The impetus for this article is an exciting new scholarship endowed in perpetuity which has just been launched at University of Toronto. It is a “matching scholarship” in which I personally match up to $50,000 of contributions by other donors. Called “The Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry,” the scholarship is to be awarded annually to a thesis student at OISE/UT conducting antipsychiatry research. An award of this nature is historically unprecedented, and as such, is itself something to celebrate. It is also part of a larger phenomenon of using academia in the battle against psychiatry. Shedding light on that larger phenomenon as well as on the scholarship per se, such are the purposes of this article.
Why have I dubbed this article “Turning the Tables”? Because what is involved here is precisely taking a leaf from psychiatry’s book. In this regard, not unlike other hegemonic disciplines, albeit far more aggressively than most, as shown by Foucault (1963/1973) and Burstow (2015), psychiatry has long used academia to legitimate its claims and further what it regards as “knowledge”. Not only does academic psychiatry train people to think/act in ways that serve it, its sheer existence serves as a primary source of legitimation.
Albeit we do not have the potential to make the same kind of inroads, let me suggest, it behooves those of us who oppose psychiatry to likewise use academia. Herein we have the opportunity to challenge, to educate, moreover to lend a hand to what Michel Foucault (1980) calls “the insurrection of subjugated knowledge.” In the process, we can at once further antipsychiatry knowledge and add to its perceived legitimacy.
The rise and growing acceptance of Mad Studies is an example which elucidates this principle (see http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/mad-studies/). Mad views have gained unprecedented legitimacy of late not simply because they provide important perspectives, note, but because courses dubbed Mad History have become a standard part of curriculum in such areas as Critical Disability Studies in several universities. Of course, not being inherently abolitionist, Mad Studies is, as it were, an “easier sell” than antipsychiatry.
Examples of what can realistically be done at this point—and to varying degrees some of us have been doing this for decades—is to rigorously integrate an antipsychiatry analysis into our classes, involve students in our antipsychiatry research, and mount conferences in which antipsychiatry is highlighted—e.g., the historical PsychOut conference (see http://individual.utoronto.ca/psychout/). Via such routes, very real reframing happens. Some students (both ones new to antipsychiatry and old hands at it) go on to conduct their own research into some aspect of psychiatry, thereby contributing to this growing area of scholarship. At the same time, academia puts the stamp of credibility on such “knowledge”, in essence, legitimates it in the public eye.
Now there are “onside” faculty who intentionally water down their critique of psychiatry, perhaps because they have been attacked by colleagues, as to a fair extent all of us are, perhaps out of fear for their jobs. Given the difficulty of standing one’s ground in the face of this particular power nexus, that is totally understandable. Let me invite such colleagues nonetheless not to automatically to pull back, for the fight is a vital one; we are slowly but surely winning this battle. Moreover, there are other ways for us to protect ourselves. Which brings me to my own extensive history as the one of the sole academics who publically identifies as an antipsychiatry professor.
Since the early 1980s, in every university in which I have taught, I have invariably integrated an unapologetic and hard-hitting antipsychiatry analysis into my work and in every case, the results were positive. That is, despite some students having profound misgivings at least initially, most students quickly found themselves intrigued. Soon even those who began by dismissing my position or declaring it “extreme” found themselves seriously entertaining vantagepoints that would once have been unthinkable. Telling in this regard is a student who felt she had to be in the wrong class because the perspective utterly alarmed her. By the third class of the course, she vowed never again to set foot in any of my classes. She proceeded to skip the next class, pretty sure she would not come back. Not only did she soon return and not only did she stick with this class, but she went on to take every single course that I offered. By the same token, over the years a high percentage of my students have ended up abandoning the concept of “mental illness”—something initially unimaginable. Correspondingly many have become antipsychiatry activists and researchers in their own right and gone on to influence others. This is precisely the beauty of what can be achieved in academia.
In this respect, though it may often seem as if no one wants the knowledge which antipsychiatry scholars/activists offer—and on one level this is true—on another, people, especially the young, are virtually hungering for a radically different vantage point.
Which brings me to the question of direct opposition—a problem that leads many privately highly critical colleagues to “soft peddle” their message. Of course there is opposition, just as there has always been opposition to anything which challenges accepted orthodoxies and runs counter to vested interests. And indeed, I have commonly encountered over-the-top opposition myself as well as more subtle obstruction. More generally, inevitably in every single university in which I have taught, because I am uncompromisingly antipsychiatry and known to be so, at some point or other, there have been efforts to derail both me and my agenda. What is significant here, however, is that none of it ever came from students. Moreover, the opposition has been monumentally unsuccessful. Indeed, if anything, it has but added to my credibility and detracted from the credibility of those out to silence my analysis. The point is that academic freedom is a principle that universities hold dear. And strange though this may seem, it offers very real protection.
Am I in any way suggesting that faculty who introduce new counterhegemonic knowledge are equally rewarded for their efforts as those who replicate traditional (and inherently oppressive) “knowledge”? Not remotely, and especially not in an area like antipsychiatry, which is at odds with disciplinary fields which academia actively supports and whose related industries (e.g., Big Pharma) channel substantial money into university coffers. Am I denying that their work may be trivialized or looked down upon? Of course not. As we all know, that commonly happens, especially to faculty who are psychiatric survivors and known to be so. Nor would I in any way want to minimize the very serious plight of excellent scholars whose repeated attempts to land a permanent university job have come to naught because of their personal history, their identity (mad, racialized, etc.) or their antipsychiatry stance. This problem is only too real, and this too we need to fight. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to minimize the value of academic freedom as a safeguard.
To clarify the distinction that I am making here, antipsychiatry faculty may be overlooked in all sorts of ways, may be relegated to dead-end positions, may never have their work spotlighted, may even be actively disrespected (all of which, without question, is highly serious and is in its own way a violation of academic freedom). This notwithstanding, if someone obviously and overtly tried to interfere with a faculty member educating from an antipsychiatry perspective, for the most part, even if unenthusiastically, the university will side with the faculty member under attack. Why? Precisely because even in the eyes of the conventionally minded, such interference violates the university’s commitment to academic freedom. The point here is that the commitment to academic freedom has genuine substance, this, despite the ongoing violations of the commitment.
Factor in this commitment and have your wits about you, if your employment is relatively secure, and even in a surprising number of cases where it is not, as an antipsychiatry academic, when it comes to teaching as you wish, you can generally easily win most fights. Whereupon, in a very effective way, you begin to turn the tables. Some examples from my own history:
In my first year teaching social work in a university in western Canada (and yes, I was junior, and no, I did not remotely have tenure), members of the psychiatry department were distressed upon learning of a ten-minute talk which I gave in one of my classes on the circular nature of psychiatry’s use of language. Their response was to write the head of social work to request that psychiatric faculty be allowed to enter my classroom and in essence teach their own perspective. The rationale given was that this way my students would benefit from having more than one perspective. Well aware that my freedom to teach as I wished (translation: academic freedom) was at stake here, the head of social work handed me the letter and asked me to respond. I wrote back stating, “In the interest of my students having access to more than one perspective, I am more than happy to allow your faculty time in my classes –but only if in the interest of your students likewise gaining additional perspective, I similarly be invited into your classes.” (Burstow correspondence, November 15, 1987).
Given the ostensible “sensibleness” of my response, given what would be seen as its “even-handedness”, realistically, only one of two things could have happened at that point: 1) they take up the challenge, in which case, as most of us are aware, a solid antipsychiatry critique can beat psychiatric propaganda handily –and so I win (indeed, I win doubly for my message has now gained access to an otherwise unreachable audience) or 2) they decline the challenge, in which case I would have exposed their claim to believe in multiple perspectives as a ruse, moreover, begun to demonstrate that even in their own eyes, they cannot hold their own against an antipsychiatry analysis—in which case once again, I win. So what happened? The second. We never heard back from them.
Another example: Shortly after I was offered and accepted a position in social work at a university in eastern Ontario, a credentializing body wrote the President of the university threatening that if this offer of employment was not rescinded, the department’s social work credentialization was in jeopardy. Once again, the attempt to block me backfired, and it did so in part because the university would not tolerate such blatant interference with academic freedom.
A third example: When Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, OISE’s Adult Education and Community Development program, and I mounted the historic PsychOut Conference at University of Toronto, flexing their muscles, as it were, higher-ups in the psychiatric faculty wrote the President of the university, protesting the existence of such a conference and more significantly, its association with University of Toronto. Similarly one faculty member in psychology wrote, stating that the conference should be canceled in the interests of avoiding confusion. Otherwise the psychology students who would inevitably attend, she argued, would end up unnecessarily baffled, for they would be bombarded with messages at odds with what they were being taught in psychology classes.
The objections were forthwith forwarded to the OISE dean, who was asked to respond. The dean passed them onto the Chair of my department. The chair passed the onus to respond onto me. To hone in on just one of these, to the applause of the psychology students who began excitedly flocking to meetings of the organizing committee responsible for planning the conference, my response to one outraged colleague went as follows:
In the end, we all have to accept that it is part of academic freedom that scholars bring different and often incompatible claims to knowledge to the table. The hope is that students are enriched by gaining exposure to the very different worldviews and agendas. It falls to them as intelligent human beings and budding scholars to sort out where they themselves stand, having listened to the different positions—and I trust in their ability to do so.” (letter from Burstow, April 25, 2010).
We never heard back from the irate colleague again. And for all intents and purposes, the Conference proceeded as planned—except now a growing excitement had been sparked.
The point is, if handled in the manner which Gandhi followers have dubbed “moral jiu jitsu” (see http://civilresistance.info/sites/default/files/thepowerofnonviolence0206.pdf), opposition to us can actually serve our own ends of exposing and in the process winning hearts and minds. Again, a turning of the tables.
My encouragement to fellow academics, accordingly, is not to make soft peddling your antipsychiatry message your default mode. While for sure there are times when “lying low” makes sense, there are other and generally better ways for us to protect ourselves. And never forget that the liberal value of academic value is highly serviceable, irrespective of the fact that we are not liberals but radicals.
More generally, mastering the skill of moral jiu jitsu is necessary. Whereupon, the university becomes an important and viable site for our antipsychiatry work—something accomplishable, note, in lectures, in class discussions, in the framing of assignments, in the activist/survivor speakers we are now able to bring in, in special events, in the actual norms of our classes (e.g., one of my class norms is “no mentalistic or psychiatric jargon”), even, as shown above, in fighting the very opposition which initially looks like it will derail us. The point is, paradoxically, both despite and because of the elitism of the venue, and both despite and because of the manifest opposition, there are niches in the academy which are potential antipsychiatry strongholds—we have but to have courage and do the strategic work needed.
Which brings us to this article’s second objective.
A particularly fruitful way that faculty members can use academia to both further antipsychiatry and to add to its perceived legitimacy is to encourage, supervise, and support antipsychiatry theses. Conducting such research affords students the opportunity to contribute in a major way to antipsychiatry knowledge creation.
Now it goes without saying that such knowledge creation will continue to happen irrespective of whether or not students conducting such research receive awards. This notwithstanding, given the economic straits of oh-so-many graduate students, the financial is hardly irrelevant. Correspondingly, one added measure that antipsychiatry faculty can take is to both nominate their antipsychiatry students for awards and help sponsor antipsychiatry-specific awards. The latter, I would add, is particularly important for the reality is that given the hegemony of psychiatry and the privileged place which psychiatry holds within academia, budding young antipsychiatry scholars have appreciably less chance of winning awards than those involved in more traditional areas of knowledge-building.
More generally, the very creation of one or more antipsychiatry scholarships is a game-changer. Obviously a university cannot have a scholarship in this area without at the same time “recognizing” the area. And insofar as universities “recognize” the area, so does the world at large. By the same token, while it goes without saying that we understandably all have different priorities, anything, however little, that any of us can do to make such scholarships a reality, irrespective of whether or not we are academics or even particularly value academia, is an effort well spent, for it announces to the world that antipsychiatry has legitimacy and it paves the way for ever greater forays into it. In the process, I would add, it helps put a stop to the ongoing harassment of antipsychiatry professors, thereby making it easier for antipsychiatry faculty and would-be faculty to do the job that we in the movement so desperately need them to.
Understanding all this, after a nine month stint of negotiating with University of Toronto officials, who began transparently uneasy with the subject matter, several years ago I arranged for the vast majority of my estate upon my death to go into setting up huge scholarships in this area. And it is with this understanding that likewise, with help from allies –institutional and otherwise—I proceeded to set up the far smaller Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry, outlined at the beginning of this article. My thought here was that besides that the time is ripe, this smaller scholarship could, as it were, prepare the ground for the far larger ones that will materialize later. And a very good thing it was too that I took this measure, for the current scholarship came close to not be approved, and without it, the tentative agreement about the scholarships set up in my will would surely have been in jeopardy.
The resistance to this scholarship that inevitably materialized, I would add, is itself an indicator of its importance. Moreover, and what is not unrelated, the transparency of the resistance led several institutional players whose support, while real, had begun as relatively modest—including from within the university—to strongly come onside. Whether this was mainly because the need to uphold academic freedom became increasingly obvious or because they noticed that—lo and behold—they were smack in the middle of a David-and-Goliath story, or because the very struggle itself led them to look at the substantive issues more closely, herein once again we see a “turning of the tables”.
I would add here, I thank these fellow institutional warriors with all my heart—for you did no less than fight your hearts out—and you did so skillfully, with integrity, and with perseverance! What a force of nature you are!
To end where we began—by honing in on the current scholarship, already this scholarship initiative has a growing momentum. Besides that several donors have already contributed to it or made pledges, the scholarship has been endorsed by as formidable a figure as the member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament Reverend Cheri DiNovo.
Moreover it has been endorsed by absolute giants in the field like Dr. Peter Breggin, Don Weitz, and Dr. Lauren Tenney, all of whom are very clear about its importance. In this regard, Peter writes:
I am Peter R. Breggin, MD and I am a psychiatrist. As a professional long heralded as the conscience of psychiatry, it is my pleasure to endorse the newly formed Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. Science is demonstrating that psychiatric diagnosis and drugs, electroshock, and involuntary treatment are doing much more harm than good. We desperately need critical scholarship aimed at stopping this epidemic of demoralization, dehumanization, and brain damage. –Dr. Peter Breggin
By the same token, survivor and activist Don Weitz writes:
As a psychiatric survivor, antipsychiatry and social justice activist for over 30 years, I strongly support the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at the University of Toronto. Dr. Burstow’s recent book Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (2015) is a masterful work and brilliant breakthrough. I feel sure the Scholarship will attract and empower many survivors, students, and scholars. It’s time antipsychiatry is officially and widely recognized as a legitimate and growing international movement. This Scholarship will help make it happen. —Don Weitz.
Correspondingly, the indefatigable Lauren Tenney writes:
As a psychiatric survivor and a mad environmental social scientist/psychologist, I am honored to endorse the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. How radical! How timely! We are so fortunate to have in Bonnie Burstow, a visionary with a commitment to exposing psychiatry, and assisting people making their way into the field, to not have to fight for a right to hold an antipsychiatry position. State-sponsored organized psychiatric industries target children, women, people of color, seniors, and people from oppressed groups. The opportunities such a scholarship program present are enormous for the growth of research that will hold psychiatry accountable. The important feminist, anti-racist work that can be accomplished from an antipsychiatry framework is significant, not only for those awarded this new scholarship, but for those working with and near those in slated positions designed to allow people to honestly speak out about the damages psychiatry creates. This brilliant move by Burstow is a game-changer that will further solidify the growing field of antipsychiatry in North America, and around the world. If you are able to support this effort, please do so, today. –Lauren Tenney, PhD, MPhil, MPA, Psychiatric Survivor
The overly generous depiction of me aside, I am grateful for the words of these remarkable and steadfast allies. How reassuring that they instantly recognized the significance of this moment! And how wonderful that they have so enthusiastically become involved!
In ending, I would invite readers who are able and so inclined to consider also becoming involved—in any way that feels right to you. Simply helping spread the word about the scholarship would be terrific. Perhaps email people about it or post a description on your website. If you are able and wish to make a financial contribution (all donations, whatever the size, are welcome), the method is: Everyone other than Americans, write a cheque payable to University of Toronto and send it to Sim Kapoor at: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 252 Bloor St. West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 1V6. By contrast, Americans, make the cheque out to: The Associates of the University of Toronto, Inc., and send it to: Dr. Gary Kaufman, Treasurer, The Associates of the University of Toronto, Inc., 58 West 84th St., # 2F, New York, New York, USA, 10024. In all cases, insert on the memo line: For The Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. And yes, with Canadians and Americans the charitable receipt that will be duly issued can be used for tax purposes for they are recognized respectively by Revenue Canada and US Internal Revenue.
For more information on the scholarship, see this page on the University of Toronto website, and this post on Mad in America. To contribute online (an alternative route), go to this donation page. Correspondingly, for answers to other questions that you may have, write to: [email protected]
Finally, one parting invitation: For those of you who are likewise antipsychiatry, whether you do so in relationship to this scholarship or otherwise, whether via academia or the far larger world beyond, whether you operate in the streets, in the classroom, on the internet, or in the boardroom, before you go to bed tonight –and the next night, and the next—think of ways that you too can be involved in “turning the tables” –for, make no mistake about it: Such—and no less—is the nature of the challenge facing us.
Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the business of madness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (1963/1973). The birth of the clinic. London: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.
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.