By Jenny Westberg, Oct. 6, 2013
Will Hall’s past was a nightmare of forced hospitalizations, mind-numbing drugs, and nights wandering the streets. Today, Hall is a controversial reminder that recovery is possible.
Now living and working in Portland, Hall manages life experiences once diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder with a combination of natural methods, including diet, yoga and acupuncture, as well as heavy doses of awareness and support. His guide to the “harm reduction” approach to coming off psychiatric drugs, based on a model widely used in addiction treatment, has been nationally recognized.
Hall’s activities include leading the Extreme States and Voices Support Group in Portland (currently on hiatus) and hosting Madness Radio, airing locally on KBOO-FM. He is also a professional therapist in Northwest Portland, founder and assistant director of Portland Hearing Voices, an organizer for The Icarus Project, a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland, a community organizer and a sought-after speaker, among a variety of other pursuits.
Hall says he advocates mental diversity and acceptance.
But what, exactly, is “mental diversity”? Is it responsible to advocate “acceptance” for serious mental illness? What about the risk of violence? In this interview, Will Hall answers the tough questions.
Jenny Westberg: Would you explain the concept of “mental diversity”?
Will Hall: Instead of fearing and judging others by one standard of what is normal, mental diversity means learning about and accepting different minds and experiences.
Some of us in the community have psychiatric diagnoses like bipolar, schizophrenia, or depression. We want to be met for the unique individuals we are, not just stereotyped. Many of us take medications, while many of us don’t; some of us hear voices or see visions or get paranoid; some of us act eccentric or have strange moods and unusual beliefs. This can go along with terrible suffering, while some of us learn to cope and live with our voices and visions. It may even be part of our art and our spirituality.
Did you know that studies show many people hear voices at some time in their lives, but don’t have any problem with it? Did you know most of us are trauma survivors and need help overcoming histories of abuse and violence? We need to be more open to the diversity in mental experience, rather than pushing unusual minds into the shadows.
JW: Are people who take psychiatric medications welcome in your group?
WH: Yes, we offer support groups where diversity is welcomed. Most people who come do take medications, and some don’t.
I am diagnosed with schizophrenia and haven’t taken medications in 14 years. We respect diverse pathways to recovery. People need good information and support so they can make their own decisions about balancing medication risks with benefits. Medications have serious side effects, and everyone should learn about and consider alternatives, such as holistic health and nutrition, as well as coming off or reducing medications. There is no “one size fits all.
JW: Suppose someone came to you and said, “I hear voices and have experiences that are scary and distressing. With medication, I’m able to work and I feel better. But now I’m worried about the risks and side effects.” What would you say?
WH: People do come to me–that’s why I wrote the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Medications. “Harm reduction” means it’s not an either-or choice of taking medications or getting no help at all. Doctors should be collaborators supporting you to make wise decisions, not like bosses telling you what to do.
I don’t give medical advice, but I would recommend the person speak frankly with their doctor and start to become educated about how to deal with fear and distress in ways beyond medications. There are also methods to talk with the voices and learn coping techniques. Then they might get support to consider a very small medication reduction, a switch in medications, or supplements and lifestyle changes to reduce side effects.
Many have been in the same situation and been able to improve things, if they go slow and look at options. More and more people who don’t take medications are coming forward, showing there’s more than one way to live with mental extremes.
JW: A small number of people have a risk of acting out violently. Do they have any kind of obligation to take medication?
WH: Hollywood and tabloid television spread harmful stereotypes. Studies show that people diagnosed with mental illness are not more likely to be violent. In fact, because we are often isolated and vulnerable, we are more likely to be survivors of trauma and targets of violence ourselves. Let’s stop stereotyping.
No diagnosis can predict in itself who will be violent, and we are not a dictatorship where we lock people up just because a doctor suspects they might commit a future crime. Many people have problems with anger and aggression and need help, including therapy and ways to manage anger, such as addressing alcohol use.
Let’s also remember that medication side effects can themselves sometimes cause agitation, aggression, and suicide. When a fearful society is afraid of the killer next door, it’s nice to think an easy fix like medications is the solution. It’s not. I’m more worried about the danger of car accidents than I am about people diagnosed with mental illness.
Note: This is a Dec. 2009 interview, updated to reflect changes that have occurred since then.
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