'Mad Pride' Activists Say They're Unique, Not Sick

Photo: Mad Pride Activists Say Theyre Unique, Not Sick: For Some, Psychiatric Conditions Are Mad Gifts to Be Cherished, Not MedicatedABC News
San Francisco-based music artist Madigan Shive.

Imagine if Vincent Van Gogh -- an artist who was famously afflicted with mental health issues -- had been forcibly injected with an antipsychotic drug like Thorazine. Or if Leonardo Da Vinci's genius had been affected by antidepressants such as Wellbutrin.

That's what San Francisco-based music artist Madigan Shive wondered.

"I think often that if DaVinci were alive during our time, would we just dope him up? What would we do?" she asked.

It's a question being asked by a growing grass roots movement about 8,000 members strong -- many of whom are rejecting pharmaceutical solutions for psychiatric conditions and fighting the stigmatization and shame of mental illness.

Video: Actor Joey Pantoliano talks about his clash with insurance his insurance company.Play

You've heard of Black Pride and Gay Pride. Now make room for Mad Pride.

Mad pride supporters -- many dealing with serious mental disorders -- are now boldly coming out of the closet. Actor Joe Pantoliano of "The Sopranos" fame views his depression as a gift.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was being diagnosed with a mental disease," Pantoliano told ABC News.

It wasn't until being diagnosed with clinical depression that Pantoliano realized he had spent years self-medicating his anguish.

Activists Fight Mental Illness StigmaPlay

"All I've ever been looking to do was fill up a hole that was inside of me," he revealed. "It didn't matter what I was filling it up with ... success, women, a beautiful runway model wife ... because that made it go away temporarily."

He credits his mental illness diagnosis as the reason for being a happier and more creative person.

"I embrace who I am. I took my sadness and I turned it into a career," Pantoliano said .


Pantoliano has set out to help others cast off the stigma and shame he said is attached to mental health issues. He created a nonprofit organization, No Kidding, Me Too!, "based on accepting, encouraging people to admit to their disease -- to seek treatment and become even greater members of society."

Enlisting a crew of celebrities -- including Robin Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Downey, Jr. -- Pantoliano's organization assembles industry professionals who support its mission to get out the word about mental illness and treatment.

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"We want to make the discussion of mental illness cool and sexy and trendy," he said.

Some See Mental Illness as a Blessing: 'I Need My Madness'

Pantoliano treats his mental illness with medication, but others who are embracing their madness choose not to, just like spunky musician and activist, Madigan Shive. Shive is an active member of The Icarus Project, one of the many Mad Pride organizations that encourage viewing madness as brilliance.

Shive hears voices, she has delusions, but it's her madness that she cherishes. Though she was once diagnosed as bi-polar, Shive is now reluctant to give herself a psychiatric label.

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"I knew right away, taking the traditional bio-medical route wasn't what was going to be healthy for me," she said. "I don't take any of the medications that someone, like myself, in a typical scenario would be prescribed. But I know some people who do and use it smashingly well and I support all that."

Shive insisted her madness is part of what makes her distinctively unique, and she believes that psychiatric drugs would only taint her "mad gift."

"I take it very personally," she said. "Please don't change this thing in me that creates this music and keeps me alive. ... I need my madness."

Some worry that refusing meds is a dangerous game for people with mental illness, especially after hearing about cases such as the University of North Carolina law student who, in January 1995, gunned down a popular lacrosse student and a McDonald's manager because he suffered schizophrenic delusions; or the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho, who killed 32 people and wounded 25; and, of course, the infamous John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In each incident, people believed to suffer from mental illness were believed to be unmedicated and untreated at the time of their crimes.

Mad Pride Activists Say They Are 'Anti-Bullying,' Not Anti-Medication

But David Oaks, a prominent Mad Pride activist and a leader of the advocacy organization MindFreedom International, agreed with others in the Mad Pride movement who feel stereotyping the mentally ill is a serious mistake.

"The vast majority of people with psychiatric diagnoses," Oaks said, "including serious psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia and psychosis and bipolar -- we're law-abiding, we're peaceful."

Oaks said MindFreedom International seeks to work for social change in the mental health system. He stresses that Mad Pride is not anti-medication, but rather it is anti-bullying, and he asserts that it should be a patient's choice whether or not to accept medication.

"Most of our members have experienced things like forced drugging," Oaks said. "We are people who have experienced human rights abuses in the mental health system."

Oaks' personal experience propelled his involvement in mental health advocacy. Oaks is a Harvard graduate who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder in the 1970s, while still a student at the prestigious university.

"I thought the CIA was making my teeth grow, I thought the TV was personally talking just to me, that the radio had the voice of God," Oaks recalled.

Overwhelmed by delusions, Oaks was admitted into a psychiatric institution, where he says he was treated aggressively and forcibly medicated.

"They brought me to a solitary confinement room, and I always remember being pushed down on a bare mattress and having my pants ripped down and getting forced injections more than once," Oaks said.

Today, 33 years later, he proudly calls himself a "psychiatric survivor." Oaks chooses to treat his mental problems with alternatives to medication, such as specialized nutrition, exercise and gardening.

Critics Say Rejecting Medication Is Nothing But Reckless

But critics argue that rejecting one's medication in favor of using alternative treatments alone is nothing but reckless. Art Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mad Pride shouldn't take a one-size-fits-all policy, and the movement doesn't take into account those suffering mental illness who are a danger to themselves or others if they remain un-medicated.

"There are people who turn violent," Caplan said. "They don't want to take their medications. ... I'd rather see situations where we protect other people by sometimes forcing medicine, if that's the situation."

However, similar to Oaks, Shive chooses alternatives to monitor her emotional episodes and also uses what she calls her "mad map" instead of taking medication. On paper, she plots out the triggers that can lead to mania, and couples them with her coping mechanisms.

She also keeps a list of "3 a.m. allies" -- people she can call in case she needs help. This group knows in advance what to do for Shive in emergency situations.

For example, they understand that Shive wishes to be taken to a hotel room, instead of a hospital ER, if she undergoes a manic episode, or what she prefers to call an extreme state of consciousness.

Shive isn't the only one who is finding new ways of coping with their mental illness. Groups like The Freedom Center in Northampton, Mass., or The Recovering Learning Community in Holyoke, Mass., offer alternative treatments for those with mental illness. Activities include acupuncture, massage, and peer-to-peer support.