Creating Dialog on Approaches for “Psychosis” in New Jersey

What would happen if professionals opened their minds about the nature of madness?  What new possibilities might be created if they questioned labels such as “schizophrenia” and if they instead showed curiosity about the person underneath the label, and interest in the way “psychosis” might be an understandable response to the person’s life?  How would it work if such professionals gathered for a conference, if they invited service users and survivors to help lead it, and then if they worked together to find a path forward?

It won’t be perfect, but October 4-6, 2013 in New Brunswick, NJ USA, the US chapter of ISPS will be having a conference that at least approaches such objectives.

The keynote speaker will be Debra Lampshire, an “expert by experience” whose talk is titled “A 360 Degree View of the World: An Expansive Approach to Madness.”  Daniel Fisher, who is both an “expert by experience” and an accomplished and innovative psychiatrist, will be the honoree and will speak on “The Dialogical Recovery Approach: Using Severe Emotional States (AKA Schizophrenia) for Self-Integration.”

There will of course be many other workshops, one of which will be my own, titled “Understanding Psychosis as an Attempt at Transformation: Integrating Perspectives on Trauma, Spirituality and Creativity.”  I’ll be looking at how attempts to solve life problems can lead us to become “mad” and then at how finding the positive intention in those attempts can help us make peace with, integrate, and eventually value these wild aspects of ourselves instead of engaging in a protracted war with what seems to be a “chronic illness.”

ISPS is an evolving organization.  Its full name is “International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis.”  It was formerly known as the “International Society for the Psychological Treatments of Schizophrenias and other Psychoses.”  The group voted to change its name to remove the label “schizophrenia” which was no longer seen as legitimate by the majority of its members, and to substitute the more open ended “approaches” for “treatment” to express interest in a wide variety of ways of being possibly helpful to people.

ISPS was founded by people interested in psychodynamic therapy and this influence is still strongly felt.  (A key assertion of psychodynamic therapists is that psychotic experiences have meaning that is typically metaphorical:  this view parallels understandings emerging from the hearing voices movement, which focuses on the way experiences like voices convey meaningful, though often metaphorical messages.)  Many people have heard that psychodynamic therapy was proven useless or even dangerous for people experiencing psychosis, but it turns out that the studies with such negative results were carried out by inexperienced therapists who tended to have had little real interest in helping people experiencing psychosis.  Bertram Karon, a longtime ISPS member, carried out research with more experienced and/or better motivated therapists, and found significantly better results when therapy was used alone, with no medication.

Spreading out from its origins, ISPS now brings together a great diversity of people and views.  I recently attended the international meeting of ISPS in Warsaw, and learned from people who drew from their own experience of psychosis, from people specializing in approaches ranging from dialogical to CBT, and from people who shared other perspectives such as the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

People who present and attend at ISPS conferences do vary a great in how they relate to the status quo in mental health treatment.  Some still see “schizophrenia” as a meaningful diagnosis for people suffering from a distinct condition that usually requires medication, and the only way they may be “unorthodox” is their advocacy for psychological therapy to be offered as well.  Others are much more “radical,” and have visions of something “completely different.”  Because these conferences bring together a diversity of people, with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and types of expertise, they offer a great opportunity to dialog, and to develop ways of making sense to people at different stages of change in their viewpoints.  Such dialog will be essential to help our society eventually develop a humane and effective approach to helping those who experience “psychosis.”

Deadline for pre-registration at the New Jersey ISPS conference ends on September 22.  For more information and to register, go to  (There are reduced rates for non-professional service users.)  I hope to see many of you there, and please invite others!

One more note – if you miss the deadline for early registration, you can just show up at the conference and register there.

About Ron Unger

I am a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who works with people diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, using a respectful and skill building approach called cognitive therapy for psychosis. I also talk and teach seminars related to this approach. You can read more about me and about how I became interested in this field by going to my blog,, and clicking on the tab "about Ron Unger."
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