Caty Simon was 15 when she tried to kill herself by swallowing some pills. A smart, precocious student at an Orthodox Jewish day school in the Boston area, Simon says the pressures on her -- to succeed academically and fit into a culture where women were not considered equal to men -- had been building for months. What Simon needed was someone she could talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Instead, she found herself in the locked juvenile ward of a mental hospital, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar and doped up with drugs like Zyprexa, Prozac and Depakote.
"The next couple of years were horribly dysfunctional for me," Simon recalls. "The Depakote made me incredibly depressed, it really knocked me out. I spent my senior year in bed."
For years, Simon says she bought into what her psychiatrists told her: that she had a lifelong, biogenetic mental illness that could only be treated with potent psychoactive drugs. But then she began reading books by Persimmon Blackridge (Prozac Highway) and Dr. Peter Breggin, author of Toxic Psychiatry, among many other books, and she eventually stopping taking the drugs. She later dropped out of college (Bryn Mawr) and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where she became involved in activism. (In recent years, Simon has worked on many social justice issues and was instrumental in convincing the Northampton officials to reject an ordinance that would have outlawed pan-handling in the city). But as Simon recounts in an article posted on The Icarus Project, she knew she still needed help with her "emotional extremes."
When she was 22, Simon stumbled upon the Freedom Center, a psychiatric survivor group in Northampton that had been founded a few years prior by two other former mental patients, Will Hall and Oryx Cohen. In Simon's words, "The Freedom Center is the area's only group run by and for people labeled with severe 'mental illnesses.'" The center is opposed to involuntary treatment and what it calls "forced drugging," and it supports treatment alternatives such as yoga, meditation, exercise, nutrition and access to peer-run support groups. The Freedom Center puts its money where its mouth is: offering members free yoga, acupuncture, exercise and nutrition sessions, as well as entry to its weekly support groups.
Simon has been attending the Freedom Center's support groups on and off for the last six years and helping to spread the word about its mission.
"One can't say enough about what a difference it makes to work through one's problems among peers rather than trying to solve them within a hierarchial model," she writes in her Icarus Project article. "In our support groups, we try to help people make their own decisions based no their own values rather than judging them according to an APA approved notion of what is 'adjusted,' 'functional,' and 'mentally healthy.'
Simon is quick to point out that the Freedom Center is not anti-drugs. "We fully support people if they are firm believers in the biochemical model of mental illness, if that's the model that helps them live the lives they want to lead," she says. "By acknowledging that people are experts when it comes to their own selves, we create an environment in which people are best able to help themselves progress toward recovery."
In her book, Agnes's Jacket, psychology professor Gail Hornstein devotes an entire chapter to the Freedom Center, citing it as one of the most successful models in this country of what she terms the psychiatric survivor movement. And Newsweek recently wrote about the center's involvement in the growing "mad pride" movement.
The Freedom Center, however, is currently in financial straits, a fact that Caty Simon finds sadly ironic. "Just as we're getting so much press, we're really struggling financially to keep our core services alive," she says. To raise awareness about the center, Simon and other members of the center are organizing a speakout later this summer at which psychiatric survivors will get together and tell their stories. "There's something really empowering about people telling their stories, for example, about being mistreated and force medicated," she says. "This spoken presentation is amazingly powerful."
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the Freedom Center and make a donation, just click here. Your support could help someone else find the inner strength and stability that Caty Simon has.