THE BLOG

The Future of People With Severe Mental Illness Is Safe

12/17/2013 10:33 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2014

Susan Inman recently wrote a blog post condemning the Alternatives conference, a conference for mental health advocates, people who've undergone treatment and been harmed or benefited from it, those in recovery, and survivors. In it, she argues that because of this single conference, "the future of people with severe mental illness is in the wrong hands." I would argue that no single conference can dictate the entire future of a complex and large field such as mental illness, and certainly the claim that the Alternatives conference does so is greatly exaggerating its role.

Inman spends over 900 words complaining about all the things the Alternatives conference isn't. Which is akin to someone thinking about going to a baseball game and complaining how the teams don't use enough soccer players on the field.

Perhaps some of the disconnect is not understanding or appreciating the history of the conference itself, and instead simply making assumptions about what any "taxpayer-funded" conference for people with a mental illness must look like. It's astounding to me that someone would write so much about a conference without first looking at its history.

The first Alternatives conference was in 1985 and was the first national conference for mental health advocates and those in the recovery movement. According to Joseph Rogers, expectations were low for that first conference. Imagine their surprise when over 300 people attended that first conference in Baltimore. Today, the conference is a meeting place where leaders in the recovery movement gather together, learn, network and share stories with one another.

The name "Alternatives" was coined by Mike Finkel to acknowledge that the conference wasn't looking to replace traditional treatment approaches, but instead to offer legitimate, humane, and useful alternatives to those approaches -- mostly self-help and peer-led efforts. According to Susan Rogers, the director of the National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearinghouse, it was initially funded by registration fees and a small grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. With the creation of SAMHSA in 1992, it took over the grants for the conference (which is also funded through registration fees).

Each Alternatives conference offers in-depth technical assistance on peer-delivered services and self-help/recovery methods. When asked 'one thing I learned that I will incorporate into my life and/or my work,' one earlier Alternatives attendee responded, 'We can influence the direction of the future.' Beyond the exchange of knowledge and networking, Alternatives offers a rich social and healing environment, in which the arts play a large role.

This hardly sounds like the scientific conference Susan Inman was looking for. So it should come as no surprise that a conference that was never designed to be a scientific one doesn't meet her preconceived notions.

But that's not to say the conference is without value. In fact, it contains enough value that the University of Texas at Austin's School of Social Work is providing continuing education credits for professionals who attend it.

Perhaps the disconnect comes from Inman apparently never having attended an Alternatives conference herself. I have, and I can say with certainty that it is a rich, diverse and open-minded experience with a range of diverse talks, sessions, and social events. It is not "anti-psychiatry" in its stance, but it is anti-nonconsensual treatment. Such nonconsensual treatment still occurs even today (such as holding you for 5 weeks against your will and giving you a forced C-section without your consent).

It's a conference that celebrates the power and value of self-help methods and tools -- which are an important component in most people's recovery from a mental illness.

In other parts of healthcare, it's called becoming an "e-patient." In mental health, this movement has succinctly summarized their view of treatment many years ago: "Nothing about us without us." In other words, treatment should be a voluntary, empowering partnership. Not one based upon paternalism or forced treatment.

Inman's views -- that there is a single "right" kind of conference for people with mental illness -- is exactly the kind of one-size-fits-all paternalism the rest of the world is moving away from in health and mental health care. It's the kind of government intervention in our healthcare being written into new state assisted outpatient treatment (AOT, which Inman calls "assertive outreach treatment") laws. AOT is just the shiny new name for forced treatment (but hey, at least it's outpatient this time!).

"In a conference that proclaims itself to be "inclusive," one of the most alarming exclusions is the voice of people like HuffPost blogger Erin Hawkes."

Did Erin Hawkes submit a presentation to the conference? If so, it would be unfortunate that her proposal did not get accepted. But it's not clear this is what occurred, as Erin hasn't written anything about having her proposal rejected from the Alternatives conference. Susan Rogers says, "The recovery movement is all about inclusion and choice, so all viewpoints are welcomed," but also notes that there is always a limited number of workshop slots, so not all proposals can be accepted.

The future of people with severe mental illness is in the right hands with conferences like Alternatives. It is a valuable addition to the diverse range of opinions and experiences that people with mental illness share. No conference can be all things to all people, but I would argue that before you criticize a conference, you should actually attend one first. It's like a movie reviewer writing a review based upon a description of the movie. Would anyone find that helpful?