You can also fill out this as an email and send it from the CitizenSpeak website.
Read the article in Turning Wheel: A Journal of Engaged Buddhism about this issue.
From: Your Name <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: End Psychiatric Discrimination at Vipassana Meditation Center
Your Personal Statement
For years the Vipassana Meditation Center led by S. N. Goenka has offered very popular meditation retreats on a donation basis, and we are appreciative of the Center's valuable services to the community. However, until recently the Vipassana Center (and the international network of Centers of which it is a part) had an explicit policy to exclude anyone labeled with a severe mental illness, a policy that was posted on its website. While the notice and policy were changed after complaints, the Vipassana Center still asks for and collects detailed information about psychiatric diagnosis and history as part of its application criteria, and rejects people on this basis.
The Icarus Project is a support network of people labeled with Bipolar Disorder and other mental illness diagnoses who have come together to provide mutual aid and challenge medical and mainstream definitions of who we are. Recently an Icarus member was rejected from a Vipassana Meditation Center retreat in Northern California on the grounds of disclosing he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the past. We have also heard reports of members of the Freedom Center, an allied group in Western MA, who have had similar experiences. We strongly object to this discrimination.
If the Vipassana Center were a private employer or public facility, its policy of asking about mental illness diagnoses would be illegal under the Americans With Disability Act (ADA). The ADA allows asking neutral questions about a person's capacity to meet a required task, but not questions about a disability itself, medications, hospital history, or making assumptions about a person's capacity on the basis of a disability. (The ADA exempts religious organizations and churches from its provisions.)
With its current policy the Vipassana Center is perpetuating stereotypes about people labeled with mental illnesses, such as the belief that if we have a diagnosis we all must have impaired judgment or that none of us can meditate safely. Just because someone has at some time been labeled with a severe mental illness or been in a hospital or on medication tells you nothing whatsoever about their present capacity or condition. Because of the subjective and highly unscientific nature of mental illness diagnosis and psychiatry in general, a label like bipolar disorder really tells you nothing at all about a person, except that a doctor, at some point, gave them that diagnosis. A different doctor might have given them a different diagnosis -- in fact, it is very common for psychiatrists to disagree and for people in the mental health system to have more than one diagnosis at different times in their lives. Diagnosis of severe mental illness itself has inflated dramatically in recent years due to aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies. Assuming that a past or present diagnostic label necessarily means someone lacks a certain capacity is discrimination.
Many people labeled with severe psychiatric disabilities such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder have not only completed challenging meditation retreats, including the Vipassna retreats, but discovered that their so-called "illness" is actually intimately connected to spirituality, and that meditation is a valuable recovery tool. Faced with an arbitrary, intrusive, and discriminatory policy, many Vipassana Center retreat applicants simply hide their psychiatric history on the application to avoid stigmatization by the Center, which puts applicants in a degrading and unfair position.
We certainly understand the importance of adequately screening applicants for the challenges of a disciplined meditation retreat. We believe however that the Vipassana Center can find neutral, non-discriminatory questions to ask applicants, questions that focus on what a person can do without making assumptions about who they are. It is appropriate to ask questions about capacity to endure stress and hardship, to confront difficult emotions, to be physically uncomfortable, and other retreat considerations; it is not approprite to ask questions about diagnosis or psychiatric history.
Many other Buddhist meditation retreats around the US comply with the ADA and do not ask intrusive and discriminatory questions. Why can't the Vipassana Center follow their example?
We hope the Vipassana Meditation Center will educate itself about the Americans With Disabilities Act, the mental health recovery movement, and the painful history of misunderstanding and mistreatment of people labeled with mental illnesses. Consistent with its goals of compassion and loving kindness, the Vipassana Meditation Center should act promptly to change this hurtful policy.
Please politely contact the Center with your concerns at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
, call (707) 793-2163, fax (413) 625-2170, or send a letter to Northern California Vipassana Association P.O. Box 8250 Santa Rosa, CA 95407. Also please cc: a copy of your email or letter to email@example.com.
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