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Icarus Project

Will Hall
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

The Icarus Project began when Sascha Dubrul, a long-time radical activist and punk musician, sought out other people struggling with the out-of-control emotional extremes that got him diagnosed with bipolar disorder and labeled “mentally ill.” Mental health issues are rarely discussed openly, and when they are, talk is either dominated by pharmaceutical company propaganda that says, “You have a brain disorder and need medication,” or by a narrow anti-system view that preaches, “Mental illness is a myth and taking medication is selling out.” Sascha did not fit into either category; he made the decision to use a prescription psych drug to keep him sane, while at the same time being very uncomfortable with mainstream views of madness.

A lot of us deal with the same dilemmas. What does it mean to feel crazy and have a very real, even life-threatening problem with your mind and emotions, yet at the same time see that the world itself is crazy and in no position to tell you it’s all in your head? What do you do when you keep hitting the same wall of voices, isolation, depression, manic energy, or anxiety? How do you navigate the confusing world of psychiatric treatments when the medications are dangerous but alternatives are scarce? Through writing about his experiences, Sascha started finding people asking the same questions, including visual artist and designer Ashley McNamara (who became the co-founder of the Icarus Project) and Madigan Shive of Bonfire Madigan, who brought years of experience as a mental health advocate. Icarus— taking its name from the mythical boy who escaped a labyrinth but shouldn’t have flown so close to the sun—started taking flight.

Dangerous Gift

With a thriving website, a popular zine, and now a growing network of community activists, the Icarus Project is rethinking what “mental illness” is all about and creating new ways of dealing with it. Instead of blaming faulty brains, bad genes, or defective neurochemistry, can we recognize that our mental anguish is part of being sensitive, creative people living in an oppressive world? Instead of illness or disorder we may have something more like a “dangerous gift,” a talent and potential that needs to be respected and taken care of? Can activists diagnosed and labeled “bipolar”, “schizophrenic”, borderline”, “ADHD”, etc. come out of isolation and shame to support each other in the urgent work of building a new world? Can we even bring something new and vital to radical politics?

Over the past 4 years we've organized scores of gatherings and discussions across the country in communities that have never discussed mental health issues openly before. Recent highlights include helping inspire groups to form in 6 cities, a packed Resisting Corporate Psychiatry discussion at the National Conference on Organized Resistance, touring to the anarchist book fair in Montreal, collaborating with students at NYU, organizing Beyond the Psych Ward: Voices of Madness, Rebellion, and Revolution at NYC’s St. Marks Church, launching our second art show in NYC, joining forums with mental health professionals and academics, and organizing discussions and skillshares in New Orleans. Our website forum has expanded to more than 3,000 members, who discuss everything from shamanism and spirituality to human rights activism, dreams, herbalism, recreational drugs, medication dosage, nutrition, and how to explore the process of stopping meds altogether. We're weaving an online safety net of mutual aid and psychiatric dissent.

While Icarus rejects the corporate medical and psychiatric definition that says “mental illness” is a brain disorder or chemical imbalance (lucrative theories that take the focus off social causes and have never been scientifically proven), we respect a diversity of interpretations of what leads to madness. Members are exploring emotional trauma and abuse, spiritual crisis, political oppression such as race, class, sexism, and homophobia, chemical exposure and environmental toxins, nutrition, and becoming a “wounded healer.” We take a harm reduction approach to pharmaceutical medications and recreational drugs, valuing self-determination and informed choices rather than an either/or approach. Many of us take drugs, many don’t. Above all, we recognize that going crazy is often a sane reaction to an insane world. We also want to make holistic and alternative mental health treatment choices available to all, not just the rich.

Through luck, connections, and persistent effort we've been able to raise grant funds—but we have no interest in leaving our radicalism behind to hitch a ride with liberal foundations. Staff is limited to part-time positions that support local initiatives, and we're directing our budget into small grants for community organizers rather than growing the national office. And "Icarus Project" isn't some kind of brand: we're an open source movement. Groups including Minneapolis, Portland, NYC, Asheville, and San Francisco aren't franchises or
chapters; they are autonomous collaborators setting their own agendas and following their own inspiration. For accountability and transparency, all of our planning is on a public internet wiki. We check in monthly on open conference calls, and we pay attention to personal and group wellness to prevent burnout and crisis. It's a bit
chaotic and out of control, but we like it that way: it creates maximum space for inspiration, autonomy, and wildness.

I know the importance of the Icarus Project’s work firsthand. Years ago I had a spectacular fall from a busy Bay Area activist life, when my mind was spinning out of control, and I went to a doctor’s office desperate for help. I left with a handful of free Prozac samples, and for a while the wondrous little green pill was my savior. Then they caused a manic reaction that wrecked my job, friendships, and community. Cut off and alone, broke and malnourished, my voices, visions, and fears dragged me down. I ended up in psych lockup for 2 months, and a year in the public mental health system. I was put in solitary confinement, tied down in restraints, studied like a rat, labeled with schizophrenia, and dosed with toxic meds. It was a long time before I could shake the stigma and trauma caused by psychiatry and return to activism.

When I went over the edge, my activist community had nothing to offer so I ended up at the mercy of the mainstream system. Today I’m off medication, free of psychiatrists, and connected to a community of other mad activists, navigating our extremes and helping each other find a way out of the labyrinth.


Will Hall is a collective staff member of the Icarus Project ( and co-founder of the Northampton, MA activism and support group Freedom Center ( He also produces a weekly radical mental health show on WXOJ-LP FM community radio, available online at You can email him at [email protected]