Walking the Peace Road

Walking the Peace Road.

Thinking about mental health reform in the context of anger…

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This article begins an exploration of how we can create more collaborative, respectful and nonviolent spaces for change. I imagine these as spaces where everyone feels welcome, there is respect for the deep anger which many of us hold, we create spaces for this anger, and we use the anger to drive positive, constructive change.

I welcome your comments as I hope to continue exploring these ideas.

Lately my work keeps throwing me into similar situations.

I attend conferences, training courses or meetings where consumers and workers have come together to explore mental health change – and often it doesn’t work.

This is what I see happen:

I am sure there must be a better way. The whole situation keeps bringing to my mind that simple but profound quote by Mahatma Gandhi:

“There is no road to peace; peace is the road.”

Gandhi led the cause for Indian independence with nonviolent action. It was revolutionary and difficult, yet ultimately effective. In this quote he explains his philosophy with simple elegance, and contrasts his approach (“peace is the road”) with the enduring justifications used throughout time by governments and armies which tell us that coercion, violence and war will lead us, eventually, to peace (“a road to peace”).

We don’t have to look very far into our history – or even current world events – to see the tragic consequences of trying to achieve peace through violence.

Gandhi asks us to consider that the best way to achieve peace is actually not through violence, but by acting peacefully. Not so dissimilar really, to those other enduring words by the same man:

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

In the context of consumer rights and mental health reform, what is recovery, if not peace?

For individuals, achieving mental and emotional tranquillity is a core aim. And what is systemic mental health reform about if not something which provides services in an atmosphere of peace, rather than violence and coercion?

The problem is that trying to live to this principle is harder that it might at first seem. Anger pervades almost every discussion about mental health change.

The stark reality is that many of us consumers have had experiences in the mental health system which have been violent, hurtful, excluding and degrading.

As we make our recovery journeys, particularly as we come to see that those types of treatments did more harm than help, we become angry. How can we not? We often are also faced with invitations to participate in changes which then turn out to be tokenistic or under-resourced – this makes us angry too.

I think that workers also hold anger.

Many workers have told me how awful they feel about coercive treatments they have participated in during their work history. I talked only last month with an amazing nurse in the UK about how he struggles with having helped administer involuntary ECT to patients many years ago. Today he doesn’t work in acute settings, and he does really positive work in the community. But he struggles with his history. I know other nurses who can’t abide the use of seclusion, but are required by their services to use it.

Many workers are stuck in a distressing conundrum – speaking out against harmful treatments can put their careers in jeopardy and alienate them from colleagues. Yet if they leave the system then they lose all opportunity to try and bring about change from within. This is a painful and difficult reality for which I think many workers need to do their own recovery work.

I suspect many bureaucrats and senior decision makers may also be angry. They just want good, effective and efficient change – but no one seems to be able to talk about it in productive ways. The depth of difficulty in achieving constructive, peaceful conversations is significant.


Thinking about anger.

Anger is a wonderful emotion, as I have finally come to learn in recent years. It is incredibly motivating, it activates both sides of our brains, it drives us to right wrongs, and to be strong. Anger has been behind all of the great social justice movements throughout history.

The problem is that most of western culture (or perhaps most cultures?) is not very skilful with its anger. To start with, most of us tend to associate anger with violence, abuse and danger. We tend to think that anger is NOT NICE. Many of us avoid anger in ourselves and others, and we become quite scared of it. We believe, falsely, that anger always equals destructiveness.

Happily, this does not have to be the case. Anger, like all emotions, is completely neutral. Anger is just an emotion, and emotions are just messages: a deeper, older, more cross-cultural form of communication that predates verbal and written language. The emotion of anger serves the purpose of telling us that something is wrong or unjust. That’s why anger is so motivating – it’s telling us to get busy and put things right.

The simple message of anger is: “this is not right… do something!”

We have, always, at least three choices in how we can respond to our own anger. There is the well-worn, unpleasant option of destructiveness. Tear down our oppressors, get rid of the system, attack and berate those who have caused us harm. This is the response that we see far too often, and which gives anger a bad name. It is also often the only type of anger many of us have experienced – particularly when we are survivors of trauma.

Then there is the other well-worn, soul-destroying option of suppression. Pretend everything is just fine, distract ourselves, dissociate from reality, and disrespect our own needs and rights. I think that most of us experiencing mental health issues are stuck in this category, by the way.

Again, we may have learnt this as a way to survive the destructive anger of others. Perhaps we are scared of our own anger because we think it will make us violent. I have heard many people tell me that if they let their anger out, they are scared it will never end. So we become stuck, constantly trying to tape over the top of our internal emotional volcanoes. No wonder we go mad.

And finally, we have the option of constructive responses to anger – the stuff that Gandhi is talking about. This is where we find ways to right the wrongs by using strategies which are peaceful, respectful and nonviolent. We don’t talk about this option much, which is a shame. This is the route for collaboration and real change. This is what anger is really for. This is the peace road.


Looking for constructive responses to anger.

Most of us are either somewhat or completely illiterate in the language of our anger. Even if we know about constructive responses to anger, we are often unskilled in applying these responses, or in understanding and working with the anger of others.

And even if we have the skills, there is another problem which rears its head. And this is the problem: energy.

Anger is FULL of energy (just like fear). Anger drives us to move, act, change. I think that’s why we go so very crazy-mad at times – because we’re not acting on the other angry-mad. And all that energy has to go somewhere.

So even with the best of intentions, anger presents at least two barriers to collaborative change:

  1. The ability to choose constructive, nonviolent responses to justifiable anger (that is, how do we talk about positive change rather than primarily negative critique?)
  2. The ability to release the energy of anger in nonviolent ways (that is, how do we as consumers vent all our years of suppressed, righteous rage without alienating everyone else who wants to work with us?)

I don’t know the answers, actually. Sorry, but I’m no Gandhi!

I know what’s helped me, but it didn’t always go that well. I would like to see many, many people discussing this very issue – and all of us finding collective solutions.

But for now, I do have a few ideas that I can share, and I would welcome comments on these:


a. Understand and respect the power of language – and use it for good.

Perhaps an important first step is that we need to name the dynamics of what is going on in these discussions for change.

Acknowledgements and language are powerful – we know this from acknowledgements of country, and from the importance of the word ‘sorry’ in acknowledging what has been, and continues to be, done to our indigenous peoples in Australia.

When we have meetings and conferences which bring us together, I would like to see us begin with an acknowledgement of past harms, express respect for grief and anger, and explicitly express intentions of goodwill by all parties.

Let us also consider acknowledging that the mental health system, ultimately, belongs not any discipline or funder or organisation, but to the people it was created for – those of us who are suffering with emotional, mental, social and spiritual pain, confusion and difference.


b. Draw on the principles of non-violent communication.

Thank you to Rufus May for introducing me to this approach, and to Marshall Rosenberg for developing it.

Some key principles of non-violent communication are:

Differentiate observation from evaluation. Carefully observe what is happening free of evaluation, and specify behaviours and conditions that are affecting us;

Differentiate feeling from thinking. Identify and express internal feeling states in a way that does not imply judgment, criticism, or blame/punishment;

Connect with universal human needs/values (e.g. sustenance, trust, understanding) in us that are being met or not met in relation to what is happening and how we are feeling; and,

Request what we would like in a way that clearly and specifically states what we do want (rather than what we don’t want), and that is truly a request and not a demand (i.e. attempting to motivate, however subtly, out of fear, guilt, shame, obligation, etc. rather than out of willingness and compassionate giving).”


Wouldn’t it be great if sessions for change also included space to reach a common understanding on how we will communicate during the interaction? If time were set aside to jointly explore and commit to these types of principles?


c. Utilise ‘Radical Honesty’

I think that ‘radical honesty’ is a concept which could take us a long way. Creating introductory, ‘air-clearing’ beginnings to meetings could also help to release energy and create connections which support collaboration.

So, for example, asking people to share what they grieve for, what they are angry about and what they long for (whether consumer or worker or bureaucrat) – could go a long way towards reconciliation and collaborative constructive work.

As I mentioned above, I also think that those within the system have substantial healing to complete, separate to that of consumers. But naming and sharing this would be a powerful expression of solidarity in change.


d. Shift the power balance.

This is a big call, I know. And phenomenally difficult. But there is a relinquishing and sharing of power which must coexist with any serious attempt at change. And this is not just about demonstrating goodwill, this is about a serious acknowledgement that the mental health system should really be owned by those for whom it was created.

We need to recognise that there is an inherent wisdom in those with lived experience, and that the paradigm of medicine and science, while it has obviously great benefit and use, also has a constraining effect on change. Medicine and science are limited to their own paradigms, and I do very strongly believe that what we call ‘mental illness’ is in fact a far broader phenomenon than a chemical imbalance. If we keep the power in the hospitals and labs, our solutions will always be limited by the scope of these arenas.

Mental health is a community-wide issue that cuts across multiple domains and disciplines. It is tied to trauma, it pervades whole families and communities, it is extraordinarily complex. No matter how much money we pour into research, I doubt we will ever find a definitive ‘answer’ for what lies behind human suffering and difference. It is simply a part of the human condition.

In saying this, by the way, I am not suggesting antipsychiatry approaches. I am just suggesting, as a dear colleague of mine, Janet Karagounis, often says, that we ‘share the toys’.

While consumers are these days often invited to the tables of power, we rarely get leadership opportunities. There is a real glass ceiling which needs to be torn down. And in shifting the power balance, the anger will necessarily shift as well.


Walking the Peace Road.

I think this is an ongoing conversation, and I have just joined it. I invite you to share your thoughts on these issues with me, and to discuss them with others. I also invite you, the next time you get angry, to try taking a step on the peace road, rather than ‘fighting for peace’. I don’t have the answers, but I am extremely interested in looking for them, and I hope you are as well.

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  1. Uppity mentally ill squealing over nothing! Those no good mental patients should know their place. They have no right to complain, when they’ve been cared for by the good doctors, fed and clothed by the state. When are they going to learn to show some respect for their betters? Give them a good dose of electricity and some giraffe tranquilisers and show them who’s boss! Make sure they know never to raise the issue again!
    (Is that kind of angry tone what you’re talking about Indi? I’ve never worried about getting violent. Hardly ever raised my voice. But I’ve had a lot of people yell at me, including psychiatrists. I think I’m entitled to let a little steam off in my angry little blog. My very rational anger has got to go somewhere. I don’t want to direct it at any person. But I think it’s fair that I direct it at a system that tortured me. I will give peace a chance though, because I love peaceful things as much as I really like the sound of death metal, black metal and industrial music.)

  2. Love ya thinking Indi. I agree so deeply, in every fibre of my being.

    I’d add that it’s important for trauma survivors to be able to actively feel and express the anger (and shame and fear, etc) stored in our bodies, and to have support and witnesses to do so. Heal for Life really helped me with that. At first I couldn’t express my anger towards my abuser in front of anyone (years of kbeing taught that anger wasn’t safe/ok, including from psychologists and anger-management courses), but by the end of the week I was smashing plates and screaming and cutting him up and flushing him down the toilet. LOL. It was great to do so with other people and compare stories about where our imaginations took us. And deeply cathartic in a way that is healing, not reinscribing self-destruction.

    • Hi Flick,

      Thank you so much – it’s great to know I’m connecting!

      I completely agree about the need to feel and express anger in our bodies… I guess that’s what I was trying to say about energy. It’s something I am still working on myself, as well! Just yesterday I was feeling angry about something at work, and while I thought I was having a peaceful response, on reflection I think I was suppressing it… hence the migraine I got by afternoon! Ah well, I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. We’re all on the journey 🙂

      One of my dreams would be for psychiatric wards to do more to create safe spaces for us to express and process our emotions. And also therapeutic opportunities to learn more about the emotions as well. It’s encouraging to hear of those wards that are setting up sensory rooms … but more often than not I also hear that these rooms are kept locked and people can only access them with a staff member (who may or may not be available when needed). If we are serious about recovery and about reducing coercive practices like seclusion and restraint, then we need these spaces to be open all of the time. Please trust us.

      I hear so many positive things about Heal for Life. Must go myself!

      Travel gently & with truth,

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