A Disembodied Voice Interview: The Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening Conference

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Interview by: Derek Pyle

This past spring, academics, activists, clinicians and psychiatric survivors came together for a unique online conference entitled “Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening: Harm Reduction and Future Visions.” In a conversation spanning topics such as colonization and disability justice, we spoke with conference organizers Erica Hua Fletcher, Tehseen Noorani, and Lalita, a psychiatric survivor and member of the conference’s accessibility support group.

It’s really fascinating to bring together “Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening” into conversation with each other. What were the origins of the conference?

Tehseen: There were three of us conference co-founders — me, Patricia Kubala and Will Hall. I met Patricia in the Fall of 2017 when visiting San Francisco for the large MAPS-sponsored Psychedelic Science conference. Patricia had already met Will at the Laing seminars that were hosted at the Esalen Institute that Summer.

Patricia introduced me to Will in the Fall of 2018, and the three of us quickly settled on the idea of a conference intersecting psychedelics and madness. We drew on two existing parallel initiatives: my book research, and work Will had already done seeking funding for a survivor-led conference on psychedelics and madness with Asha Passalacqua and Dina Tyler.

We originally planned the conference for Spring 2020, but then it got pushed to Fall 2020, and finally to early 2021 and a fully online format. It was always important for us to organize as an alliance between various kinds of survivors — i.e. of psychiatry, of violence/abuse, of systemic oppression — alongside activists, academics and therapists.

When I look at the title of the conference, Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening: Harm Reduction and Future Visions, there’s a lot packed in there. Why is it important to have conversations about these topics?

Erica: In the moment of great promise and peril for the future of psychedelics, the more we can learn about the histories, politics, economies, and sociocultural frameworks for grappling with extreme mental states, the better we can equip ourselves for what may come. Through these critical dialogues… we can learn how to better welcome, sit with, and listen to madness.

Lalita: It becomes increasingly apparent that those involved in mental health care provision play a role more akin to that of policing than healing. The dark cracks in society, made more culturally palatable through medicalization, signify our collective failure to embrace and overcome the effects of trauma and the victim-blaming that protects abusers. The adoption of psychedelics within this model appears to do little to address the fundamental injustices of the psychiatric system and is at risk of perpetuating them.

The conference had a very clear statement of values, and you asked that every conference panel begin with the speakers reading and reflecting on this statement.

Here is the statement: As an alliance of academics, practitioners, activists and people with lived experience of mental distress and non-normative states, we are committed to honoring marginalized voices. We stand in solidarity with past and present uprisings against white supremacy and other ongoing forms of colonization, and support calls for an end to psychiatric brutality and incarceration.

What does this statement of values mean to you, and why was it so important to include in the conference?

Tehseen: We came up with the Statement of Values collaboratively in the Summer of 2020, and Rachel Jane Liebert — one of the members of the conference working group — suggested it be explicitly referenced and reflected upon at the beginning of each panel. I’m so glad we did this.

This is a time of deep questioning around the coloniality of our institutions, our practices and ourselves. Decolonizing work is always pointing to alternatives, and alternatives to the pathologizing and carceral treatment of unwanted states of consciousness and ways of being in the world are desperately needed!

The psychedelic revival is an opening up, but it won’t stay open for long. Who will benefit, and who will not, who will be legitimated if psychedelic experiences are normalized and who will be repathologized? The commitments in the statement helped to center a certain orientation, both to how to approach the topics and also how to “do” the conference.

Lalita: What speaks to me is the acknowledgement that psychiatric brutality continues to exist. In my view, the horrors of the mental asylums of the 19th and 20th centuries in the West have been replaced with equal levels of inhumanity and brutality, from “chemical lobotomies” to drastically reduced life expectancy. These crimes against humanity masquerade as modern medicine within contemporary in-patient and out-patient settings and are perpetrated against some of the most vulnerable members of society. In my eyes, insanity is the last taboo.

What do colonization and decolonization look like in the context of psychedelics and madness?

Lalita: Colonization is an especially sensitive issue in relation to psychedelics, as so much knowledge and wisdom around psychedelic substances (plant medicines) has been nurtured and shared over generations within indigenous cultures around the world.

Contemporary psychedelic science is increasingly infused with Western models of the individuated self of psychology and the autonomous corporeal body of biomedicine, which is not necessarily the case in the cosmologies of, for example, the Shipibo [the traditional stewards of ayahausca ceremony]. Indeed, ayahuasca tourism arguably demonstrates, for example, ongoing colonization and the reach of cultural imperialism.

Erica: This is such a big question! Understanding the development of Western biomedicine — and later Western psychology and psychiatry — in relation to the forces of mercantilism, early capitalism, slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and now globalization is no small feat. But that historical perspective is what it takes to trace how we landed in this moment in which altered mental states have become “mental disorders” to be treated and plant medicines have become objects of scientific scrutiny, medicalization, and commodification.

From [a decolonial] standpoint, we can begin to ask what is the role of community, ritual, and ceremony in relation to healing? How can we attend to our troubled relationship with the land and the more-than-human world? How can we honor our ancestors, historically oppressed groups, and the generations to come in our actions? How can we fight for indigenous self-determination, migrant rights, and for a world without borders?

The conference had an advisory working group that was led by activists and researchers who identify as BIPOC, neurodivergent, queer, disabled, trans, non-binary, trauma survivors, and there was also a group focused on accessibility support, which Lalita was a part of. Can you say more about the role of these two groups, and their roles in the conference?

Erica: The accessibility support group discussed how the creation of guidelines for presenters could increase their awareness about how to make future presentations accessible. For example, we asked presenters to provide a visual description of themselves and their surroundings. For those using slides, we asked them to use background colors with high contrast to their texts. We also asked everyone to introduce themselves with their pronouns and to provide a land acknowledgment, when applicable.

These small tweaks do a lot to create a more welcoming digital space and to raise awareness about various needs people may have. Taken as a whole, we hoped that the subtle ways of creating access would help our viewers from structurally oppressed backgrounds feel welcomed.

Tehseen: The major purpose of the [advisory] group was to advise on how to make sure that the format and process of the conference best embodied our Statement of Values. The group was invaluable… they shaped the conference in many ways, from revising the website materials to developing guidelines for the panel moderators.

It was interesting to watch the conference conversations between disability justice and the mad movement. How would you explain the differences between the mad movement and disability justice?

Erica: I think it’s safe to say though that these movements have co-existed with each other and learned tactics from each other for several decades, [and] I’m not particularly convinced there is a major disconnect between the two — at least not among scholars. For example, Idil Abdillahi, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Johanna Hedva, Eli Claire, and Sanuara Taylor all write at these intersections.

That being said, there are certainly differences in representation between the movements. Some of this may be a product of who is criminalized for madness or disability, who has access to psychiatry or is forced into psychiatric treatment, who finds aspects of medical care to be helpful, who can become a Mad/Disabled activist or scholar, and how physical disabilities and madness are contested in varied ways.

Tehseen: Personally, when I’ve mused on this, I do wonder about the role played by differing views on medicalizing in the making and breaking of alliances over time. Medicalizing offers labels for problems and distress, and also often points in the direction of biomedical solutions. Are these labels oppressive categories that silence our experiences? Or are they empowering categories that explain our differences? Should we emphasize how it’s all constructed in the name of controlling minds, bodies and spirits? Or should we emphasize the (perhaps unintended) coercion of ‘pill-shaming’?

This was a fascinating conversation. Any closing thoughts, things we haven’t discussed yet, but you’d like to add?

Lalita: The discipline of psychiatry is in need of a complete overhaul and the training of clinicians must be informed by a vastly more compassionate approach to human suffering. It would help if those involved in health ‘care’ started from a place of actual care. Medical practitioners and researchers, in my experience, begin from the point of seeking personal power and status. The needs of sick people are superfluous to this goal. We need to collectively, both literally and metaphorically, go back to the drawing board on this. 

Recordings from the “Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening: Harm Reduction and Future Visions” are viewable online at www.psychedelicsmadnessawakening.com

The Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening Conference Organizers

Tehseen Noorani (he/him) is a Brown person with black hair and a beard. He is standing in front of a garden and a house with several paintings wearing a blue hat and blue grey shirt.

Tehseen Noorani

Tehseen is an independent researcher in the final stages of a five-year postdoctoral project documenting how ‘psychedelic’ and ‘psychotic’ experiences, practices and histories are connected.  This has involved an ethnography of the overground and underground experimentation happening with, (1) psychedelics, including leading qualitative research with the psychedelics research team at Johns Hopkins University, and (2) madness, including as a long-standing ally of the Hearing Voices Network, and more recent membership of the Hearing The Voice project. His book – planned for publication in 2022 – puts these twinned sites into conversation, locating their joint possibilities within the raced and gendered politics of contemporary drug-taking and spirit-making.

Erica Hua Fletcher (she/her) is a mixed-race/Asian American woman with shoulder-length light brown hair. She is standing in front of a tree wearing an orange v-neck shirt

Erica Hua Fletcher

Erica is a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and the co-chair of the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Anthropology and Mental Health Interest Group. Over the last decade, she has worked closely with community members, mental health peer support specialists, and community health workers on collaborative alternatives to traditional psychiatric treatment. She has written about mental health social movements, community mental health, care work, and the education of healthcare providers in the U.S. context, and my scholarship spans the health humanities, social medicine, medical anthropology, and Mad studies.

Patricia Kubala (she/her) is a White person with long light brown hair. She is standing in front of a forest wearing a black shirt and red leather jacket.

Patricia Kubala

Patricia is a PhD candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include the anthropology of religion, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, and the anthropology of the senses.  In fieldwork-based projects in Cairo, Egypt and the San Francisco Bay Area, she study the ways that traditions are taught and transmitted in contexts marked by colonial violence and illegibility within the existing political and legal frameworks of the modern state. Her dissertation, entitled The Medicine World: Psychedelics and the Hope for an Otherwise, explores the revival of interest in psychedelics in contemporary American society.

Lalita Devi (she/her) Photo used is Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening Conference logo which is a mandala with sacred geometry the patterns are in the colors black, green, red, orange, and yellow.

Lalita Devi

Lalita Devi is a psychiatric survivor with over ten years’ experience supporting individuals with psychological and emotional problems, including those with severe and enduring mental illness. She has worked extensively with psychedelics as a therapeutic tool, and is interested in the burgeoning alliance between psychiatric and psychedelic research. She holds an MA in Medical Anthropology from SOAS, University of London.

MNN Disembodied Voice Interviewer

Derek Pyle (he/him) is a White person with short brown hair and a beard. He is standing in front of a shelves of records wearing a grey shirt and a mala around his neck.

Derek Pyle

Derek Pyle is a Theravadin Buddhist with lived experience of voices and visions. Derek lives on Shasta and Takelma lands in so-called Southern Oregon, where he is engaged in mutual aid and street outreach projects rooted in abolitionist values. He is also involved in Madness Network News, a collective project focused on psychiatric abolition and mad liberation. Derek has been involved in peer-run support spaces for over a decade, including facilitating drug and alcohol harm reduction groups as well as meditation. He currently cofacilitates a weekly group through the Hearing Voices Network. He cofounded the Buddhist Humanitarian Project, responding to the Burmese military’s genocide against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar.anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, and the anthropology of the senses.  In fieldwork-based projects in Cairo, Egypt and the San Francisco Bay Area, she study the ways that traditions are taught and transmitted in contexts marked by colonial violence and illegibility within the existing political and legal frameworks of the modern state. Her dissertation, entitled The Medicine World: Psychedelics and the Hope for an Otherwise, explores the revival of interest in psychedelics in contemporary American society.

One thought on “A Disembodied Voice Interview: The Psychedelics, Madness, and Awakening Conference

  1. I tried to do a PhD on the indeterminacy of madness and it’s relation to religious experience but was given very little support beyond the acceptance of the topic. I am a psychiatric survivor still enmeshed in the system.

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