By Elizabeth Kramer, DRM PAIMI Advisory Council Member
It was hot in Arizona last summer when folks from around the country gathered for the annual NARPA conference held in Phoenix. The palm trees, the piercing red sky and the striking morning heat were strong reminders that I had traveled far from my New England home. Similarly, the themes and topics that I found at NARPA were refreshing reminders that I had also traveled far from the mainstream world of Social Work (my chosen profession) to reach a place far more concerned with liberation and community than with compliance and diagnosis.
I am not a psychiatric survivor but I believe strongly in the importance of autonomy, community and resistance. And so it seems, does NARPA. The conference hosts a wide variety of voices and themes, that last year ranged from Caroline White’s “Supportive Communities Outside the Values of the Medical Model,” to Grace Jackson’s “Chemical Brain Injury and the Coming Epidemic of Drug Induced Dementia.” There was a keynote presentation by Robert Whitaker, author of Mad In America and Anatomy of an Epidemic, that mapped out the striking connections between pharmaceutical funds and ivory-tower institutions. There was also a vital and timely presentation by Aneesah Nadir, “What is Islam, Who are Muslims,” that discussed the unique challenges that Muslim people often face when navigating psychiatric systems.
Many of the presenters spoke about the importance of connecting the psychiatric survivor movement to other struggles, as well. There was a clear emphasis, for example, on the relationship between class, incarceration and the psychiatric survivor movement. As Caroline White of the Massachusetts Learning and Recovery Community said, “if a movement doesn’t include poor people, it isn’t revolutionary.” From my perspective, the conference cast a wide net, while keeping the rights of those moving through the mental health system central. I left with a much clearer understanding of what the survivor movement is about, while also appreciating the vital role that this struggle plays in justice and liberation more broadly.
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the NARPA conference were the conversations among attendees between workshops. I was grateful for the opportunity to talk with people one-on-one who were courageous and generous in sharing from their wisdom and experience. And while I had come to this conference having done social justice work in other areas, I didn’t appreciate the history and fullness of the psychiatric survivor movement, the field of “mad studies,” or the ways in which psychiatric survivors have been able to affect change within a system that seeks to silence them. Being able to learn in this way also impacted my work. I feel like I took back a modest but very important lesson: people’s internal experiences are inherently valid and are often, in and of themselves, forms of resistance.
In a time when speaking truth to power is increasingly surveilled and criminalized, it is places like NARPA that allow folks to come together to share their experiences in ways that can sustain resistance, agitate our conscience, and nourish community.