Similarly to my post last year, I’ve decided to live blog from Alternatives 2019 – providing information for those who cannot attend, summarizing some of the keynotes and workshops, and commenting on the conference in general. Check back regularly, as I will be updating this blog daily from July 8-11, 2019.

Questions? Want me to clarify something or write more about a topic? Suggestions? Leave a comment. 🙂

*Please excuse any typos or nonsense, as I am often updating this blog late at night / on the fly / instead of listening / etc.

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First, I figure I should introduce Alternatives for anyone who is unfamiliar with the conference. Alternatives is a peer-led mental health conference with roots going back to Consumer / Psychiatric Survivor / Ex-Patient (C/S/X) movement activism in the 60s/70s. Alternatives began taking federal funding in the mid-80s, which caused a schism in the activist community that still exists to this day (though, this divide continues to exist because of disagreements beyond this one instance) (also, I will note that Alternatives lost federal funding in 2017). Today, Alternatives is a week long conference, consisting of a pre-conference focusing on policy policy and advocacy (and a Hill Day) and the main conference with keynotes, workshops, and social activities. A large portion of the keynotes, workshops, and attendees identify as consumers or follow the Recovery model, but there are also presentation and attendees that identify as Mad, neurodivergent, psychiatric survivors or victims, shamans, and more. For the last two years, the conference has been at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., which has been a point of contention due to child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, harm against members from marginalized communities targeted by the Catholic Church both historically and today, and the cost of travel for attendees not living on the east coast.

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Monday, July 8th – Public Policy and Education Academy

Alternatives officially started Monday morning at 9:00am for the second annual Public Policy and Education Academy – a pre-conference meant to introduce attendees to policy priorities developed prior to the conference, so that everyone will be informed when speaking to their representatives at Hill Day (Tuesday). When I get a chance, I will upload the priorities here, but overall they focus on addressing basic human needs (housing, employment, social security, Medicaid/Medicare), protecting the human rights of people with mental health diagnoses/conditions, supporting more peer participation in national and state policies, increasing funding for peer-run services, and educating the general public, mental health professionals, and policymakers about the needs of people with lived experience.

The highlight of the Academy was the Youth Advocacy Panel, featuring Jasmine Quinones, Vesper Moore, and Emily Sheera Cutler. A recurring theme of the panel was that youth and young adults are a social class that experiences oppression in our society, and this has a huge impact on our mental health (and all aspects of our lives). We often talk about the importance of autonomy and self-determination in mental health care, and in mental health spaces, but it’s important to recognize that youth especially are denied these things on a daily basis, even in our own movements. Alternatives has not had much youth representation or outreach in recent years, and it’s vital that Alternatives makes an effort to include more youth and young adult panels in the future.

Presenter Bios: Jasmine Quinones is the Marketing and Multicultural Director of the Central Mass Recovery Learning Community. Vesper Moore is the Director of Zia, a young adult access center operated by the Central Mass Recovery Learning Community. Emily Sheera Cutler is a Master’s student in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and an advocate for trauma-informed, person-centered approaches to mental health care.

Sadly, the remainder of the Academy was a repeat of workshops from last year, featuring many of the same people. I would like to see new faces lead the Academy, especially youth and multiply marginalized individuals, and more community dialogue on key policy issues.

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Tuesday, July 9th – Hill Day, Conference Opening, and Awards

[Livestream from Dan Fisher’s Facebook here]

The opening keynote speaker was Philip Schulman presenting “The Longest March: Personal Healing and Social Transformation” – a personal story about his experience surviving a terrible biking accident and the “post-traumatic spirituality” that came as he recovered. Philip opened and closed his talk by singing Pete Seeger’s “Step By Step,” which brought forth applause from the audience. [Pictured Below]

“Don’t try to fix people. Listen and understand what people are trying to communicate. Allow people to figure out for themselves how they want to address their situations. Believe in their ability to learn, and our ability to learn.”

More About Phil: “My Great Friend, Rev. Phil Schulman, Still Delivers Message Filled with Wisdom, Humor & Love” by David Oaks

Image of Philip Shulman, a light skinned man, singing with a raised hand in front of a crowd.

The next part of the evening was the presentation of the Alternatives 2019 Awards, as listed below:

Judi Chamberlin Joy in Advocacy Award – Laurie Coker

The Cookie Gant and Bill Compton LGBTQIA+ Leadership Award – Jess Stohlmann-Rainey

The Esperanza Isaac Memorial Award – Teena Brooks

Youth and Young Adult Peer Leadership Award – Alyssa Cypher (me)

Lifetime Achievement Award – Anna Gray

Lifetime Achievement Award – Judene Shelley

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Wednesday, July 10th – Conference Day 1

The first morning keynote was “Building a Vision Moving Forward: Healing, Mentorship, and Communication,” presented by Celia Brown, psychiatric survivor, advocate for people with psychiatric disabilities, and one of the first peer specialists in New York State. Celia called for everyone in the movement to be more mindful of intersectionality and founded Surviving Race: The Intersection of Injustice, Disability, and Human Rights. She talked about how our country is treating immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers is trauma. Police shooting Black people in the streets is trauma. Forced treatment is trauma. She asked, “How do we heal and keep ourselves together? From trauma… including the trauma of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.”

“I think we have a right to peer support. We need to say that. I think we have a right to heal. And we have a right to create our own programs.”

The second keynote of the morning was Caroline Mazel-Carlton’s “The Power and Potential of Peer Support in Navigating the Extremes.” Caroline is the Director of Training for the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community and is a predominant voice in Alternatives to Suicide trainings and the Hearing Voices Network.

Caroline presented programs like Alternatives to Suicide as a way to return dignity to people who have been denied it, by the mental health system, by racism, by colonialism, and by other oppressive systems. She told a story about how, when she was a peer specialist, a friend told her, “I couldn’t tell you when I was suicidal, because I knew you would have to [involuntarily commit] me.”

Caroline also talked about how when she lead a Hearing Voices Network training at Alternatives last year, attendees at the conference not only acknowledged her voices (one in particular named Frank), but actually engaged with them and had conversations. This reminded me of an article Mia Mingus wrote a few years ago on access intimacy – a hard to describe feeling for when a person “gets” your accesss needs. Instead of attempting to automatically silence or disregard a person’s voice hearing, peer communities take the time to consider what the voice hearer wants, how they feel about their voices and their mental health.

“My charts say I have Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline. Fuck your border. Fuck your wall. And my soul says, ‘I’ve come to dismantle them.’”

Image of Caroline Mazel-Carlton, a light skinned Jewish woman, speaking to a large crowd.

Workshop: “Power, Privilege, and Liberation in Recovery” with Stephanie Barnett Jamison

Stephanie’s workshop was a great overview of how oppressive institutions and system influence our historic and current mental health system. It’s important to acknowledge that psychiatry was (and still is) closely aligned with the eugenics movement in the US and relies heavily on coercion to enforce social norms surrounding illness and treatment. Stephanie gave the example of how psychology changed who was labeled as schizophrenic in the 60s – shifting the diagnostic focus on African American and Black men who were protesting for civil rights or who belonged to movements like the Black Panthers (see The Protest Psychosis by Jonathan Metzl). Today, despite the “progress” of the Recovery Movement, African Americans are 2-4 times more likely to be diagnosed with Schizophrenia, less likely to receive voluntary outpatient services, and are more likely to be involuntarily committed.

So what do we need to do to improve the system? Stephanie argues for a number of changes in the Recovery Movement: building a system informed by the social determinants of health, standing in solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter, Disability Justice, Mad Pride, Queer Liberation to challenge oppression, and prioritizing intersectionality. Collective access, collective liberation, anti-capitalism, cross-disability solidarity, leadership by the most affected – the 10 Principles of Disability Justice by Sins Invalid (listed without a citation though – we need to make sure to always name people who influence our work and paved the way for our activism, especially disabled, Queer BIPOC).

Presenter Bio: Stephanie Barnett Jamison, MSW, is the Director of Staff Development and Organizational Culture at Turning Points for Children.

Future Readings Mentioned: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Ignacio Martín-Baró’s Writings for a Liberation Psychology.

Workshop: “Anti-Capitalist Support for Suicidal People” by Jess Stohlmann-Rainey

How does capitalism facilitate coercion? What is the connection between capitalism and suicide prevention?

“Systemic Oppression + Devaluation = Suicidal Thoughts”

Jess began the workshop highlighting how every aspect of capitalism and the mental health system profits off of suicidal people. Trainings like DBT are extremely expensive to attend (and even receive the services); Nonprofits monetize suicides for donations; Individuals seeking treatment for suicidal thoughts are forced to get a diagnosis to receive services; Suicide prevention prioritizes getting better and going back to work as the ultimate goal of treatment; Police involvement with suicidal individuals can funnel people into prisons and jails; The industry of assisted suicide; Telling your suicide story the “right” way for profit.

Jess also talked about the idea of there being a “good” suicidal survivor and a “bad” suicide survivor. A “good survivor” being someone who, after attempting suicide, immediately has an amazing realization that their life has meaning and that they were so wrong to try to kill themselves. This person then goes out into the world to inspire others to Recovery and make money telling their “good” story.

Super important point: Jess stated there are no federal laws that mandate the reporting of suicidal thoughts or suicidal risk. Peer support institutions that have “mandated reporting” laws for their peer workers are often attempting to enforce company policies, not necessarily the law. Our insistence on reporting people rather than supporting people is doing immeasurable harm.

Presenter Bio: Jess Stohlmann-Rainey is a researcher, trainer, and advocate who had focused her career on creating pathways to intersectional, justice-based, emotional support for marginalized communities.

Future Readings Mentioned: Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws by Susan Stefan

More About Jess: Interview with Live Through This

Slide on what alternatives to suicide would look like. Suicide is okay / Free, Mutual, and intersectional / goal of fixing / no insurance, no cops, no 911 / no government funding / healing centered / recognize the role capitalism plays in deaths of despair / recognizes historical abuses of systems involved in suicide prevention / no peer certification / disability justice principles

Current Suggestions

While Alternatives is a great space in many regards, there is also a TON of work that needs to be done to move towards creating an intentional space that is welcoming to everyone, centers the voices of (multiply) marginalized individuals, and challenges discrimination and oppression, including within the community.

During the planning of Alternatives 2019, I was a very vocal critic of returning to Catholic University. One of many issues with this university was their discriminatory behavior regarding all gender restrooms. This was a problem last year, and the problem was noted by many individuals. And yet, this year, again, Catholic University is taking down our all gender restroom signs, despite the organizers discussing having a conversation with their staff about inclusion and equity (I say “discussing” because I don’t know if this conversation happened). Apparently, they are telling the organizers that hanging the signs is illegal (any lawyers let me know about this). This, coupled with several individuals experiencing constant misgendering and general cishet whining, does not create a welcoming space for members of the LGBTQIA+ and Queer communities.

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Fun Times and Community 

One of the best parts of Alternatives, by far, is hanging out with fellow crazy people. I’ve found that it’s easier to meet people at Alternatives compared to other conferences, because of the amount of social activities, group meals, dorm housing, and down time.

There is also a 24/7 Peer Respite Suite, which provides peer support / snacks / a general place to hang. It also became a great space to bitch, hence my lovely sign (made in the art space at the conference).

A glittery sign that reads “Peer Bitch-pite - seeking respite from positivity”

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More coming soon!

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