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Mental health care without drugs: "Expanding Our Vision" summit coming to Denver

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The first thing Amy Smith has to explain to skeptics is that she isn't a Scientologist. You don't have to belong to an oddball religion to question American medicine's heavy reliance on psychoactive drugs to treat everything from mild depression to schizophrenia. In fact, members of a growing consumer revolt, seeking alternatives to the take-your-meds-or-else approach to mental health, will be gathering in Denver this Friday to share experiences and learn about new research -- and new choices.

Smith, who describes herself as a "psychiatric survivor activist," is one of the organizers of the one-day "Expanding Our Vision" conference, featuring presenters from the National Empowerment Center. She's served as a mental health consumer advocate in the state for years, but found the establishment's attitude toward her changed dramatically after she worked with a physician to wean herself off an array of medications she'd been prescribed for schizoaffective disorder, depression, PTSD and anxiety.

"You can't tell people to get off drugs," Smith says. "I started talking about it, and I got crushed like an insect. In the United States, if you're diagnosed with a psychosis, you're told you have a chemical imbalance and that you have to take drugs the rest of your life. It isn't true. There are other ways of approaching emotional distress -- which isn't to say that all medications are bad. But knowledge is power."

Studies suggest that community-based treatment programs can be more effective in dealing with many forms of psychological trauma than drugs -- and that overuse of antipsychotic meds might actually be fueling more mental health issues. According to journalist Robert Whitaker's Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, the disability rate due to mental illness has risen from one in every 468 Americans in 1955 to one in 76 today, and there's evidence suggesting that the sharp rise in bipolar diagnoses has been driven by increasing use of antidepressants as well as illicit drugs.

Whitaker is one of the speakers at the conference, along with author Joanne Greenberg (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) and documentary filmmaker Daniel Mackler. Despite the impressive lineup, Smith says that registrations from Colorado have been disappointing.

"Over half of the registrants are coming from out of state," she notes. "People in Colorado have not been exposed to the consumer voice. Nationally, I'm considered a moderate person because I still want to work within the system and grow a better system. But here I'm considered a radical."

Smith has dropped the fee for the conference to $15, which includes a continental breakfast and lunch. She's hoping to see more of a turnout from Denver mental health consumers, both for the conference and a May 5 protest planned in conjunction with Occupy Denver -- an action challenging Denver's efforts to restrict camping as well as the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as DSM-5.

"Over half the people writing DSM-5 are on the payroll of Big Pharma," Smith says. "There's a giant industry behind the labels they want to impose on people."

For additional information on the conference, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 27 at the Colorado Institute of Mental Health auditorium in Fort Logan, 3520 W. Oxford Avenue, go here. For details about the May 5 protest, check out Boycott Normal!

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