The American chapter of the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis received a record number of proposals this year for its annual conference, according to ISPS-US Executive Director Leah Giorgini.

The conference, titled Humanity in Solidarity, will take place in person and online from Oct. 27 to 29. Each morning will open with a plenary session featuring one of three keynote speakers: Pat Deegan, Vesper Moore, and Willard Ashley Sr.

Giorgini billed Deegan, who became a disability rights activist after receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia during adolescence, as “a legend in the field” who has “done a lot of work with early intervention in New York State.”

Moore “is an indigenous person with lived experience from the LGBT+ community,” and Ashley Sr. “is a psychoanalyst, a reverend, and also a racial justice organizer,” by Giorgini’s description.

Panels will follow the plenary sessions. Giorgini highlighted one centered on “spiritual understandings of extreme states,” as well as “family panels” that will feature conversations between people who identify as having experienced psychosis and their parent or sibling.

After lunch, concurrent “breakout spaces” will cover “a wide variety of topics,” from the war in Ukraine to “social justice to just simply sharing a person’s lived experience,” per Giorgini.

The overarching goal, according to promotional materials, is to work toward “understanding our shared journey through psychosis,” which in turn will help attendees “foster and create systems of care in which human rights and full personhood are held central, replacing approaches that ‘other’ and reduce experiences to labels of deficit and disease.”

Based on information from ticket sales thus far, Giorgini expects to see among attendees a “50/50” split between clinicians and service providers on one side and mental health consumers, psychiatric survivors, and their families on the other. This, in her view, is “the whole point” of the conference.

“We don’t think that one group working alone is going to move the needle. We need to have those conversations together to expand people’s understanding and really get a realistic idea of how to push the system forward or to tear down the system and rebuild it,” she said.

Founded in 1956 by Swiss psychiatrists looking for humane alternatives to asylums, ISPS originally stood for the International Symposium for the Psychotherapy of Schizophrenia. It now has chapters all over Europe and two in Asia, plus Australia and New Zealand. The one in the United States formed in 1998.

Its mission and membership evolved over time.

“What started out as very psychoanalytical-based opened up to different professions, to different ways of understanding and working through extreme states,” Giorgini described. “It includes not just talking therapies, but art therapies, occupational therapies, peer support, the hearing voices movement, approaches that morphed into social justice movements, philosophy, spirituality.”

Although it dropped the term “schizophrenia,” the organization’s name still stirs internal debate.

“Lots of people within ISPS reject the term ‘psychosis,’” Giorgini said, “because it’s medicalized language that’s often used to harm people. Yet it’s still a word that a lot of people use because it’s commonly understood to describe an array of experiences, like hearing voices or experiencing what could be termed delusions or hallucinations. It’s a way for us to talk together about something.”

The US chapter appears to be growing. Its most recent annual report cited a 30% increase in members in 2022 alone, bringing the total to 246. Legally registered in Pennsylvania, ISPS-US operates as a remote organization by way of Zoom and email for most of the year.

Virtual discussions take place via monthly webinars (which non-members can also attend for free), at book clubs, and on advocacy committees, which recently have sought to push back on attempts in New York and California to use coercive psychiatry as a means to combat homelessness.

Giorgini called the annual conference “our main activity of the year.” Registrants will convene at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE, or watch recordings at home. Last year, ISPS-US counted 328 attendees.

ISPS-US offers reduced prices and scholarships for qualifying ticket buyers, including those with “lived experience,” or free entrance with a six-hour volunteer commitment.

Dr. Martin Cosgro, a California-based psychologist who has attended the annual conference “many” times, praised its “warm and supportive environment” and “opportunities for meaningful dialogue.”

“Old friends reconnect, newcomers are welcomed, and generally there’s a feeling of optimism about these issues, knowing that there are others with similar beliefs and visions of a better future,” he said.

Another previous attendee, Fehmida Iyer Visnagarwala, identified as a psychiatric survivor living overseas.

“It helped me immensely to connect with people who think similarly and to get the support which is not forthcoming normally in India,” she said. “The talks were genuine, raw and meaningful for anyone, be they psychiatric survivors or their kith and kin.”
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