Rethinking Crisis, Rethinking Mental Health Education

(Originally Published in Medium)

Imagine: it’s Fall of 2017, 30+ people gather into a quiet room in lower manhattan. The space is kindly provided by Community Access, a Personalized Recovery Oriented Service (PROS) program by day. Yet on Tuesday nights, after hours, something spectacular is happening. The Institute for the Development of Human Arts has invited mental health workers interested in innovative, alternative approaches to understanding mental health crises, and re-imagining mental health care that integrates peer-driven models of care based on lived experience.

Although you can’t tell by the look on their faces or the way they are dressed, the people in this room represent integral parts of the mental health system and beyond. In attendance are psychologists in private practice, social workers, psychiatry students, researchers, philosophy/cultural studies students, peer specialists and — perhaps most interestingly — grassroots activists and artists. All of these people have come together to hone their skills and lend their expertise, keeping us grounded in movements that thrive outside the system.

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Over the course of our 8-week seminar, called “Rethinking crisis”, we explore what it means to be with those who are experiencing crisis, discuss the ways in which human rights and systems of power can restrict self-determination, deconstruct the biomedical model and psychopharmacology, and explore new generative models of transformative care.

“The biggest takeaway for me was learning that there are other ways to define (or not) mental health “disorders” or “pathologies” (i.e. psychosis) and that the current system doesn’t always address basic needs.”
-Rethinking Crisis Participant, 2017

IDHA was founded on the belief that the most expansive learning opportunities in mental health happen in collaboration between professionals and ‘experts by experience,’ or those who have been through the mental health system and can offer immense insight and first-person accounts of what needs to shift in order for mental health care to truly support those it seeks to serve. To do this, we step beyond the 4th wall, break the invisible barrier between teacher and student, create space for challenging conversations and multiple perspectives to take place, and blend professional expertise with something we consider to be crucial to learning: the connection and vulnerability of personal narrative.

Like many of the faculty members that comprise IDHA, I have been in multiple roles, from crisis counselor to peer specialist to trauma-survivor with lived experience of what is commonly referred to as ‘psychosis.’ In my days as a young mental health worker doing home-based crisis intervention, I was acutely struck by the training that was offered to me (or more importantly, the kind of training that was not offered to me). Most viscerally, I remember sitting at a long table in the NAMI-NYC office with my colleagues, staring at research dated 1988, which discussed the biomedical and neurological determinants of mental health. I could not reconcile being told that mental illness originates solely in the brain, with the first-hand accounts from those with whom I worked every day, and who were experiencing poverty, loss, violence, trauma, and immigration issues — very real structural problems woven into the fabric of our society and that I felt were acutely related to mental health issues. In my perspective, this was less about nature versus nurture, and more about the complete erasure of a person’s right to assign meaning to their struggles in their own language, to tell their own story, and to understand that narrative within the context of their lives.

Practitioners risk total erasature of a person’s story when we focus exclusively on treatment planning, explaining behavior away under the guise of “mental illness,” and psycho-educating about depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. I grappled each day with my own responsibilities and performance as I became acutely aware of the very real issues my clients were facing: fear of deportation, grief over the loss of their parents, or trying to survive being shot at on their way to school every day. My employer, and the mental health system at large, seemed to consider these as mere ‘secondary environmental factors’ which exacerbated, but in no way fully explained, their ‘strange’ behavior. I don’t mean to imply that the mental health system alone can solve pervasive systemic issues such as racism and poverty and oppression, but I do believe it’s crucial that we actively talk about the multitude of factors that contribute to a person’s mental health, and subsequently reconsider how we offer support to those in need.

“Many times I found myself seeing the way I view crisis in a different light. I’m learning to stop viewing someone in crisis as the “other” and more as two people learning together”
-Rethinking Crisis Participant, 2017

Allowing people with lived experience to speak for themselves and acknowledging the multiple contexts in which our mental health exists is the driving force behind IDHA’s upcoming course series: Experience Transforms Practice, which begins on October 20th, 2018 and runs through April of next year. This time, we will dive even deeper into what it looks like to practice transformative and rights-driven mental health care as a provider. We are hosting classes on topics that range from re-thinking trauma-informed care, supporting people in altered states, best practices for understanding and working with suicide survivors, harm reduction approaches, and much more. Our classes are for mental health workers and providers of all kinds who want a deep dive into alternatives.

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“I loved that each instructor shared part of their lived experience story including their transformation to becoming an advocate for alternative care.”
-Rethinking Crisis Participant, 2017


“There is so much more to learn about topics that I was familiar with and so many concepts I had never encountered before. A whole new, bigger world!
-Rethinking Crisis Participant, 2017

You can sign up here for individual classes or the full 7-part course.

We offer reduced pricing and scholarship applications are open until OCT 12th, which you can apply for by clicking here

We are offering discounts for mental health agencies who want to send their staff. If this is you, email us at