the time, instead taking care of ourselves and each other in the face of that world, was to push back even harder.”
Mitchell-Brody, who at the time was debating whether to go on medication, attended a workshop hosted by DuBrul, and she recalls asking him what he thought. “Sascha said, ‘You do what’s right for you. If they don’t support you, they can go fuck themselves.’” For Mitchell-Brody that was a critical moment. “I found myself in a room full of people that realized we live in a sick and crazy world. But also recognized our right to self determine how we took care of ourselves in the midst of it.”
Mitchell-Brody threw herself into the Icarus Project. But after several years of involvement, she came to the conclusion that there is a dangerous side to celebrating dangerous gifts. “Over time I would look at myself and say, ‘I use this dangerous gift as an excuse to get away with a lot of bullshit, as a way to not be accountable to my community.’” Though Mitchell-Brody pulled back from it, Icarus had already shifted the trajectory of her life. She eventually received a degree in social work and continues to agitate and advocate for just mental health care in New York communities.
Activist organizing tactics have continued to be a part of the Icarus Project, alongside inspiration from the recovery movement, including Alcoholics Anonymous. The Icarus manual Friends Make the Best Medicine, which provides advice on how to establish a peer-based mental health network, draws on what Icarus Project members have gleaned from social justice movements. “There’s a lot of emphasis on meeting the ability to have efficient developing structures that allow people to have their voices heard,” DuBrul says.
Roughly 10 years have passed since the inception of the Icarus Project, and a new generation has started to express interest. Many are activists who have worked virtually full-time in the Occupy movement since the fall of 2011. They have felt the strain of perpetual activism, as well as the trauma of police repression, and the prospect of maintaining a level head while struggling for a sane world has drawn them to Icarus. At the height of the movement last fall, when tent cities were cropping up in cities across the United States, Icarus began developing a booklet for Occupiers to help them keep from burning out. These efforts have exposed the decade-old network to a new audience. The atmosphere at the Brecht Forum in October thus had a ceremonial air; wings were being passed from one generation to the next. It seemed fitting that this latest influx, again, should come from a movement for social justice.
DuBrul explained to the audience that while he often tells the story of how the response to “Bipolar World” provided the impetus for starting the Icarus Project, there’s another element of the story as well. “What I don’t often tell people is that when I got locked up, when I was 18 years old, it was because I was having these visions that my friends and I were just going to totally change the world,” DuBrul remembered. “In the depths of my psyche I was convinced that a bunch of us could get together and change things. And of course I got locked up, medicated and told I was bipolar.”
In a world where widespread poverty, exploitation and war are the norm, dreaming of peace, justice and equality might seem insane. In a country where shootings in public places are becoming an ever more common occurrence, there is ever more temptation to isolate both ourselves and the perpetrators.
“There’s something about madness that’s very lonely,” continued DuBrul. “But somehow my madness has helped birth something that has brought people together.”