The Icarus Project was a media and activist endeavour broadly aligned to the anti-psychiatry movement and recovery approach, arguing that mental illness should be understood as an issue of social justice and that a person’s mental state can improve through greater social support and collective liberation.
It shares similarities with the academic fields of Psychopolitics and Mad Studies. The name is derived from Icarus, a hero in Greek mythology, and is metaphorically used to convey that the experiences of mental distress and other extreme mental states can lead to “potential[ly] flying dangerously close to the sun.”
In 2002, musician Sascha Altman DuBrul wrote “Bipolar World”, an article published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The article described his experiences being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Among the dozens of e-mails and other correspondence that he received after this publication was a letter from Ashley McNamara, now known as Jacks, an artist and writer who identified strongly with DuBrul’s experiences. DuBrul and McNamara corresponded for a few weeks before finally meeting in person and deciding to start The Icarus Project. Years later, musician-activist Bonfire Madigan Shive and counsellor/activist Will Hall became a key leader in The Icarus Project’s administration and development.
In the Journal of Medical Humanities, co-founder DuBrul wrote of The Icarus Project:
Though we did not fully understand it in the early days, we were walking in the footsteps of a large body of knowledge and thought from the 1960s, grouped under the category of Anti-Psychiatry.
He also noted the group and its members were inspired by a range of social trends and schools of thought including anarchism, permaculture/sustainable ecology, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction, global justice movement, the Beat Generation, counterculture, and punk rock. He writes, “Our response to the label ‘bipolar’ was not a ‘normal’ response, which is why the Icarus Project brought a new perspective to psychic diversity. To create this perspective, we drew inspiration from many social movements and subcultural communities that came before us. So even though our response was unusual, it did not arise in a vacuum. In creating the Icarus Project, we wove together the ideas and practices in these movements to imagine a powerful new counter narrative to the dominant mental health narrative that went beyond a questioning of the language around ‘bipolar’ and critiqued the system itself.”
The first step, they decided, was creating a website where people who identified with “bipolar and other ‘mental illness’ [could] find real community and contribute to it.” DuBrul states that by 2003, “The Icarus Project website was up and running, and a virtual community began to evolve around the discussion forums.” He notes that user-generated content online enabled The Icarus Project’s growth: “We were attracting interesting people, creating discussion forums with names like ‘Alternate Dimensions or Psychotic Delusions’ and ‘Experiencing Madness and Extreme States.’ There was no place else where people who used psych meds and people who did not, people who identified with diagnostic categories and people who did not, could all talk with each other and share stories. Because of the outreach in the anarchist and activist community, there was a high percentage of creative people with a radical political analysis. And with the (seeming) anonymity of the Internet, people felt comfortable being honest and sharing intimate stories about their lives. Our website served as a refuge for a diverse group of people who were learning the ways in which new narratives could be woven about their lives.”
The Icarus Project’s stated aims are to provide a “support network and education project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness.” The national Icarus Collective staff is set up to support local groups instead of creating the smaller organisations themselves. The responsibilities of the local group are to gather people locally for support, education, activism, and access to alternatives to mainstream medical diagnosis and treatment. The Project advocates self-determination and caution when approaching psychiatric care. It encourages harm reduction, alternatives to the prevailing medical model that is accepted by the vast majority of mental health professionals, and self-determination in treatment and diagnosis. Key members of The Icarus Project state that they “envision a world with more options to navigate mental health issues: options that support self-determination, centre people who are most impacted by mental health-based oppression, and most critically, uplift social transformation as central to individual wellbeing.”
In 2005, Journalist Jennifer Itzenson noted that the Icarus Project accepts those with a wide range of perspectives on mental health issues, but also describes “an edge of militancy within the group,” particularly among those who reject medication. Itzenson also writes that while medical professionals applaud groups like the Icarus Project for providing a sense of support and community, and combating social stigmas related to bipolar and other mental health issues, the group’s questioning of the medical paradigm is “misguided” and that rejecting medication is a “potentially fatal choice” for those with bipolar disorder. A Newsweek article provides the following perspective on The Icarus Project’s stance towards medication: “While some critics might view Icaristas as irresponsible, their skepticism about drugs isn’t entirely unfounded. Lately, a number of antipsychotic drugs have been found to cause some troubling side effects.”
Writer Mark Lukach describes in an article for Pacific Standard his experience asking co-founder Sascha Altman DuBrul about the role of psychiatric medication as a part of his wife’s recovery from a bipolar diagnosis. Lukach articulates The Icarus Project’s approach to self-determination in psychiatric treatment. Lukach wrote:
“As for medication, DuBrul said that he believed that the answer to the question of whether or not to use pharmaceuticals needed to be far more nuanced than yes or no. The best response might be maybe, sometimes, or only certain medications. For instance, DuBrul shared that he takes lithium every night because he’s confident that, after four hospitalizations and over a decade with the label bipolar, the medication is a positive part of his care. Not the whole solution, but a piece.”
Anthropologist Erica Hua Fletcher describes Icarus Project member’s diverse ways of discussing altered mental states in the Journal of Medical Humanities. Fletcher writes:
While many Icarus contributors have found relief through the use of psycho-pharmaceutical interventions and other bio-psychiatric technologies, they also have experienced the limitations of medical paradigms and language to recognize the fullness of their lives. Because of this, they frequently adopt alternative words and phrases beyond bio-psychiatric terms to describe their mental states such as “neurodivergent processing,” “diasporas of distressing symptoms,” “sensory/cognitive/emotional trauma,” or “cognitive-emotional terror.” “Bipolar disorder” is interchangeable with highs and lows; “psychosis” can be seen as a reckoning; and nonconsensus realities can describe extreme experiences, which psychiatrists could label as symptoms of “schizophrenia” (such as hearing voices others do not hear or seeing objects others do not see). Such alternative words and phrases do not diminish the utility of bio- psychiatric terminology nor do they directly undermine medical treatment options, yet they allow for a range of descriptors and call for attention to individual needs and desires. They call us to listen to personal stories, to forces at work within communities, and to reevaluate the languages that enframe mental illness as such.” She goes on to state, “Alternative language beyond the biomedical paradigm of mental illness fosters a diversity of paradigms. Moreover, it can create a reflective space for those with mental suffering (and for their healthcare providers) to see themselves outside of a medical identity, reevaluate their self-care regimens, advocate for the care they would like to receive, and connect to others who may have similar concerns about ascribing to solely psycho-pharmaceutical interventions.”
As of early 2018, Icarus Project staff describe their expertise in social activism, herbalism, and labour organising; none is a licensed medical or mental health professional. Icarus Project advisory board members describe themselves as educators, artists, activists, writers, healers, community organisers, and other creative types and some identify as Latinx, queer, trans, people of colour or mixed race, and trauma survivors; none is a licensed medical or mental health professional. Leadership currently offers publications on self-care and community care, workshops and training for peers, training and talks for providers, peer support spaces, webinars, and other events.
The Icarus Project is currently under the fiscal sponsorship of FJC, a non-profit 501(c)3 umbrella organization arm of an investment firm, based in New York City. The Icarus Project currently gets the bulk of its money from foundation grants, including the Ittleson Foundation, but it also has many individual donors.
The Icarus Project Network
Places where local chapters met included Anchorage, Alaska; Asheville, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Conway, Arkansas; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California (Wildflowers’ Movement); Minneapolis, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; New York City, New York; Northampton, Massachusetts (Freedom Centre); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco (Bay Area), California; Columbus, Ohio; Gainesville, Florida.
The Icarus Project has been mentioned in passing in The New York Times as a resource for those who “don’t want to ‘get better'”, by Frontline 20/20, and many local media outlets.
Educational materials published by The Icarus Project have been published in Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Greek, and Bosnian/Croatian. Some of these publications are listed below:
- In March 2004, The Icarus Project released Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness; A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds. The book is currently in its 6th printing.
- In July 2006, The Icarus Project released the first draft of Friends Make the Best Medicine: A Guide to Creating Community Mental Health Support Networks.
- In 2008, The Icarus Project released Through the Labyrinth; A Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs, and in 2009 this publication was translated into Spanish and German and made available for free download on the Icarus Project website.
- In 2012, The Icarus Project released Mindful Occupation: Rising Up without Burning Out.
- In 2015, The Icarus Project released Madness and Oppression: Personal Paths to Transformation and Collective Liberation.
Films about Icarus Project members are listed below:
- Ken Paul Rosenthal (2010). Crooked Beauty. 30 min. Poetic documentary featuring Jacks McNamara. In Mad Dance Mental Health Film Trilogy.
- Ken Paul Rosenthal (2018). Whisper Rapture. 36 min. A doc-opera featuring Bonfire Madigan Shive.