As many of the readers of this website know, David Oaks, the long-time leader of MindFreedom, was badly injured when he fell from a ladder on December 1. He broke a bone in his neck, his injury so severe he had to be on a ventilator. The latest news is encouraging: he had a tracheotomy and is off the ventilator, able now to speak in a whisper.
I have thought much about David these past two weeks, for of course it is a time like this that you realize anew how much you appreciate a person.
Personally, I owe David a great deal, as it was an interview I did with him in 1998 that propelled me to write more in-depth about psychiatry. At that time, I was co-writing a series for the Boston Globe about abuses of psychiatric patients in research settings, and one of the “abuses” we wrote about were studies in which antipsychotics had been withdrawn from schizophrenia patients. My understanding at that time was that antipsychotics fixed a chemical imbalance in the brains of people so diagnosed, and thus, we reasoned, it was clearly unethical for researchers to have withdrawn antipsychotics from schizophrenia patients.
Having framed the withdrawal studies in that way, I called David, expecting him to voice outrage. I thought he would say something about how only people diagnosed with a mental illness would be treated in such a poor way. Instead, he said that there were good reasons to help people withdraw from such drugs. They could damage the brain, he said. And then he challenged me: Check out the research for yourself, he said. See what the evidence shows.
After the series in the Boston Globe ran, I began to do what David urged me to do. That eventually led me to write Mad in America, my first book on the history of psychiatry.
After that book was published, David invited me to speak several times at MindFreedom events, and our paths also crossed at numerous other events. Several years ago, when I was in Eugene, Oregon, he took me on a beautiful walk in the old forests east of that city. And during these past ten years, I came to admire him greatly, and for so many reasons.
Smart, funny, and energetic, David could have pursued many career paths, many of which might have offered more financial rewards. But instead, he has devoted his life, for more than 30 years, to fighting a system that he believes can do so much harm. As he liked to say, it was time for “a non-violent revolution.” That is a long time to remain devoted to fighting the good fight. It takes real doggedness and commitment to social change to do that.
He also has put this struggle into a larger social context, that of a fight for civil rights. He is, of course, right in doing so. When the struggle raises questions about discrimination, forced hospitalization, forced treatment, and informed consent about the nature of those treatments, then it is raising questions about the basic rights of American citizens. That is a context that our society needs to think more deeply about, and David’s work has helped prompt such thought.
I also so appreciate that he has seemed to wage this struggle, year after year, with good cheer and even optimism. It is not an easy struggle to wage, and yet, at least when I have encountered David, he has never seemed to be discouraged. I am not sure why that is so, but I can speculate about one possible reason: He knows that he leads a meaningful life, and that sustains him.
I could go on, but no need. I was moved to write this post for a simple reason: when I heard of his fall, and how seriously he was injured, I was, to tell the truth, stunned by how hard I took the news. He changed my life; he has waged a noble struggle for decades; and his efforts have led to social change. And realizing that, I just wanted to publicly say, David, please get well soon.