Learnings from Earthworms: The Ecstasy of an Antipsychiatry “Breakthrough”

Bonnie Burstow, PhD
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Approximately two years ago, I penned an article contending that the tide is beginning to turn against psychiatry, listing as examples of telling indicators thereof the ever-growing critiques of DSM-5, the abundance of devastating exposés exposing the systematic “cooking” of psychiatric drug trials, and the emergence of a special issue of Acta Scandinavica precisely on what has been euphemistically termed psychiatry’s “image problem.” Likewise an indicator — but on a far, far more modest scale — is the huge success of an educational event last week. This minor example is the focus of this article.

Exactly what was the event? A two-hour public library talk complete with Q&A that occurred on December 6. What makes this event a tiny indicator? Besides the fact that this was a totally antipsychiatry talk, and besides the fact that never before had a public library sought out an antipsychiatry scholar/activist to deliver a speech of this ilk, what is significant here is the enormity of the turnout, together with the highly positive reception.

So how did this event materialize? And what exactly happened?

The brainchild of Toronto librarian Masha Darkor, the event was kickstarted almost a year ago when Masha took the unprecedented move of turning up at the book launch of a new antipsychiatry book of mine called Psychiatry and the Business of Madness, with the intent of persuading me to give a talk on the subject in the Beeton Auditorium of the Toronto Reference Library. For those unfamiliar with this library, it is by far the largest public library in Toronto, located in the centre of the city. The significance of this invitation is that for the first time in history an antipsychiatry address would be happening in a totally mainstream venue. Discussions took place about accommodation needs, and in the fullness of time the date of December 6, 2016 was agreed on.

As the big day came, the prognosis for even a fair-to-middling turnout was poor, for it was raining mercilessly. Nonetheless, against all odds, in unprecedented numbers, people turned up; most from Toronto, some schlepping in this highly inclement weather all the way from neighbouring cities like Milton. According to the estimate provided by Toronto library official Richard MacCallum, the turnout was “212 people” — a figure never remotely garnered before by an antipsychiatry talk. Hailing the event as a total success in his correspondence the following day, MacCallum correctly pointed out that not only was the auditorium packed, just outside all three exits stood folk listening intently, despite not being able to get in or even sit down.

Even a year ago, who would have thought such interest and determination possible?

If the number of people present and the staying power were impressive, so was the response. We began with a minute of silence in commemoration of the women killed in the Montreal Massacre, for this was indeed the anniversary of that misogynous horror. Later in the talk, I problematized the standard psychiatric claim that the various school shootings in general would not have happened if the perpetrators had been on psychiatric drugs. In response, I pointed out that the vast majority of school shooters in North America had in fact been on a therapeutic dose of psychiatric drugs at the time of the shooting (see Burstow, 2015).  The point and the horrific irony here is that these drugs, while being one of the causal factors, are being erroneously configured by psychiatry as the solution.

As the talk proceeded, with the problematizing of the concept of mental illness, the exploration of the quality of psychiatric research, and the etching out of different and more communal and respectful approaches to individual and social problems, not a soul in the auditorium budged.  Come question period, correspondingly, it was clear that people had been listening intently. Moreover, it was clear that the audience was not just comprised of what might be called “the usual suspects,” but was a highly diverse group that hailed from all walks of life.  Some were obviously students, some psychiatric survivors, some family members of survivors, some academics, some former police officers, some taxi drivers, some social service providers, some activists (including from feminist and antiracist movements), and some health professionals (e.g., medical doctors, social workers, psychologists, naturopaths).

What likewise suggested to me that an appreciable shift had occurred was that the questions asked were both transparently informed and “onside.”  “Can you tell me what to do when someone is struggling with addictions?” asked one person. “What is the number one thing we should be doing as activists?” asked another. “Even if they knew nothing about how compromised the research is that underpins the treatments, how can doctors bring themselves to just impose drugs on their patients?” poignantly exclaimed still another, peering about with incredulity.

Hands of people eager to ask questions kept rising, and we could have easily continued with the Q&A for another couple of hours. Adding to the triumph of the day, when the event was ostensibly over, people lined up in large numbers to connect with me; some professionals who wanted to discuss more about what concretely could be done, some survivors eager to relay their story.

What adds further to my sense of the significance of the event is that I received an avalanche of enthusiastic emails from attendees the following day. Of these, one story especially touched my heart.

Despite the incessant rain, the woman drove all the way from Milton. Why? Because, according to her, she had the uncanny feeling that coming to this lecture would be a life-changing event. She added that as she headed back home that evening she indeed saw proof that it was. Irrespective of whether or not she is correct in her evaluation, what happened? As she departed the auditorium, she attempted to buy one of the antipsychiatry books being sold. Unfortunately, the machine refused her credit card. Prior to attending this lecture, she informed me, she would have responded to an outcome like this by becoming instantly downcast. Instead, inspired with a new confidence and hope, she laughed off what had happened as a minor inconvenience and headed home.

Now I am well aware that folk who are totally or even partially positive about psychiatry will to various degrees be unhappy, perhaps even livid, about what happened on that rainy evening; may well see the enormity of the interest and enthusiasm sparked as dangerous, and several will immediately jump to critiquing both antipsychiatry and its advocates — which is surely their right. Such a response inevitably and understandably transpires when a central paradigm of any sort is under attack, though especially when: a) people are convinced (indeed, such is hegemony that they have been taught to be convinced) that the well being of the vulnerable and society in general is dependent on said paradigm and the practices associated with it, and b) when they see a paradigm in which they and/or their loved ones have vested their trust beginning to crumble.

To be clear, I am in no way questioning the experiences of such folk, for I totally respect that people are experts on their own experience. I am questioning only the interpretation of that experience, as framed by psychiatry. And to be clear, of course, I feel for the fear and the pain involved. At the same time, like the larger indicators touched on at the beginning of this article, the avid interest displayed signals to me something very, very different — that ever more people, including professionals, are at long last seeing through the psychiatric pretense, are tired of false claims, are disgusted by the vested interests at play, recognize the inherent human rights violations and are hungering for a radically different, more human, more communal, and more egalitarian approach to human distress and human conflict.

The hunger that evening was visible, was palpable, with a wholesale rejection of psychiatry unapologetically asserting itself. Not a single person, for instance, asked if there just might be chemical imbalances after all or indeed posed any objection to the general direction being articulated.

Now I am well aware that strenuous objections and deeply felt outrage will continue to emerge at future venues. For again, such is psychiatric hegemony. The point is, nonetheless: that evening “happened.” That is, what would have once seemed impossible “happened.”

And herein, in however minor a way, let me suggest, we witness “the turning of the tide.”

One final thought that not only antipsychiatry activists but also activists in other movements might want to take away with them: As an activist, you work for a long, long time seeing no signs of change, and perhaps you are tempted to throw your hands up in despair. However, very, very often something utterly profound is shifting beneath the surface. In this regard, as peace activist Ursula Franklin always reminded us, change comes slowly, with work beneath the surface first preparing the way. To quote Ursula in reference to her earthworm theory of social activism: “From earthworms we learn that before anything grows, there has to be prepared soil.”

For the longest while you see no change at all as you doggedly go about your work of writing briefs, penning blogs, gathering statistics, and mounting demos, including ones that not a single media covers. That is, like the earthworm, you do the work of preparing the ground, albeit seemingly to no avail. Then as if from out of nowhere, you start to see evidence that incredible changes have been happening all along.

Such is precisely what those of us who squeezed into that auditorium had the privilege of witnessing that evening. And such is the ecstasy of it all.

* * * * *

Dr. Bonnie Burstow’s speech at the Beeton Auditorium, December 6, 2016:

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30 COMMENTS

  1. Bonnie

    Great work. I appreciate how you are able to see beneath the surface of things and provide some tiny (yet significant) glimpses of positive incremental change taking in the face of such enormous reactionary power and major obstacles. It is this type of political analysis that provides optimistic hope for the future.

    This positive outlook is not based on false optimism or some kind of foolish (and harmful) positive psychology approach, but rather, an optimism based on a real materialist analysis of what is actually going on in the world and how radical change takes place within it. You inspire us all.

    Comradely, Richard

  2. I imagine there is much reason for optimism, and I congratulate Bonnie on giving a talk that went over so well. Hopefully, there will be more people speaking up in the future, too. I think there is a great need to expose the weak scientific basis that psychiatry has, and its basic lack of legitimacy, despite its claims. The advantage, too, of talks such as this one is that people come out of the shadows and the woodwork to participate. Singing to the choir is one thing. Going out into the world and explaining the situation to people unfamiliar with it is another. When you do, of course, you will meet people who are searching for just the message that you are delivering, and there has to be some kind of excitement and satisfaction in that. They are not going to be able to find it in many other places. If it’s a message that people start to pick up on, so much the better. Your example is, as Richard says, inspiring. I hope, following your lead, that others might be better able to tackle the same subject. If the tide hasn’t turned, given enough people who are knowledgeable joining the good fight, it will.

  3. A very good piece. I am caught up with the notion espoused by critics about “preventive medication”, which might work if patients were medicated to the edge of paralysis or stupor, to make them the slowest guns in the west. You could seek to impart such severe dyskinesia in your subjects, that they couldn’t shoot straight if they wanted to. I almost hate to bring the ideas up, lest psychiatry appropriate them as the foundation of violence prevention.

  4. I agree that there are positive signs.

    But I also see much that is negative. For example, where I live government money is still being used to treat the poor and homeless survivors of familial child abuse, as mentally ill. And so when they provide people with housing, it is always tied to acceptance of the mental illness model which goes along with it. And these facilities always have onsite mental health treatment. While at the same time, politicians are patting themselves on the back for how “compassionate” they are being.

    And then there is the continuing fusion of the Recovery Movement with Evangelical Christianity, and now also with the idea of Mental Illness.

    What do people thing about:
    http://hope4mentalhealth.com/

    So I say that we must focus on concrete objectives and fight for these at every level:

    1. Forced treatment must be outlawed.
    2. Giving psych meds to children must be outlawed, as they are not able to consent.
    3. All therapists must comply with mandatory reporting, as there has to be outside supervision. As it is today therapists who do sessions with children are accomplice child abusers, and often they are even playing God.
    4. Parents are responsible for all acts intended to harm, so there must be channels for lawsuits and disinheritance must be abolished as it is in most other industrialized nations.

    Without these, the exploitation of children will still be the norm, because it will still be possible to blame it all on the child.

    Nomadic

    Move From Talk to Action, Please Join:
    http://freedomtoexpress.freeforums.org/fighting-to-eradicate-the-mental-health-system-and-incarcerate-the-practitioners-f2.html

  5. Bonnie,
    It’s very heartening to hear about this type of event; well done!

    Regarding the slow processes of activism which are so crucial to laying the ground for sea changes, earthworms are not the only metaphor drawn from natural processes.

    Another good one is earthquakes – underground pressure has to build up via geological processes over decades or centuries, before the potential energy stored suddenly erupts in a major repositioning of the earth’s surface.

    Additionally, one can do an experiment illustrating such processes: Build a sandcastle on the beach. Then fill a bucket with dry, fine sand. Hold the bucket above the sandcastle and slowly pour a thin line of grains onto one corner of the sandcastle. For a few minutes, a small block of new grains will build up and the main sandcastle structure will not move.

    But then, suddenly, without warning, the weight of all the small grains will pass a tipping point and the entire sandcastle will fall down and settle into a new arrangement totally unlike the old one. This example is analogous to activism against psychiatry over long periods – for most of that time, very little may appear to be happening as the slow drip, drip, drip of ideas and actions (a living version of the sand grains dropping onto the psychiatric sand castle) gradually affects one person at a time. But eventually a tipping point is reached and collectively more people begin to become aware and ask for change. This pressure can then threaten the whole sandcastle and house of cards that is psychiatry. That is what we can see happening at events like your Toronto talk.

  6. One group which has really impressed me with its activism is Satanic Temple.

    Now here they are dealing with corporal punishment in schools, and not as done by parents. But it would be a very small step to shift their efforts to the doings of parents. And also, they are acting to stop school corporal punishment, even when parents have signed a consent form.

    And two big points of note, they are teaching children to stand up for themselves, to claim a religious exemption, and to send a letter to the school board, and to carry a card with them.

    And then if they have trouble with school admins or teachers, the card says that besides calling 911 and news media, they should call Satanic Temple.

    https://thesatanictemple.com/campaigns/the-protect-children-project/

    https://thesatanictemple.com/campaigns/the-protect-children-project/protect-children-project-letter-to-the-schoolboard/

    So if you have been marginalized, you don’t restore your social and civil standing through Psychotherapy, Recovery, or Healing. No, you establish social and civil standing by engaging in principled conflict!

    So say you or I were marginalized by how we were treated in school, or by how our parents only had children to give themselves a legitimated social identity, and so they made us into the scapegoat, or say it was because of racial or religious prejudice.

    No matter, you cannot restore your social and civil standing with Psychotherapy, Recovery, Healing, or Religion. If you want to have back some of what was taken from you, then you have to engage in principled conflict with real people.

    So, lets come up with similar things to what Satanic Temple is doing. It could pertain, to children, adults or both. How about a religious objection to psychiatry and psychotherapy? Administrators receive a similar warning letter. People carry cards, if our organization is called, things happen.

    We cannot hope to intercede in every injustice. But if we want to change anything, if we want to have our own social and civil standing back, then we have to engage in some types of visible and principled conflicts.

    Nomadic

    http://freedomtoexpress.freeforums.org/fighting-to-eradicate-the-mental-health-system-and-incarcerate-the-practitioners-f2.html

      • Oldhead, are you high on something right now?

        Satanic Temple, no matter what you may think of that name or idea, they are teaching kids to stand up for themselves and refuse to accept corporal punishment.

        This is a new group, nothing to do with Anton LaVey, and it always sides with the marginalized and vulnerable.

        We should be doing the same, teaching adults and children to refuse Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

        Most of the time when it is applied involuntarily it is being directed at the poor, at children, or at convicts. At least that is what I know.

        Nomadic

  7. And thank you Bonnie for calling for the protection of children.

    We who have been marginalized do not restore our status with Psychotherapy, Recovery, Healing, or Religion. We restore that status by organizing and engaging in principled conflict.

    So long as we refuse to do this, we aid those who want to make a eugenic argument against us.

    One of the things we must do is use whatever means are necessary to protect the children of today.

    Nomadic

  8. I’m wondering what (if any) role the attacks on your scholarship may have played in energizing people to attend, or if there was any other concomitant event, etc.

    In the end all we each need to do is determine the right direction and keep heading that way despite any seeming obstacles, which often turn out being the keys to eventual success. A well-known revolutionary taught not all that long ago that “The power of truth is final.” All you need to do is put truth in front of people without over-trying to persuade them; when they’re ready for the information they’ll appreciate your foresightedness.

    When enough people make those connections we reach what is known as critical mass, which is the point where an idea can no longer be defeated or suppressed. (Some recent examples: gay marriage and marijuana legalization.) The day when the anti-psychiatry movement achieves critical mass is something I have hopes of living to see, as the truth is easy to grasp when it matters, which it will as more and more people are ordered to submit to psychiatric “screenings,” drug their children, etc. This should galvanize a new level of resistance, which we can help along with our experience and analyses.

  9. Things are changing, you can totally see it if you go into one of those online mental health forums and read posts from 10+ years ago and compare them to what people write online now. Slow but a big change.

    So this is how psychiatry ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

  10. I’m so pleased to hear about this. From the other side of the Atlantic I have had a similar feeling that we may be at a tipping point. I and some new allies – both professional and survivor – are setting up a series of talks in cities in the UK. We’ve had a pilot run in Birmingham, which was very positively received and attracted a very varied audience, and will be in Bristol on March 3rd, and Edinburgh on March 10th. There are more to come! Everyone is welcome.
    https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/a-disorder-for-everyone-exploring-the-culture-of-psychiatric-diagnosis-creating-change-tickets-29982333968?utm_term=eventurl_text
    It is so important to feel that our efforts are paying off, when sometimes things seem so hopeless. Let’s celebrate our successes. Lucy Johnstone

  11. Thank you for your community service. Philip Hickey’s December 6 post is also encouraging; he rightfully criticized a psychiatrist’s effort to defend her occupation. A psychiatrist would not defend her occupation in public if she did not believe that there is a growing public criticism of psychiatry.

  12. http://www.endhomelessness.org/page/-/files/1425_file_WhatisHousingFirst_logo.pdf

    They say, “Housing is not contingent on compliance with services – instead, participants
    must comply with a standard lease agreement and are provided with the
    services and supports that are necessary to help them do so successfully.”

    But we know, as I see working with people regularly, that all poor and homeless directed services are intended to delegitimate and obtain compliance with case management and a mental health interpretation.

    After children, the biggest group being shunted into a mental health interpretation, is the poor.

    Right here, “By providing housing assistance, case management and
    supportive services responsive to individual or family needs (time-limited or long-term)
    after an individual or family is housed, communities can significantly reduce the time
    people experience homelessness and prevent further episodes of homelessness.”

    Well “case management” is just another name for entry level mental health services.

    And, “Some Housing First programs serving chronically
    homeless individuals are able to provide very rich,
    intensive wraparound services and supports to
    promote a successful housing outcome. Because of
    the level of services they are able to deliver, these
    providers typically prioritize those individuals who
    have failed to use or succeed in other program
    models – some intentionally identifying their
    community’s “high system users” – those who have
    heavily relied on shelters, jails, and emergency
    rooms.”

    Well, you can read it for yourselves. But people should be resisting, fighting back, refusing to comply, because otherwise police will be delivering people to these programs. So we should have 24 hr intervention hotlines, and legal teams who will file lawsuits in huge quantities.

    Nomadic