‘I don’t believe in mental illness’ from Michael Cornwell Ph.D

In November 2000, I anxiously stood before the gathered four hundred and fifty mental health professionals, administrators, peers and academicians and said, “Hi, I’m Michael Cornwall and I don’t believe in mental illness!”

I was the first plenary panel speaker at a big conference held in San Francisco. I didn’t believe in mental illness then or when I was in my own madness 46 years ago, or for the past 30 years serving people in madness. Jay Mahler was the only person who came to me and thanked me for saying I didn’t believe in mental illness. A great many people responded to me as if I was radioactive that day.

I’m prompted to write this blog because I just read an article by Marianne Farkas published by the The Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University entitled,  ”The Vision of Recovery Today: what is it and what it means for services.” She refers to people who need those services as having “Serious mental illness.” The article was written in 2007 but is still being recommended by leaders at the Center for its in-depth analysis of the recovery movement based on the vision that people have serious mental illnesses.

What we believe motivates much of what we do with our lives. Because I didn’t believe in mental illness, I spent my life since I was a young person that went through madness without medication or treatment asking, “If madness isn’t what bio-psychiatry says it is, then what is it?” I came up with my own definition of madness based on my personal experience, therapist work experience and study as a doctoral level researcher. I shared that in previous blogs.

If I had believed that madness was a genetic based brain disorder I may have become a bio-psychiatrist or welcomed taking medication for my madness.

Because mental illness is how bio-psychiatry refers to madness and every diagnostic formulation in their DSM, I never tell the people I serve that they have a mental illness. I don’t see them through that lens of the DSM.

I see them as I see myself,  a person who may have various experiences of human emotional suffering which sometimes takes the form of madness.

I was recently chastised by a national peer recovery leader for describing myself and others as able to experience human emotional suffering. He said suffering is the wrong word — distress is more accurate. I don’t believe so, because it doesn’t reflect my own experience or how I would describe others’ pain when in terror, despair or  madness. Distress is a mild form of suffering in my understanding. Kind of like indigestion that maybe a couple of Tums will relieve. But that’s just me, what I believe.

Our culture and world is rife with polarizing beliefs — political, religious etc. In a meeting, I heard someone publicly call a national leader of the peer recovery movement a Nazi because that peer leader had said that full recovery was possible. The person who called him a Nazi feared that if mad people believed him and didn’t take medication, there would be a holocaust of death and it would be on his hands. I have heard peers call bio-psychiatrists Nazis.

How far can we go in respecting and opposing each others’ extremely different belief systems before we lapse into name calling and seeing the other as evil?

I imagine some people believed Bob Whitaker had crossed the line when he wrote his blog, “The Taint Of Eugenics In NIMH-Funded Research.” Because of my beliefs I don’t believe he crossed the line.

I believe some practices — such as forced medication, seclusion in restraints, ECT for toddlers and children and teens and forced ECT for adults, prescribing psych drugs for children — are all human rights abuses. Do you think I have crossed the line by saying so?

Is there common ground we can stand on even with our polarized beliefs? That piece of common ground varies in size. Sometimes it doesn’t exist.

I don’t believe in mental illness. I believe we are sovereign souls that should not be imprisoned or be given forced treatments or offered any treatments that do us ANY harm when we are suffering human emotional suffering and madness. I believe we should be given respect, love and compassion.

What do you believe?



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