Mad Film Festival Challenges Boston to Rethink Psychiatry

Mad in America, a film festival taking place in Arlington this weekend, tells a different story about mental health and illness than what people are used to hearing.
Mad in America, a film festival taking place in Arlington this weekend, tells a different story about mental health and illness than what people are used to hearing. –Courtesy of Laura Delano, Mad in America

The not-very-old adage “think different’’ takes on particular significance when it’s applied to the organ that actually, you know, thinks. But making people rethink psychiatry — the medical science of the mind — is the aim of this weekend’s Mad in America International Film Festival, a four-day, 40-film deep dive into the past, present, and future of how mental illness is diagnosed and treated. The festival, which takes place at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, is out to move the conversations and thought surrounding mental illness to a different place.

Many festival selections challenge the idea that mental health struggles are only biological illnesses to be treated with medication, focusing instead on sociological and psychological explanations for mental illness and treatment that follows those causes. Some movies come from an abolitionist perspective that rejects both psychiatry’s definitions and treatment of mental health and illness; others take a less hardline view, but still challenge the viewer to think about mental illness in alternate ways.

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The festival is being put on by the organization Mad in America, a community of writers, doctors, social workers, journalists, and academics, as well as people with “lived experience’’—those who have been diagnosed with and treated for a mental health issue. Its tracks include films grouped around the history of psychiatry, the ways in which the medical paradigm have shaped the discipline, and how alternative ways of looking at mental health can shape the future of treatment.

Mad programmer Laura Delano notes that even gentle inquiries of the present model can inspire backlash. “The medical model is so widely accepted and believed in it’s often hard to push back against it or question it,’’ she told Boston.com. “It’s hard, because when you do people think you are unsafe or dangerous, or you’re called a Scientologist. …It’s really important to give people the chance to step back and say, ‘What does it mean to be diagnosed with a mental illness? How does that change your life? How does that change the rights you have?’ ’’

The festival also amplifies the voices of those who have lived with mental health and illness struggles, as well as those who consider themselves “psychiatric survivors’’ or “ex-patients’’—people who feel they have been harmed or oppressed by psychiatry, and who are now devoted to changing and rebuilding the system of care. Many of maintain that the treatment they received actually worsened their conditions. “These are people who feel that their recovery began when they rejected the diagnosis given to them,’’ said Whitaker.

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“When you are called crazy, it means that your voice at any moment can be declared invalid or ‘insane.’ This essentially robs you of having a legitimate or valid say in your life, care, and recovery,’’ said Delano, an activist who considers herself an “ex-patient.’’ “When you are committed against your will [to a hospital], your life and liberty is completely in the hands of those who don’t know you, don’t know your life story and who decide when you are fit to leave. They own you. They decide when you get fresh air, what goes in your body and what doesn’t. They essentially decide whether or not you will be free…But a lot of people don’t see that because it falls under this umbrella of care and treatment.’’

Many psychiatric survivors and people with lived experience turn to art — writing, film, other disciplines — as a means to find, express, or reclaim their voices. “One thing that happens in public discussions is that you hear about the ‘mentally ill’ as if they are ‘others.’ On screen, you see human beings struggling with minds,’’ said festival organizer (and president of its parent company) Robert Whitaker. “You connect with them not as ‘the other,’ but as like you, as your brethren. That’s a very powerful thing to do.’’

Boston’s specific relationship with psychiatry comes up in a few of the selections. “To Save Tomorrow,’’ for instance, is a 1969 film focused on Harvard psychology professor Dr. David Kantor, 10 of his students admitted themselves as patients in hopes of getting a first-hand view of the bleak conditions at Waltham’s Metropolitan State Hospital for the Mentally Ill, which had a patient-to-psychiatrist ratio of 600:1.

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Appalled by their surroundings, the students were inspired to create an alternative treatment environment that centered on a family model of care as opposed to an institutional one. With the support of Harvard, the students set up Wellmet House, where they lived with and helped treat patients seen as “hopeless cases’’ who had 11 or more years of consistent hospitalization Wellmet became one of the first successful family models in the United States, and it has since treated thousands of patients.

Kantor said that a “real awakening in psychiatry’’ was taking place around the time Wellmet was created. At the time, there was a largeemphasis on social psychiatry and a huge amount of money being poured into mental health reform, care and research in both Boston and in the US at large. Hospitals like McLean and Mass General were also generating a lot of funds for research.

“To Save Tomorrow’’ chronicles one way that the Hub has the potential to garner positive change. But a lot of the research being done at area hospitals and organizations today represents what many of the films in Mad in America seek to “rethink.’’ Whitaker points out that many of these hospitals and organizations are now “at the forefront of advancing the medical model.’’ He maintains that MGH, for instance, has been “a big promoter of the idea that kids have [brain] diseases, including ADHD and bipolar disorder.’’

Many different perspectives and experiences on mental health have come out of Boston over the years, and the festival this weekend will likely spur discussion and ideas. Perhaps there is no better city for Mad in America to be taking place.

To learn more about the festival, visit madinamericainternationalfilmfestival.com

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