Dr Daniel Fisher wants us to know that the “experts” aren’t always right
By Grant J Everett
A couple of decades ago, Daniel Fisher was diagnosed with schizophrenia, placed in a mental health unit against his will and told in no uncertain terms that he had zero chance of recovery. Thankfully, he proved the experts wrong. What Dan experienced during that time stayed with him in a big way, and he decided to do something about the system by becoming a psychiatrist.
Dan has spent his entire career changing the mental health system from within by altering the way our world views psychiatric conditions. His most passionate belief is that not only is recovery possible for people with a diagnosis, but it’s on offer to all of us. His mission hasn’t been completed yet, as a large section of psychiatrists still see schizophrenia as permanent and will dismiss any reports to the contrary as a “misdiagnosis.”
Dan spoke with us while he was in Australia running the Finding Our Voice workshop, where he is encouraging people with a lived experience to make their own impact on the system in whatever way they can.
PANORAMA: Was there any particular reason you ran the Finding Our Voice workshop here in Sydney?
DR DANIEL FISHER: When it comes to starting something big, I think you have an advantage here in Sydney. It’s probably not accidental that the United States survivor movement began in the high population areas, because you need a certain “critical mass” of people to really form a movement, and that’s my hope for you all: that you’ll be able to form a movement. You had a fledgling movement in the 90s and the early 2000s, but it sort of floundered. After seeing that group tonight, I was very encouraged by how people were finding their voice. As you saw, it’s about people helping each other.
P: So you came here to plant the seed, but we need to choose to nurture it.
DAN: Absolutely. But while I have a part to play, at the beginning of the group I’m sure to tell everyone that their voice counts, their voice matters, it’s essential to their recovery, and it has been for me, too. I usually ask groups what they think about this, and the conversation will usually just take off. I was very impressed with the group tonight, by the way. Like I said, you have an advantage in Sydney, and the same goes for Melbourne. It’s harder to start something like this in a low population area.
P: In my time with Panorama Magazine I’ve known some impressive people. Two that come to mind are Janet Meagher and Fay Jackson. Both of them have something in common: at one point or another, Janet and Fay were told by their psychiatrists that they’d never recover and never amount to anything. Janet now has the Order of Australia, and Fay works with the National Mental Health Commission as a tireless advocate. So they’ve massively proved those psychiatrists wrong.
DAN: Maybe those psychiatrists did them a favour! (laughs) I don’t advocate that as a way to motivate people. Let me just comment on that: this is one of the greatest failings of the mental health profession. When people are desperate and have lost meaning in their life, they’ve lost love in their life, and they’ve been through trauma (or even a series of traumas), what does the mental health system tell them? In many cases, they’re telling them “you’re not going to recover,” just like Janet and Fay were told. That should be considered malpractice, as an essential part of recovery is having hope.
That reminds me of when I was in Japan, and a nursing professor came to a talk I was giving, and I asked her what had brought her here. She’d travelled a long distance and she told me, “I have only read and only been taught that people never recover from schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric conditions, but then I read your story. I read that you recovered from schizophrenia. I want to absorb hope from you, bring it into my heart, and carry it back to all the students who I teach.’ To me, that is the essence of what I try to do, to be a carrier of hope, which is why I titled my book Heartbeats Of Hope. How did I come up with that title? In Poland, there was a translator who was assisting me, and she had her own lived experience. And she said that by translating and listening to the talks that I gave, she felt like some of the heartbeats she’d been missing had been restored. It restored missing heartbeats! And that’s the best that we can do for another human being who is in distress: to be with them, resonate with them, feel together with them in such a fashion that they can feel that they have more life. You can actually be with someone in such a fashion that they can experience their own power. And how does that happen? By entering into the relationship in a very humble, very non-expert driven way.
I’ll actually say to people – and I always mean it very much – that you might not know the answer to your problem yet, but together we can explore the unknown. That’s Emotional CPR.
Dr Fisher is the Executive Director of the National Empowerment Centre, a peer-run organisation that brings hope and ideas about recovery and peer support both nationally and internationally. He’s also a professor of psychiatry at UMS Medical Centre, practised in a community mental health centre for over 20 years, and worked at in-patient units. A major highlight of Dan’s career was being one of fifteen Commissioners on The White House Commission for Mental Health, which was an opportunity to attack the roots of the deeply ingrown belief that mental illness is permanent.
Dr Dan Fisher’s book, Heartbeats Of Hope, is available from Amazon, or the National Empowerment Centre website, here: