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mad pride

May 11, 2009

[Newsweek] We don’t want to be normal,” Will Hall tells me. The 43-year-old has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and doctors have prescribed antipsychotic medication for him. But Hall would rather value his mentally extreme states than try to suppress them, so he doesn’t take his meds. Instead, he practices yoga and avoids coffee and sugar. He is delicate and thin, with dark plum polish on his fingernails and black fashion sneakers on his feet, his half Native American ancestry evident in his dark hair and dark eyes. Cultivated and charismatic, he is also unusually energetic, so much so that he seems to be vibrating even when sitting still.

I met Hall one night at the offices of the Icarus Project in Manhattan. He became a leader of the group—a “mad pride” collective—in 2005 as a way to promote the idea that mental-health diagnoses like bipolar disorder are “dangerous gifts” rather than illnesses. While we talked, members of the group—Icaristas, as they call themselves—scurried around in the purple-painted office, collating mad-pride fliers. Hall explained how the medical establishment has for too long relied heavily on medication and repression of behavior of those deemed “not normal.” Icarus and groups like it are challenging the science that psychiatry says is on its side. Hall believes that psychiatrists are prone to making arbitrary distinctions between “crazy” and “healthy,” and to using medication as tranquilizers.

“For most people, it used to be, ‘Mental illness is a disease—here is a pill you take for it’,” says Hall. “Now that’s breaking down.” Indeed, Hall came of age in the era of the book “Listening to Prozac.” He initially took Prozac after it was prescribed to him for depression in 1990. But he was not simply depressed, and he soon had a manic reaction to Prozac, a not uncommon side effect. In his frenetic state, Hall went on to lose a job at an environmental organization. He soon descended into poverty and started to hear furious voices in his head; he walked the streets of San Francisco night after night, but the voices never quieted. Eventually, he went to a mental-health clinic and was swiftly locked up. Soon after, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was put in restraints and hospitalized against his will, he says. For the next year, he bounced in and out of a public psychiatric hospital that he likens to a prison. The humiliation and what he experienced as the failure of the medication were what turned him against traditional treatment. Since then, Hall has been asking whether his treatment was really necessary. He felt sloshily medicated, as if he couldn’t really live his life. (read)

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