An Alternative Form of Mental Health Care Gains a Foothold

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Benedict Carey
The New York Times
August 8, 2016

HOLYOKE, Mass. — Some of the voices inside Caroline White’s head have been a lifelong comfort, as protective as a favorite aunt. It was the others — “you’re nothing, they’re out to get you, to kill you” — that led her down a rabbit hole of failed treatments and over a decade of hospitalizations, therapy and medications, all aimed at silencing those internal threats.

At a support group here for so-called voice-hearers, however, she tried something radically different. She allowed other members of the group to address the voice, directly:

What is it you want?

“After I thought about it, I realized that the voice valued my safety, wanted me to be respected and better supported by others,” said Ms. White, 34, who, since that session in late 2014, has become a leader in a growing alliance of such groups, called the Hearing Voices Network, or HVN.

At a time when Congress is debating measures to extend the reach of mainstream psychiatry — particularly to the severely psychotic, who often end up in prison or homeless — an alternative kind of mental health care is taking root that is very much anti-mainstream. It is largely nonmedical, focused on holistic recovery rather than symptom treatment, and increasingly accessible through an assortment of in-home services, residential centers and groups like the voices network Ms. White turned to, in which members help one another understand each voice, as a metaphor, rather than try to extinguish it.

For the first time in this country, experts say, psychiatry’s critics are mounting a sustained, broadly based effort to provide people with practical options, rather than solely alleging abuses like overmedication and involuntary restraint.

“The reason these programs are proliferating now is society’s shameful neglect of the severely ill, which creates a vacuum of great need,” said Dr. Allen Frances, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University.

Dr. Chris Gordon, who directs a program with an approach to treating psychosis called Open Dialogue at Advocates in Worcester, Mass., calls the alternative approaches a “collaborative pathway to recovery and a paradigm shift in care.” The Open Dialogue approach involves a team of mental health specialists who visit homes and discuss the crisis with the affected person — without resorting to diagnostic labels or medication, at least in the beginning.

Some psychiatrists are wary, they say, given that medication can be life-changing for many people with mental problems, and rigorous research on these alternatives is scarce.