One of the most problematic aspects of a majority of contemporary mental health services resides in their tendency to engender self-alienation in the patient. This is in part a consequence of the insidious dichotomies prevailing in psychiatric discourse. Binaries like that of mind/body combined with a strict definition of normality promulgate a conformance usually intolerant to deviation. For instance, psychiatry’s explanation of psychic aberration and/or suffering consists predominantly of two types: either as a manifestation of the mind’s troubles, or—the view holding more clout in the field—a consequence of bodily dysfunction. While the second (biomedical) explanation contains more damaging existential implication, neither allows much freedom in the way of self-definition and individuality. More simply, according to these models, the patient either has a distorted way of perceiving the world, or, has a disease which must be medically suppressed. In either case some aspect of personhood is pathologized, and the individual suffering is left with the confusing sense that somehow his or her identity is being attacked by an alien intruder, a disease which can only be eliminated through strict adherence to a regimen of medication and consistent surveillance.
Questions concerning the nature of this intruder, whether a genetically coded chemical imbalance, an acquired maladaptive perceptive filter, or the medical model itself have emerged as heated controversy both within the mental health sphere and the wider political arena. In consequence, disagreements have given way to a terrain splintered by defiant polarities often unwilling to dialogue with those outside of their respective ideological circle. Within this fractured climate, building bridges between competing camps is crucial. This is where The Icarus Project is focusing its energy.
II. The Icarus Project: What is it & Where did it come from?
The Icarus Project is a network of individuals organized around their experiences living with what the medical model diagnoses as bipolar disorder or other related illness. It derives its name from the Greek myth about a boy whose demise results from flying too close to the sun; this parable serves as a metaphor, granting the the freedom to re-conceptualize the diagnoses’ constitutive traits as part of a dangerous gift.
The Icarus Project began four years ago when Sascha Dubrul, a long-time radical activist diagnosed with bipolar disorder, began seeking out others with similar emotional struggle. Though skeptical of the medical model’s reductive (and largely unsubstantiated) claim that he was suffering from a brain disorder curable only through medication, he found in medication a helpful coping mechanism; “It took a few months, but for the first time I could see that the drugs were actually working for me. It was more than the circumstances it actually felt chemical. Slowly all the horrible noise and thoughts faded and I started to feel good again” (The Icarus Project, “A Reader” 11).
Uncomfortable with both mainstream views of mental illness and those of its adamant opposition force—those viewing mental illness as myth and pharmaceuticals as a lucrative lie--, Sascha embarked on a personal mission to make sense of things despite the splintered terrain. In 2002 the San Francisco Bay Guardian printed an article he wrote entitled “The Bipolar World;” in it he recognizes the fractured landscape before him, poignantly articulating the necessity for a new kind of discourse;
Our society still seems to be in the early stages of the dialogue where you're either 'for' or 'against' the mental health system. Like either you swallow the antidepressant ads on television as modern-day gospel and start giving your dog Prozac, or you're convinced we're living in Brave New World and all the psych drugs are just part of a big conspiracy to keep us from being self-reliant and realizing our true potential. I think it's really about time we start carving some more of the middle ground with stories from outside the mainstream and creating a new language for ourselves that reflects all the complexity and brilliance that we hold inside (The Icarus Project, “A Reader” 14).
The article brought him one step closer to achieving his vision. Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Ashley McNamara was caught up in a similar web of confusion when she read Sascha’s article. Reflecting on this moment she recollects,
And then Sascha published an article called ‘The Bipolar World’ in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that I could relate to more than almost any piece of writing I’ve ever seen in my life. Once we met and started pouring out our life stories I realized that what I’d been trying to ignore, this way of being that gets labeled bipolar disorder, this framework of filters and illuminations through which I experience life, is actually more fundamental to how I exist in the world than I could ever have guessed (The Icarus Project, “A Reader 6).
Together, Sascha and Ashley started The Icarus Project to reach out to others like them, “as a way of creating a space for people to share their trajectories through this uncharted world of blackness and brilliance and the million shades of gray that the medical establishment has no idea how to describe” (6). Their vision was to counter-act the reductionism of the medical model, and to help construct a community in which people could explore the dynamism of their identities, world, and possible futures.
III. Who are the participants and how do they define themselves?
Today, The Icarus Project consists of a network of individuals all over the world. It is organized on a national level by a group of four committed activists, while affiliated support groups are sprouting across the country. A sizeable portion of this thriving community is web-based, as the website now has over twenty-five hundred registered members.
The sheer number of registered web-members evidences the heterogeneity of the Icarus community. After reading through many of the discussion forums, this became increasingly apparent from the range of opinions represented in any given thread; in one could be found someone who uses pharmaceuticals and thanks Icarus for not judging him, someone who is entirely opposed to any use of drugs and admonishes Icarus for accepting grants from institutions advocating mainstream medical ideology, and someone who is withdrawing from medication but feels that it served a purpose in a particular time of need.
Moreover, through their literature the Icarus staff explicitly encourages the formation of autonomous local groups. To this end they produced and through the website made available a guidebook entitled Friends Make the Best Medicine: A Guide to Creating Community Mental Health Support Networks; the introduction acknowledges and even promotes some mutation;
This guidebook is for anyone who wants to start groups inspired by the Icarus Project vision. We imagine Icarus groups as wild and unpredictable dandelions: nourishing the depleted soil of corporate dominated society, reaching into the fertile underground darkness of madness, and breaking through with new inspiration and movements for change (The Icarus Project, “A Guide” i).
In addition, the guide includes comprehensive directions on how to start a group from scratch, organize and hold successful gatherings, organize public events and workshops, create mutual aid groups, and even provides the flyers and graphics instrumental to these activities.
Given the heterogeneity of the Icarus community, it is important to examine the qualities contributing to its solidarity. One place to find these is in the guidebook. Included in its ready-made materials is an “Icarus Gathering PreRamble” designed as a preamble for focusing gatherings; it reads as follows:
The Icarus Project envisions a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences of ‘mental illness’ rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework. We see our madness as a dangerous gift to be cultivated and taken care of, rather than as a disease or disorder needing to be ‘cured’ or ‘overcome.’ This is a space for people to come together and learn from each others’ different views and experiences of madness. People who take psychiatric dugs are welcome here, as are people who don’t take psychiatric drugs. People who use diagnosis categories to describe themselves are welcome, as are people who define themselves differently. The Icarus Project values self-determination and mutual support (The Icarus Project, “A Guide” 2)
These core values—democracy, creativity, compassion, education, respect of difference—are what give the Icarus community its cohesion.
IV. What are they resisting?
The Icarus Project from its inception has been resisting the dogmatism of the mainstream mental health services along with the pharmaceutical propaganda this system disseminates. In their literature they pose poignant questions concerning science’s supposed objectivity; “Who are we humans to claim such knowledge of something as mysterious and powerful as madness? Who are we to impose our own standards of functioning and health, to define someone like me as disabled and in recovery, to divide my experience into health and ‘symptoms?” (Hall, “Radical Mental Health” 69). Thus, Icarus began in part as a struggle to win back the right to define one’s own identity. Rather than defer to some outside source to provide the answers, Icarus is about connecting with others in order to develop a meaningful explanation for one’s own experiences. The idea is that an autonomous, whole self can be produced by communicating and cultivating relationships with people enduring some similar life experience.
This is in contradistinction to the current operating mental health model which more often tends to shatter identities. For instance, one member reflects, “I still don’t know where to draw the line between personality and pathology, between ‘unusual’ behavior and disease…Traditional Western medicine demands that the doctor/authority pinpoint the pathogen and try to kill it, usually with drugs” (The Icarus Project, “A Reader” 36). This expression of self-doubt is a recurrent one, and is indubitably a by-product of psychiatric ideology.
One positive response to this internalized self-deprecation is through the redefining of what is commonly deemed a disease. Will Hall, one of The Icarus Project’s collective staff members and co-founder of the Massachusetts activism and support group Freedom Center, demonstrates how what is medically identified as the “symptom complex” can be alternatively conceived of as so much more;
For me, the painful symptoms of my schizophrenia aren’t simply negative faults: I see them as parts of complex gifts that make up who I am. My creativity, sensitivity, inspiration and spirituality all directly arise from the very things that the mental health system would have me get rid of: paranoia, isolation, voices, ‘loose association’ and ‘ideas of reference’(Hall, “Collaborating with Madness”7).
The sentiment that the traits medically deemed pathological are actually invaluable gifts is prevalent among the Icarus community.
Another dominant theme in Icarus literature is the notion that the symptoms commonly experienced by people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are a rational reaction to an irrational, crazy world. Included in the zine is a section entitled “Making Sense of Being Called Crazy in a Crazy World” which poses explicit questions on this issue, “What is Normal?...What does it mean to be called ‘mentally ill’ in a world that is obviously mad? The definition of mental illness is relative to the culture drawing the boundaries. And it certainly seems that modern society has gone over the edge” (The Icarus Project, “A Reader” 16). Also noted in the zine is the absolute subjectivity diagnosis hinges on; given that mental illness has no confirming blood tests, diagnosis relies entirely on the opinion of a psychiatrist. Thus, the claim that diagnosis intimates a brain disease remains an unsubstantiated claim.
V. How are they resisting?
The Icarus Project’s resistance is tripartite. Its ideology is distinct from that of the mainstream and is performed in three important, interlaced ways. The first is exercised through the dissemination of ideas. Education is among Icarus’s most significant undertakings, and its underground media projects (like the zine and aforementioned how-to guide) in conjunction with articles available on its website constitute a major resource devoted towards this end.
For instance, the zine features extensive information regarding mainstream medical discourse and policy, personal testimonials supplied by registered web-members, varying experiential interpretations from an anthropological perspective, alternative healing methods, suggested means of navigating the mental health system if necessary, a section on suicide, and recommendations concerning maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Since Icarus takes a harm-reduction approach, the only official stance on drug use is the idea that drugs constitute a kind of coping mechanism and that legal coercive drugging practice is unjustifiable; “Icarus is one of 100 + groups who are part of the Mindfreedom Coalition which opposes psych abuse” (Hall, Feb 2007 web-post). In accordance with this belief, Will Hall and Ashley McNamara are currently working on a number of writing projects that address issues of popular education and informed consent and teach about dangers and side-effects of medication (Hall, Feb 2007 web-post).
The second way Icarus implements its ideology is through their internal politics. The Icarus “society” functions politically as a direct, participatory democracy and with a high degree of transparency. The website, for instance, is clearly sustained by active member participation (the only reigning prohibitions are those associated with mutual respect). It boasts an impressive variety of discussion topics while within each can be found a vast array of viewpoints. Practices like monthly open-for-all conference calls and the “Open Plans” wiki-site provide additional opportunity to participate in discussions regarding policy and the planning of future activities. As one member writes,
‘The Icarus Project is a website and group that was created and is maintained by and for people with mental illness. It is a participatory creation. No one person is ‘in charge.’ Each group is in charge of its own direction. The Icarus Project is to support people, not to necessarily propagate one anarchist view of what is politically correct’ (fireweed_rb, Feb 2007 web-post).
Further, the tolerance central to the project’s ideals affords it a more flexible organizational structure; this is the third way Icarus reifies its ideology. The components of this structure include staffing, a distinction between the national collective and local groups, and the project’s financial policy. In a press-release Will informs,
Staff is limited to part-time positions that support local initiatives, and we’re directing our budget into small grants for community organizers rather than growing the national office. And ‘Icarus Project’ isn’t some kind of brand: we’re an open source movement. Groups…aren’t franchises or chapters; they are autonomous collaborators setting their own agendas following their own inspiration (Hall, “Radical Mental Health” 69).
By encouraging smaller affinity groups to unify under the Icarus umbrella, the project fosters the continuance of its fundamental politics—direct, participatory democracy. While allowing so much flexibility inevitably permits some message mutation, it is a critical practice for a group which aims squarely at re-empowering its members.
Thus, through its practice of politics, the Icarus society serves as a prefiguration of the kind of world its members wish to inhabit.
VI. What is their intent or goal, how do the means they employ relate to the ends they proclaim, and are they successful?
The primary objective of The Icarus Project is twofold. On a micro-scale it includes benefiting its members personally and then expanding to penetrate the mainstream; “Our goal is to help people like ourselves feel less alienated, and to allow us—both as individuals and as a community—to tap into the true potential that lies between brilliance and madness…[It is to] break down mainstream culture’s walls” (The Icarus Project, “A Guide” 6). The means employed in realizing this vision are exceedingly appropriate. DIY philosophy has given rise to the project’s current infrastructure, and as previously mentioned, the founding political principles have been reified in each facet of the project’s operations.
Further, their emphasis on language usage as a means to social change is particularly provocative. For instance, one section of Friends Make the Best Medicine discusses the way that language so deeply impacts how we view ourselves and make sense of the world around us. In one part it importantly observes,
We have other people’s language in our heads and on our tongues. Words like ‘disorder’ and ‘disease’ offer us one set of metaphors for understanding the way it feels to experience our lives through our particularly volatile minds and souls, but it is such a limited view…Perhaps if we can change the metaphors that shape our minds, we can change the reality around us (The Icarus Project, “A Guide” 4,5).
This seems imperative for real change to occur. However, this is a really tricky task to accomplish. It brings to mind decolonization and how the physical departure of the colonizer is not tantamount to freedom for the colonized. Even (and most often) without intent we internalize the rules of our “masters” or the hegemonic ideology, and even sometimes rebellion serves to reinforce its dominance.
As a result, there is apparent ambivalence concerning the diction used throughout Icarus literature and web-posts. For instance, even in the title of the zine “Navigating the Space between Brilliance and Madness,” madness seems to be used much the same way the medical model would use it--to denote something negative. Perhaps this issue could be ameliorated gradually and in consequence to other accomplishments; maybe new words can begin to circulate once a thicker sense of solidarity develops.
This cultivation of community is seemingly underway, as evidenced by numerous posts of the following sentiment:
hi, I just wanted to say, it was a relief to me that icarus was not going to judge me and have some official stance on medication. For whatever reasons I am on some for now—sometimes cause I need filters, sometimes because I can’t get off the meds due to discontinuation syndromes. I like that I can talk freely about it without judgment…(ketogah Feb 2007).
I feel as though anybody can be part of the decision making process if they desire to do so (fireweed Feb 2007).
Democracy is a working policy, for ultimately it gains leverage from the personal investment of those involved. But true direct, participatory democracy makes the “decolonization” process more arduous; in one post Will wrote, “The forums are free-for all and there certainly is bad advice sometimes when people turn to each other for help. However, without good information available much misinformation is given too much of a supportive environment to thrive in” (Hall, 2007 web-post). Certainly, one way of rectifying this problem is through education. When I spoke with Sascha, he mentioned pieces of the educational process that Icarus is currently lacking—peer education and sensitivity training. He believes that these are useful routes to take given their demonstrated success in other, more established groups like LGBT.
In further examination of the relation between the project’s aims and its corresponding means, I stumbled across some friction in one of the web forums in regards to funding. In one post a member criticizes,
“I am wondering how an organization that has received its housing from Fountain House Inc., whose webpage clearly states, ‘They are among the 5.5 million Americans each year who experience one of three severe mental brain disorders. All illnesses are biologically based, as are, for example, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease…’ can possibly expect to break free from ‘the medical model’ in any significant way, without losing their support?...After all, if they [Icarus] had not initially organized themselves around ‘the medical model’ they would not have received the financial support necessary to grow the way they have, and print so much nice looking literature, and go on tour all over the country. If the Icarus Project had started out by writing grant proposals that talked about helping people get off of drugs, for instance, they would have never received these many thousands of dollars worth of grants…I am wondering how the Icarus Project plans to continue utilizing mainstream funding sources, if it plans to move out of the mainstream (fritzflohr, feb 2007 web-post)”
In response, Sascha replied with the most practical, logistical explanation—if Icarus were to only accept funding from sources in complete ideological concurrence it would not receive any. From a less practical perspective, though, I think accepting resources from more mainstream organizations is an intelligent decision. The above critique stems from the misguided impression that Icarus “plans to move out of the mainstream” when really, its intention is more to help turn the mainstream into a wider stream. Towards this end, accepting funding from mainstream organizations--whose philosophy converges with Icarus in some, though maybe not all, respects--might be a really effective strategy.
However, there is another aspect of The Icarus Project’s methods which could impede its success in penetrating the mainstream. Sprinkled throughout the literature is rhetoric like “radical” and “anarchy”—words which tend to put people in the mainstream on edge. Introducing the concept of Icarus to college campuses could prove nearly impossible with these kinds of terms, for such parlance frequently throws up a red flag in the minds of officials deciding whether the principles and practices are appropriate for their institution. If Icarus truly wants to gain visible presence on college campuses and other similar institutions (as it claims to), it may have to decide whether modifying its methods wreaks detriment on its conveyed message, perhapscompromising its initial objective for the satisfaction of its larger one.
Friends Make the Best Medicine: A Guide to Cretaing community Mental Health Support Networks. The Icarus Project. New York: 2006.
Hall, Will. “Collaborating with Madness.” ISPS 7.2 (2006): 6-7. 15 April 2007. legacy.theicarusproject.net/
Hall, Will. “The Icarus Project: Radical Mental Health Activism.” Left Turn (Jan/Feb 2007). 15 April 2007. legacy.theicarusproject.net/
Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness. The Icarus Project. New York: 2002.
The Icarus Project. “Dialog on Critique of Icarus.” The Icarus Project: Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness. Topic Initiator, Will Hall. Feb 21, 2007. Online. Internet. April 20, 2007. www.theicarusproject.nt/community/discussionboards/viewtopic.php?t=8329.