Thoughts About David Oaks

Robert Whitaker
13
101

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patients in research settings, and one of the “abuses” we wrote about were studies in which antipsychotics had been withdrawn from schizophrenia patients.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imbalance in the brains of people so diagnosed, and thus, we reasoned, it was clearly unethical for researchers to have withdrawn antipsychotics from schizophrenia patients.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.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I too felt so bad about David’s injury. Just when we need his voice in the current state of the country it won’t be heard as loudly as it could have been. I hope for the best and his soon as possible return. I ask that we all take up his place at this time. The tragedy of last week has opened up a great opportunity for our voices to be heard. If there were a peer crisis home in that state maybe the tragedy could have been averted. It seems at this time the mom was shouldering her son’s total care. No one can do this for long. We all need help and we all need to feel safe to ask for that help. We need easy acess to obtain that help without resorting to ER’s ( a most demeaning thing since I have been there.)
    Churches need to take an active role as well. There are hurting people in the pews and there is help ( if you look hard enough and search long enough) it might not be in your state but there are supports.
    Please all of us take up the torch and run.

  2. This was very moving. David inspired you. You inspired a new generation of activists, the collection and dissemination of a TON of research, new protests, new paradigms of thought.

    How many people have been touched by your work and David’s?

    I know I’m one.

    Get well soon, David. We miss you.

  3. Thank you, Bob. You put it so beautifully. I first met David when he was just out of Harvard in 1978, and he has been an example and inspiration to me as well. He is one of the few people who has been able to work on behalf of human rights with a clear passion and sense of humor over all of these years. Thank you, David, and may the stardust shine upon your healing.
    Love, Dorothy

  4. Thank you Bob. So wonderful that you followed up on his challenge. I met David in 1978 at the Mental Patient Liberation Front. I have been inspired by him ever since. He is in my heart and I hope he will return in full force. In the meantime, I feel renewed urgency to carry forward our important work, with as he and Martin Luther King called us, the creatively maladjusted. We love you David.

  5. I can only add my own concern to what others have said. David and I, with a friendship of over thirty years, have actually been in conflict recently, but when I heard about his injury, I was terribly shocked and saddened. As Bob wrote, David could have taken a path that would have been much easier and more lucrative, but he has dedicated his life to fighting for the same cause that he and I share, not popular, not financially rewarding, but morally right.

    David, if you see this, I want you to know that I really care about you, and that our friendship never really ended, in spite of our arguments. I’m not a religious person, but I am praying for you anyway. I love you, David, and still feel a great bond with you.

  6. Thanks for this article, Robert. I’ve only been working with David for about seven months, but I am always impressed by his energy, and almost irrepressible positiveness. I knew his spirits were in good shape when I found out in the first few days after the accident that the nurses had already identified him as a “character.”

    I also want to point to an additional – even broader – social context for our movement’s work, which David speaks of often. It’s questioning the way that our society conceives the categories of “normal” vs. “crazy” or “insane” (or any of the other popular terms). One of David’s favorite street theater bits is to do “normality screening” – testing people with some fancy-looking equipment. “Are you normal? Are you normal?” Quickly it is determined that no one is normal! We are all unique, fascinatingly individual, and deserve that respect rather than to be put into a box.

    And what we call normal is actually quite bizarre. For example it’s “normal” to drive a half hour (or longer) to work and back home, even though we’re clear that this behavior is profoundly damaging to the ecosystem. David loved a recent book, “Living in Denial” by Karie Marie Norgaard, which explores how even in a town being directly impacted by climate change people just don’t talk about all of their daily activities which contribute to the change which is negatively affecting them.

    One of the main things I’m working on for MindFreedom is Creative Maladjustment Week, next July 7-14, which also relates to this larger social context. The terminology is drawn from some of MLK’s speeches, in which he would list things such as racial segregation, religious bigotry, and other social ills to which he refused to become adjusted. We’ll be promoting and organizing more activism, and celebrating past and present activism and activists – not only on our issues, but on whatever issues people are passionate about. After all, when any group of activists become successful enough that society can’t ignore them, they’re called “crazy” – so, all activists are our natural allies.

  7. David Oaks is an exceptional man. I send my first email to him over ten years ago when I had just learned how to get in touch with MindFreedom International. Before this I looked up the website http://www.mindfreedom.org and was amazed at the work this group of dedicated people had done over the years. I was particuarly impressed that survivors like David were prepared to go on hunger strike because they knew that psychiatry had no evidence that their many ‘diagnoses’ were bases on fact. They also knew that there was plenty of evidence that psychiatrists and doctors were causing brain damage by very bad use of psychotropic drugs and electroshock. They challenged the psychiatrists to give them evidence that this was not true and they failed to do so!
    A short time before this I had succeeded in becoming drug free having been a prescribed drug addict for the most part of two decades. At the age of 50 I was almost dead in mind, body and spirit. I was just a very faded shadow of my former self. As we said in our book ‘Soul Survivor – A Personal Encounter with Psychiatry’ I was a piece of psychiatric flotsam! I had lived a lifetime of twenty years no person should have to live. Psychiatry told me I was lucky to be living at home. I was lucky I was not in hospital. But was I lucky to be a prisoner in my own home? Was I lucky to have my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual capacity severely dimmishhed? Was I lucky that this terrible damage was done by doctors who were blind to the fact that they were harming me daily? Was I lucky that not matter how much harm they did to me I would not be able to legally have the false diagnoses of bi-polar removed from my records because psychiatry still carries on as if it is a medical science with the support of governments, the legal system, the educational system and the wider public. The iatrogenic harm I endured was for my own good. It would still be seen as evidence of the fact I am ‘mentally ill!!!!! I never had any such problems before I consumed psychotropic drugs daily and for the past 13 yrs drug free I can say the same!!! 13 is lucky for some!
    Soon after becoming a member of MindFreedom International with Jim’s help we started an affiliate of MFInternational, MindFreedom Ireland. We will be ten years strong in January. We have been very active over the years. This year we have been especially active and as David woud like, we are finishing up this year more active than ever! David and MindFreedom International continue to inspire us. We hope with all our hearts that David will be back with us stronger than ever soon! We hope that MindFreedom International will also grow stronger and stronger!
    We love you David!