As Frederick Douglass said 150 years ago, “Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.” As we look at our situation now and try to figure out how to respond to it, we should keep those words in mind.
People with psychiatric labels, like me, are now being systematically attacked as less than human, as “walking time bombs” who might kill someone at any moment, as not-quite-human creatures who should not be allowed the rights of all other citizens. This is the kind of campaign that the Nazis carried out against the Jews as preparation for the Holocaust. Both Tina Minkowitz and I have written about this recently on Mad in America.
This became especially obvious a week ago when E. Fuller Torrey, one of the best-known advocates for stripping us of our rights, appeared on national television with his message of hate and a worshipful interviewer. There was no opposing view allowed. In fact, it has been many years since our point of view has been treated with respect by the media, and our movement has pretty much become invisible outside the little bubble of the mental illness system and the “recovery movement” which is part of it.
Let’s not delude ourselves, people. We are in a very dangerous situation. A database is being set up, so that if you have ever been an inmate of a psychiatric ward, you can be easily identified. This kind of database was used in some European countries to find the Jews and ship them to the camps.
I don’t think we will see death camps in America, for the drug companies, who are largely behind this effort, can’t make a profit from dead people. But the people pushing this have made clear that such a database will be used to locate and drug large numbers of people who now are safely anonymous. This means us.
When I was younger and looking for jobs, applications routinely had questions like “Have you ever been treated for mental illness?” Of course I said no, and there was no way for them to check. Now it will be very easy to find out if you have ever been on a psych ward. Do you think you will get the job?
The Nazis forbade Jews to practice medicine and law, or to teach in the universities. More recently, some American states have passed laws (unconstitutional, to be sure) barring gay people from being schoolteachers. With the stigma of the “schizophrenic” label, banning us from certain jobs is a probable result of the Torrey/Satel/drug company/NAMI campaign. I think being barred from teacher jobs is very likely, one logical result of the dangerous and subhuman image of us that is being promoted.
People like Satel, Torrey, and Jaffe are quite open about wanting to change the commitment laws back to the “need for treatment” standard. In other words, if a psychiatrist or two says you need treatment, you can be held without legal recourse. This was generally the standard before the 1975 Donaldson case, where the U.S. Supreme Court held, unanimously, that if you were “a danger to no one and . . . (could) survive safely in freedom,” the government could not incarcerate you on a psych ward. But that was then, when our militant human rights movement was having an impact on public opinion. This is now, with a different Supreme Court and a movement that doesn’t talk about human rights at all and calls itself the “recovery movement” or the “peer movement.” That’s because the mental illness system figured out that it would be easy to find people who would take their money and run an Astroturf “movement” that works for the system and not for us. The system found them, and they have earned their keep. One of the most shocking things they have done is support the creation of the database that will make it so easy to find us. Tina Minkowitz has discussed this also in another article on Mad in America, “The NCMHR Does Not Speak for Me.”
How did this serious threat come about to our rights, our freedom, the respect we deserve as citizens? The mental illness system has succeeded in buying a movement that literally says nothing about our rights. If we don’t fight for our rights, we will lose them, and that is exactly what is happening.
Before 1985, when the first “Alternatives” conference was held, lavishly funded (by our standards), people like us had a militant movement just like all the other movements of oppressed people in America. All of these groups of people were inspired by the civil rights movement, as we were.
I was a young college student when the first sit-ins began in the South. Like millions of other young people, I was inspired by the bravery of those who faced beatings, police dogs, and fire hoses, and refused to accept that they were less than full human beings.
Other groups too showed great courage and used civil disobedience as a tactic to force the public to realize their causes were just. And they had great success. We have an African-American President, which no one would have believed possible fifty years ago. It would be very difficult to find a young woman in America nowadays who accepts the idea that her role in society is to be subservient. Disabled people got arrested, some in wheelchairs, and shamed the country into passing and enforcing the Americans With Disabilities Act. And just recently, gay people have pretty much won the right to marry, with politicians falling all over themselves to support that right.
We were moving in the same direction. We were frequently covered in the major media. In some parts of the country, at least, our cause was seen as just as valid as all other groups fighting for respect and freedom. In one city, we even succeeded in banning shock treatment.
And we can do it again. Though our movement has been greatly weakened, it has never died out, and there have been people scattered around the country who have never lost sight of what we should be fighting for. If we marshal our forces and think clearly about what we have to do, we can fight back and defeat the forces that want us to go back to the dark ages of psychiatry.
I have some thoughts about what we need to do. I don’t present them as the last word or myself as some kind of great leader, but I hope people listen to this and start to strategize about what to do next.
I think the first thing we have to do is stop taking seriously the people that the mental illness system has chosen as our “leaders.” When I talk with people, for example, about the “Alternatives” conference, even people who know better tell me things like, “Oh, my friends all go to it and it’s the only time of year I can hang out with them.” Gimme a break. People who know better should realize that they are setting an example. People who are new think this is all there is, that it is legitimate for a conference that should be about our rights to be nothing more than a SAMHSA job fair. Don’t be wasting your time. If you spend your money (assuming you’re not one of the people that the system pays to go there) for the SAMHSA conference, you might not be able to go to some gathering that actually promotes our interests.
We need our own national conference. We had one for fourteen years, but after “Alternatives” was set up, one of its organizers came to the last conference that we controlled and systematically disrupted as many workshops as he could. Faced with this, and the show of power that NIMH/SAMHSA displayed, our people were too demoralized to continue.
At all of our conferences, we used to schedule a demonstration against some oppressive local psychiatric institution. Of course, there is never any shortage of places like that. I want to suggest to those who insist on continuing to attend (and by your attendance, support) the SAMHSA conference, that you try to organize a demonstration against the local center for psychiatric abuse. Insist on handing out leaflets inside the conference. Do your best to get some of the hundreds of people there to stand up for their rights in public.
Chances are you will be asked to stop or leave, and if you refuse, you will be threatened with arrest. If you really believe in this cause, don’t back down. Imagine how SAMHSA could explain it if they had a bunch of our people arrested. What would the local media make of this? Such an action would do a lot to clarify what “Alternatives” really represents.
And in general, given our small forces right now, non-violent civil disobedience is a tactic we should use as much as we can. No, sitting in jail for a while is not pleasant. I did not enjoy it. But if we really want things to change, we have to take risks and make sacrifices. Clicking on the “like” button on the Facebook page isn’t going to hack it. Martin Luther King didn’t just make speeches, he led by example. And if we set such an example, we can inspire people to support our cause just as the civil rights movement inspired America.
One important fact that our movement has never taken advantage of is that there are literally tens of millions of Americans who have spent some time in psychiatric institutions. We need to reach out to them. No, they are not inspired by the chance to get jobs in the system ordering around other “peers.” “Recovery” isn’t on their mind either. But when we do something worthwhile, we have a chance to recruit many, many people whose existence we barely know about.
In 1972 (yes, over forty years ago) Judi Chamberlin and I appeared on a national TV talk show with David Suskind, a well-regarded host. We were treated respectfully, and we made very clear to the audience what we thought about the abuses of the system. At that time, I was teaching in a small college in Brooklyn, and the morning after the show, I got a phone call from my department head. He gave me some info about turning in my midterm grades, and then he said, ”Oh, I saw you and that woman on television last night.” I thought, oh God, here it comes. But what he said was, ”Yeah, I agree with you one hundred per cent. When I was a patient on the psych ward in the army, you wouldn’t believe what I saw.” Wow, I thought.
For many years, Judi and I and others continued to appear fairly frequently in the national media, and almost always we were contacted afterward by many people with first hand experience of the system.
In 1982, I was one of the main organizers of the successful ballot measure in Berkeley to ban shock treatment here. Dozens and dozens of new people showed up to give money and circulate petitions to put it on the ballot. Most of them were psych survivors. One local public official took me aside and told me she really supported us, because when she was a young woman in her twenties, she was locked up on a psych ward for several months. She had further political ambitions too, and so she said, “If you tell anyone about this, I’ll deny I ever said it.” Our mayor told the story about how, when his brother was locked up, he went to the “hospital” and confronted the psychiatrists there. He said he barely escaped being locked up himself.
So again, we need to reach out to our constituency, which is huge. We can go way beyond the little bubble we are trapped in now.
A few more suggestions, which, as I have said, are ideas that I am sure can be improved upon.
One thing we tend not to do is strategize. We need to talk about possible actions and recognize when a situation is the right kind where our small forces can be concentrated and make a difference. For example, about five years ago the case of Rebecca Riley, a four-year-old in the Boston area who was killed by psychiatric drugs, was getting a lot of attention. There were pictures of the little girl on the web. She looked like an angel. I had an enlarged picture of her on the wall next to my computer. There was even a story about her on national television.
But our government-appointed “leaders” in Boston had nothing to say. And on the other side of the country, I was developing some literature to promote our demonstration against the 2009 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. I wanted to make one of the main themes of the demo about Rebecca, but I was told more or less that my obsession with her wasn’t valid because I had also been abused by psychiatry as a child. WHAT? Was it supposed to be a symptom of my mental illness?
As most of you know, Rebecca was only one of many thousands of people who have died from psychiatric drugs. But she was a small child. The average person is much more troubled by the abuse of children than they are by the same abuse of adults. When I was the public face of the Berkeley shock ban campaign, the fact that I was shocked as a child had a much greater effect on the voters than if I had been an adult shock victim.
Our movement could have used what happened to that little girl to make the public realize what psychiatry is really about. There could have been demonstrations and sit-ins at Harvard Medical School, where the infamous Doctor Biederman is a full professor in the Psychiatry Department. (And according to him, this makes him the next thing to God, as he said under oath in a lawsuit.) The doctor who drugged Rebecca to death was one of Biederman’s acolytes. We could have made Biederman, truly an evil man, the poster boy for the APA at our demonstration in San Francisco, a city that gets a lot of media attention. Biederman is worth an article by himself. But take my word for it, if you are not familiar with him, bringing what he has done and said to public attention would not be good PR for the American mental illness system
I mention this lost opportunity here because it shows, not only that the government-appointed “leaders” do not work for us, but also that because of our lack of strategizing we missed a really important opportunity to advance our cause.
There are many, many things we can do, and it is impossible for one person and one article to talk about all of them. I know that those who read this wlll have more and better ideas. But I hope that what I’ve written will make people realize that our backs are against the wall, and we must look clearly at our situation and think carefully and hard about what we have to do to change this situation.
For those who are ready to do this, I plan to start a discussion group to really concentrate on developing the strategy we need to make the most of our forces and work out the actions we need to take back our movement. I am also thinking that it might be a good thing to revive the Network Against Psychiatric Assault, one of the most effective groups in the Seventies, that even as late as 1997 had a leading role in shutting down one of the most brutal “hospitals” in the San Francisco Bay Area. I will NOT try to set up yet another full-fledged national organization, which will just lead to lots of posturing and power struggles, and which we are not ready for anyway. Rather, the Network would be just that, a network of activists who communicate with one another, who keep up with what others are doing around the country, who inspire one another. And because there would be no formal structure (yet) it could not be taken over by a small group of people who want it to fail. I hope some of you will want to join the discussion group and/or the Network.
One more thing. I’m not young any more, and I think it’s a miracle, given the abuse I suffered as a child, that I’ve lived this long. But I am willing to make the sacrifices and take the risks that I know are necessary and that I ask others to make. I will participate in non-violent actions that may lead to going to jail if that’s what it takes. I didn’t spend all those years trying to develop and nurture this movement only to walk away from it now. I know this will sound too dramatic, but I’m willing to die for this movement if my death will make a difference. Only I refuse to leave until I can see us going in the right direction again.
I hope those who read this will take to heart what I have written. Our path will not be easy, but I know there are still people with idealism and conscience who are willing to do what needs to be done. If we support one another and make this commitment, we will not be rewarded with money or power or a pat on the head from E. Fuller Torrey. But we will know that what we have done has made life better for millions of our brothers and sisters.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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