In 1999, when Jacks McNamara, a thoughtful, dark-haired artist from Oakland, was a 19-year-old junior at Brown University, she had a sudden breakdown. Formerly an outgoing, involved student, McNamara grew so obsessed with thoughts of corporate conspiracies and the end of the world that she stopped going to class. In her mind, life resembled a dystopian science fiction movie, and she often couldn't remember what day it was.
McNamara's distraught parents placed her in a private psychiatric facility. After her insurance company stopped paying for her care, she transferred to a nonprofit hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She rang in the millennium watching TV in the dreary patients' lounge—and spent the next ten days in treatment as doctors gave her a series of symptom checklists and tried to determine the right medication. She often felt marginalized, belittled, and misunderstood by these psychiatrists, none of whom provided the trauma therapy she thought she needed (and that might have plumbed her history of sexual abuse and assault).
McNamara came out of the hospital convinced there must be a better way; over the next several years she connected with others who shared her thinking. In 2002 she cofounded the Icarus Project
, an alternative support group for people struggling with mental illness. "Before we started Icarus, I had zero desire to be an activist for mental health—I had hoped my issues would just go away," McNamara says. "But when I began talking to others like me, I realized that if the help we wanted wasn't out there, we could create it ourselves."
The Icarus Project, an entirely peer-run organization with more than 15,000 members worldwide, is part of a growing, sometimes controversial, cause known as the Recovery Movement, or Mad Pride. The movement's goals: to redefine what it means to be sick for the 45.6 million American adults living with mental illness; develop a more collaborative treatment process between doctors and patients; make the public less fearful of people labeled mentally ill; and most important, destigmatize mental disorders for those who are diagnosed.
"The Mad Pride approach is so different from traditional psychiatric care," says Carla Rabinowitz, 49, a community organizer for a mental health nonprofit in New York City, who says leading peer groups helped her move past the stigma of living with bipolar disorder. "You see people who are thriving, people who are struggling. You see what you need to do to keep yourself going."
In a departure from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, the Icarus Project doesn't push a particular brand of self-help. Meetings, in places as diverse as Minneapolis and Richmond, are lively, lacking any firm structure, and dark humor is a constant. Members may take turns one-upping each other over the records they've broken while depressed (30 straight days of not getting dressed trumps 20 days of not answering the phone). The Oakland chapter convenes at a crafters' collective to bring an inspiring, creative energy to sessions. New members are often encouraged to create wellness maps, which detail what they're like when they're well—and when they're not—and what friends can do to help.
Next: How wellness maps aid recovery