Human Beings are more than a Combination of Letters, or; Why We Needed a Film Festival

Hanna, a colleague of mine, and I met with a parent who tells about his son who has been a “psychiatric patient” since the age of twelve. He has been an inpatient in a nursing home before, and is back again as an inpatient. Prescriptions for lots of pharmaceuticals; four different kinds of antipsychotics at the same time, and three kinds of drugs to calm down, to relax him, and to manage the horrible side effects. Nowadays the son is mostly sleeping. He finds it hard to deal with his body.

A few days later another parent calls to ask us for a meeting with her daughter, herself, and her husband. They have heard that we — many times — have experienced that it is possible to deal with hard life situations without using medication. That we believe in the importance of taking part in one´s own life and context; that is, we know that we all are influenced by that which is happening around us, in our own tiny worlds as well as in the global context, and that humans are feeling and thinking creatures who navigate within that context.

In recent decades psychiatric diagnosis and pharmaceuticals have become a part of our daily life and language. People are so accustomed to diagnostic descriptions and prescriptions of medication that they hardly reflect on them. We use terms — “OCD”, “ADD”, “ADHD”, “DID”, “BPD”, “PTSD” to casually describe people as if these combinations of letters somehow capture all we need to know of a person’s life and experience. Through psychiatry and the media we commonly hear about various benefits for the one who is called “patient.” We also (if less explicitly) hear about benefits for the people around him or her. So much so that many teachers, social workers and psychotherapists have adapted medical language and the intra-individual perspective as their own.

But there is also another narrative, one which is seldom told; the narrative that includes meetings and conversations with people who are full of despair. Many times I find myself thinking that the feelings expressed the first time I meet with people at work remind of the stories told by refugees coming to Sweden who talk about the horror, but also about the hope for something else, something which makes life worth living; A safe place, surrounded by human beings who are willing to be a part of our lives for a time.

The numbers pertaining to mental health have multiplied in the last twenty years in Sweden as in many other countries in Europe and the US.  New psychiatric diagnosis are continually “invented” and proliferate in a way we have never experienced before, as do prescriptions for chemical preparations that are marketed as medication for them. More and more, children and teenagers use daily preparations of which no one knows the long-term effects.

Just as in the fairy tale written by HC Andersen about the emperor without clothes, an “as-if reality” is taking place wherein people are told about phenomena related to mental health issues as if they were true. Alternatives to the individual medical model are most often met by silence, or as if there is neither evidence nor sense in the alternatives presented.

Fortunately we are among an increasing number of people around the world who know the importance of holding on to a humanistic idea, and of keeping in mind that people need—first and foremost—other people. People who are willing to take part, to share with us the horror and confusion, to invite the telling of a narrative, and to keep the hope alive.

In her thesis, Barbro Sandin writes:

“In conclusion I would like to say: human beings are human beings. Human beings are borderline creatures: in other words, creative and responsible creatures… Humans are free to choose, or rather, free to renege on their humanity, renege on the insight of being human. Humans can allow themselves to be engulfed by the bureaucratic system I mentioned previously. Humans can allow themselves to become robots or “hold on” to their illusions. But if a human being does this they are no longer real according to the concept human being. In other words, there are options but human beings have no choice. A human being´s choice is to be a human being”

That is why we have created—and invite you to—our film festival: to remind us of humanity, and the dilemmas of human life. Human beings are so much bigger and more complex than combinations of letters. Human beings are part of a social, political, cultural context wherein each of us are influenced and affected by each other.

The film festival is a collection of global experience that comes from professional as well as lived experience. It is a festival of narratives—and data—that extend knowledge and provide us with the hope and courage to make a necessary change happen.

Creating space for life changing meetings to happen…

My doctorate thesis is an attempt to find out what is the most important in my experience as a psychotherapist in The Extended Therapy Room. In the Conclusion part it says:

“In the end of this research project I realize that I also have a wish to influence therapeutic practice and inspire others to extend the therapeutic room in order to create space for life changing meetings to happen, not only for the person called client but for each and every one who is involved…As the research has developed and progressed I see very clearly how the experience and knowledge described here is possible to make use of in many places and contexts where the mission is to meet people who by different reasons have a need and wish for other people in their lives; in psychiatry, social service, and school just to mention some” (Håkansson, 2014, p 187).

After more than 25 years as the managing director for Family Care Foundation I have decided to resign and to move on. More than anything else the years have taught me essential things about life and human life conditions, for better and for worse. It has also given me a chance to meet with some dedicated, wise and great people. Many of them are not professional “helpers” but something else. Both during practice and during research it has become clarified how The Extended Therapy Room (Håkansson, 2000) has enabled a mindset that stems from the idea that neither people nor meetings can be captured and classified through a specific method or manual. It is about something else, something that has to do with being a human in all its complexity and beauty. It requires taking a stance, and to include oneself as a human spiritual being in a social and political context.

Very soon a new foundation “The Extended Therapy Room Foundation” will be created with the main purpose to place therapeutic work where it belongs, in a social and political context including knowledge and experience from art, science, and ordinary life. To be part of a global network with the mission to create possibilities for an equal and sustainable world.

During the film festival Driving Us Crazy you will get to know more about visions, concrete plans and people involved. For those of you who have no possibility to attend please stay tuned, more information will soon be available here and elsewhere…

I am so looking forward to meet with people from near and far, and to try together to make essential changes happen.

Holding another person’s life in your hands …

Listening to the radio about refugees from Syria searching for a safe place to stay, at the same time preparing for a day-trip to Copenhagen to attend a symposium about the harm which far too often is caused by pharmaceuticals.

Reminding myself about some lines written by the The Danish philosopher K.E. Lögstrup who describes the experience of “holding another person’s life in your hands” and the responsibility that comes with it.

“The emotional significance of the metaphor grows out of the contrast in the relationship to which it refers, namely, that we have the power to determine the direction of something in another personґs life, perhaps merely his mood or in an extreme case his destiny” (Lögstrup, 1971, page 29).

The importance of extending our network and perspective

In the middle of a rainy Swedish summer, I am reading articles and blogs connected to that subject which is defined mental health, and so I find myself feeling a bit “tired”. What is very obvious, when reading and pondering about mental health issues, is the psycho individual perspective. For many years I have been aware of the very increased individual and psychological perspective in the Western world, still it makes me unhappy to notice this limited and to some extent narrowing focus described in articles, blogs and also at conferences taking place all over.

Many researchers, practitioners and people with “lived experience” describe phenomenon related to individuals, and most often related to psycho individual ideas and “solutions”. In traditional psychiatry this perspective is very dominant and Robert Whitaker describes in his books the increasing number of psychiatric diagnoses related to individual symptoms and behavior, and the enormous increase of psychiatric drugs. He points out an epidemic has taken place in the last decades.

The sad and to some extent more concerning thing though is that a kind of epidemic is also occurring in the field of psychotherapy and psychology with its increasing use of different approaches, methods, manual based formulas and different theoretical schools having their own understanding and different treatments . Psychotherapy has come to mean everything and at the same time nothing.

The increase of psychological ideas, assumptions, theories and approaches based on an individual perspective is spread not just in therapeutic contexts, but also within social service, school and among people in common. Far too often social, political and economic perspectives are left out, as for example the harm caused by poverty, war, and injustice in society illustrated by huge differences between standard regarding schools, hospitals and housing.

Instead of focusing on these issues, no matter which “category” we belong to, we tend to examine and describe from an individual perspective. More organizations connected to people with lived experience are created and finally getting a place on the official stage. This is all together great; people who have not been heard before are taking and to some extent being given space for their important experiences to be acknowledged and heard.

BUT, my fear is that if those of us, no matter if we are defined as professional helpers, clients or their families, miss the point, and instead of together trying to create a world built on equality, and justice we separate from each other by focusing on “our own idea”. For many years many of us have noticed the “fight” between different therapeutic approaches and how this fight rather has created a split than a strong movement.

As for example the systemic family therapy was created as a reaction towards an individual perspective some 50 years ago, and unfortunately nowadays also in systemic practice and research you may often find people being described in terms of individual wordings and diagnosis. Individual based methods and manuals are used no matter which theoretic understanding is presented.

It is high time for those of us working as professional “helpers” to find a way to not focus so much on our own specific approaches, theories and ideas, but instead focus on finding agreement on larger concerns. As much as each of are influenced by our own history and context, we are also part of a large social and political context. These social and political issues have to be more mentioned, acknowledged, and to be more taken into consideration.

Either relational or social, political, and economical issues are to be solved individually. It takes a lot of people to make changes – it is shown in history and also by today. It takes a village to raise a child, and so it takes a connected and committed movement to make change happen.

The Family Care Foundation began based on a vision to create a place that would be good for people, whether they were clients, their families, professional helpers or family homes. In other words, our vision wasn’t to create a method of treatment or produce a new theory. It was about something else, something that had to do with the conditions of people’s lives, our dreams, hopes and chances of creating meaning in our lives. It was about something that would give people the courage to live and promote the living part of ourselves. Our vision was built on the idea that we all contribute in different ways and that these contributions form a whole where each part is vital. Solidarity and each and everyone´s participation were essential already from the very beginning.

Our practice has developed from people’s joint efforts, feelings, thoughts and deeds. There have been both moments and longer periods of deep anguish and uncertainty concerning the shared work and our ability to survive as an organization. We’ve been questioned and questioned ourselves about what we’re doing. Is it really possible that so-called ordinary people can do what both psychiatry and social service “have failed at”? We’ve come to understand over the years how doubt and periods of self-examination are important. We’ve found a way to use this doubt and anxiety in practice, to listen to it and see it as an opportunity to comprehend something vital, something that creates meaning.

Still today, the idea that we could create a living organization which consists of very different people coming from wildly diverse backgrounds is an amazing experience, which has affected my whole life. Influenced by a strong embodied feeling we made the important decision when we started in 1987 that we would never do something we couldn’t stand for. No matter what happened we wouldn’t do it. We would rather shut down our operations. What brought us to this decision? The answer has to be that it felt so right, that intuitively we knew it was crucial. One of the most important decisions was to abolish psychiatric diagnosis and to support people to get off pharmaceutical drugs. Iy had not been possible without being part of an international movement, taking part of other people´s experience, courage and knowledge.

Either relational or social, political, and economical issues are to be solved individually. It takes a lot of people to make changes – it is shown in history and also by today. It takes a village to raise a child, and so it takes a connected and committed movement to make change happen.

I have a dream of a movement less focused on psycho individual aspects and more focused on a wider perspective. In practice, it means we need to try to stop fighting about different psychological and theoretical approaches and methods and instead try to extend our understanding and network. It is important to find allies outside our “comfort zone”. We will have to extend our network and invite people who have other kinds of experience than mental health issues. People who know something else about human beings and human life conditions. People who, in their daily lives, as well as in their political and social actions, know the importance of taking a stance, of cooperating, and of being connected in life and with other people.


While we as individuals may not become known, the chance to make real change, if we can come together in this way, will certainly increase.

It takes a lot to make dreams come true…

It has been a busy and wonderful time since coming back home from US, and one of the reasons is our coming Film Festival Driving Us Crazy which every day creates a lot of joy, hope and new allies. Of course it is also difficult at times, sleepless nights, worries, and things to sort out. But overall it is a blessing to be part of a growing and strong network. To get to know people from near and far. To realize how very many people all over sharing dreams and ideas about how to create a better world. People who talk and express ourselves in different ways, live in different places and contexts, working with different things, struggles with different things.  And still, so many similarities. So many things we have in common. So much knowledge we share.

When Hanna said “Let’s make a film festival in Sweden” after we had attended the MadinAmerica film festival last autumn it was still more of a vision than something which would come true. And at the same time, I kind of knew it would happen – that we together with many others would make it happen.

And so the work started, and as often, if we had realized from the beginning how much it would take, it would probably had been nothing more than a dream. As is also the case with Family Care Foundation, if from the beginning we had known about all the difficulties, and things to solve, we would not had started it. I am so happy we did not realize what it would take. I am so happy that we, surrounded by others – from the past and in the very moment- dared to make the dream come true

It is a very good thing not to be able to realize beforehand what will happen in the future. The main thing is to know there are people around, and to know one is not alone. It is essential to take part in other people’s experiences, and to be inspired. To gain hope, trust and to dare to take a stance and to follow one’s heart.

Time for Changes to Happen

It is the last night in Cambridge for this time, and it fills me with vemod (there is no English word for vemod) and deep gratefulness. It is one of the best times in my life, and part of it has to do with meeting such great and passionate people with whom important talks have taken place and with whom I have felt surrounded by joy, commitment and a wonderful seriousness.

It has also been a joy to study at the beautiful library, and to get to know about Jessie Taft, a therapist and social worker educator who lived here in US between 1882 and 1960. When reading her texts and biography written by her dear friend and colleague Virginia Robertson it feels like reading about the work of Barbro Sandin whom I have been gifted to know as a dear mentor for many years.

Both Jessie Taft and Barbro Sandin express the importance of being met like a real person by another real person, also when the meeting takes place in a therapy room. Both of them describe the relationship as the most important, and not to be afraid of emotions and feelings, but rather to acknowledge their importance without trying to explain it. Time as a limit is something else they seem to have in common, to make use of the time frame, and to be reminded about life and death and the responsibility which comes with being a human being.

The last month has been a reminder about essential things in life and work, and how to be useful in relation to people in need, but also how to listen to that which is of utterance importance in my own life. A lot of meetings have taken place, and some phenomenon tend to be more present, no matter where the meetings take place, no matter with whom. The importance of taken a stance, and to do that which has to be done.

As Barbro Sandin did when she claimed there is no such thing as schizophrenia as an illness, but rather as a reaction to life situations too hard to deal with, and by doing so challenged the whole psychiatric paradigm. Or as Peter Breggin did when he loudly protested against lobotomy and by doing so made a change for lots of people until then being numb in the psychiatric system. Robert Whitaker who tells about the increasing use of psychiatric diagnosis and drugs will tomorrow publish a new book which probably will create some “panic” amongst psychiatrists who have sold their souls to Big Pharma.

I have had a coffee today with Dan Fisher, a psychiatrist with own lived experience of being forced to taking drugs and also a meal this evening with Laura Delano, editor at MadinAmerica whom for years was “treated” in the psychiatric system, being told she would never get well. Both of them are bringing essential experience and wisdom into the movement which is determined to make a change regarding those called patients – those whom are labeled and prescribed drugs.

It is absolutely necessary to create a change when more and more kids are defined in terms of that which is called ADHD, without ever having found any evidence by blood tests or brain screenings, just by some vague symptoms described in the psychiatric DSM –system.

So as much as I find it hard to leave Cambridge, as much do I also find it good to soon be back at work, with the aim and mission to create some vital changes and present alternatives to the psychiatric biological model. We are many and will be more, in this text just a few important persons are mentioned, but there are many, many more. I am so happy to be a part.

The acceptance of
the black hole

I have recently started to read a new book written by Marcia Bartusiak who is a professor of the Practice in Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The book is about the black hole in universe and how scientists and people in common over many years of doubts and struggle have come to accept such a phenomenon. Bartusiak quotes a famous saying “All truth passes through three stages: First it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed: and third, it is accepted as being self-evident”.

That is a comforting thought and more than so, I deeply believe there will come a day when that which today is defined anti-psychiatry will be seen as common sense. There will be a day when people wonder how could it be possible to treat human life dilemmas with pharmaceuticals and how come so many children and young people were defined mentally ill without taking into consideration the context which surrounded them.

Yesterday I met with Peter Senge, known from his best seller book The Fifth Discipline. He told me about a project called Roca Inc. close to Boston where “troubled” young kids are met in a radically different way than what they are used to, and how this difference makes such a big change. For all the people connected to the project.  He talked about the method they use, but so he said, of course the most important is the dedication each and every staff member show in daily practice.

I thought about my own work place and that which has been possible to create over the years, all the meetings between very different people and how these meetings have made a change. For all of us. When our organization was created it was seen like ridiculous – how could we believe it would be possible for “ordinary people” to deal with those called clients who had stayed for a long time in prisons, institutions and mental hospitals. We were sometimes accused for not being either scientific or serious. And it happened pretty often that people from outside said that we were not even “real therapists”. Today we know it was possible- and more than so-we meet more people than ever. Both at our work place and in many other places all over the world.

People who are trying to make a change in a system which has to be changed, for a more sustainable and humanistic way of dealing with human life dilemmas. It makes me happy to read about the acceptance of the black hole and it makes me happy to hear about Roca Inc. as it does to know we are many people all over who in different ways find a way to reach the truth about what is important in human life.

Thoughts from the ISPS international conference

I am in New York participating at the ISPS international conference held at Coopers Square. As usual the most important during events like this is to catch up with people from all over the world. And of course to attend some presentations and workshops. Hanna, a colleague of mine will present on Saturday the anthology Nine Lives which consists of stories from some of the people who have been part of our shared work for a time in their lives. It gives an idea about the variety and the contradictions which come with being a human. The stories tell about the importance of someone being there, someone who challenges, someone who opens both heart and home for a stranger. It also tells about the importance of trust, dignity, pride, cooperation, belonging, but also how hard it is at times to trust and to belong. And therefore why it is absolutely essential with living and dynamic organizations where people have the right but also a responsibility to participate.

Participation is essential, and there are many ideas and theories about how to create space for participation to grow. Yesterday I met some amazing people who have created a beautiful and strong   organization during more than 30 years. It started with four people who decided to try to make a change – to make the world a bit better. It was the mission they had and it is still the mission for the now very big organization which grew and extend their network day by day. Hanna and I met Lois Holzman and Dan Friedman, some of the founder yesterday afternoon and we were both very touched the way they talked about their work but above all by their mission shown in deeds. They told about developing groups of cops who play together with “young angry men”. Poor kids cooperating with business men to make a connection between their very different life conditions. Theatre projects built on voluntary workers in collaboration with professional actors and dancers. Big social therapy groups including people from different backgrounds, but with a kind of the same desire in life. Voluntary workers who spend hours and hours to make things happen.

Meeting Lois and Dan strengthened my desire and wish to extend the therapeutic room, to make it available for many people, to find ways to engage with both so called ordinary people and professionals of different kinds. To find out together with others the not yet known. To let performance and art inspire as also philosophy and nature To invite people of different kinds to a shared space to develop knowledge important for all of. Our planned Film Festival Driving Us Crazy is such a space, a place where people will meet each other and where dreams may transform to concrete plans. As happened in East Side Institute. As hopefully is the aim with big conferences like the ISPS one. As has a chance to happen when people get together and find their driving force, skills and determination to make a change.

Driving Us Crazy: A Festival About Madness in Society, and in All of Us

“We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” — Roger Ebert

I am proud and happy to announce that our webpage DrivingUsCrazy has been launched. It will help us to get the word out about the international film festival taking place in Gothenburg, 16-18 October, 2015, and also to highlight the issue of madness every day until then — and hopefully for many days afterwards.

Hanna, a dear colleague of mine, has done a great job and she tells me every second hour how fast the message is spreading. And how many people who are dedicated to the mission to find alternatives to the – as yet — dominant medical model within psychiatry. A model which has spread also to schools, to social services, and which must be discussed and questioned before it is too late.

We have a vision of making a shift in our country; a hope that the film festival will be a turning point. Movies, researchers, people with own lived experience and artists from many contexts and countries will tell another story than the one told by traditional psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. We are determined to make space for other “truths.” We want to make room for people to tell their personal history: To extend the phenomenon called evidence-based knowledge.

For far too long time the discussion and the so-called knowledge have been narrow and limited. Even though a lot of people know there is another “truth” than the common one it has been very difficult to get the word out. Far too many times people have been told to shut their mouths. Far too many times we have been told that we exaggerate – that we are too emotional.

But, after all, human life is about emotions. It is not either this or that; it is about both, and… It is far too beautiful and complex to be expressed in a simple diagnostic term, and it far too dangerous for the dilemma to be “solved” by medications, especially when we still have no clue about how — or if — they work in the long term.

Movies touch people, make us feel, make the full range come out; the sadness, but also the hope and the strength. We hope for three strong and powerful days and nights and we welcome you to join us.

Extending experience and knowledge

I have just finished a long Skype conversation with a dear colleague of mine working far away during conditions which differ a lot from those I am used to here in Sweden. In her country people pay no taxes, there is no common welfare, poor children are living on the streets, education is not for free, people are living in shelters at the same time as others live in big private houses.

We met eight years ago through late Tom Andersen who worked as a family therapist and doctor in social medicine in the the very north of Norway. Tom had met my dear colleague during a trip to South America when he decided to try to create an exchange between therapists from the south with therapists from the north. I am very grateful he did, and I can hardly imagine how life and work would have been for me if I had not been involved in this exchange. Since even though poor children don´t live on the streets in Sweden and even though people pay taxes for a common welfare there are some big challenges also in our society about how to create space which includes people rather than exclude, and how to give voice to experiences beyond the therapeutic and psychiatric state.

When extending perspectives and contexts also personal knowledge and experience get extended. When opening the physical space also one´s mind get more opened. It is not done without efforts and it takes some courage. It might happen that doubt occur in such a way that one decide to withdraw. It might be that the conflict between the so far known and the not yet known creates a loneliness which is too scary.

Still for some of us there is no option. The conversation today reminded me about that- there are situations in life as in work where we have no options. At least if the aim is to make a change. Despite big differences between our countries my colleague and I have also a lot in common; visions about how to create space for people who need support for a time in their life, the need for solidarity, the importance of extending therapeutic knowledge to make it available for more than an exclusive group.  And to never ever give up the idea about each person´s right to our own voice.