This is a post about movement, strategy, lessons and spring.
In particular, for me, lessons from the amazing water protectors movement and resistance to pipelines that coalesced as an indigenous-led movement around Standing Rock, also raising issues of treaty rights, women’s rights and leadership, community building, and more. If you have not looked into that movement, please see Stand with Standing Rock, Oceti Sakowin Camp, Sacred Stone Camp, Lakota People’s Law Project, and Honor the Earth to learn and support. I offer my support to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and to the indigenous leadership before drawing out lessons, in gratitude. Actions still needed are donations for water protectors’ legal costs, divestment from the banks supporting Dakota Access Pipeline, and joining the march in Washington on March 10. Information can be found on the sites listed; please join in some way to protect the water, the earth and the rights of indigenous peoples who are rising in prayer and nonviolence to turn back 500 years of genocide.
The lessons I want to draw out came for me in thinking about the water protectors, many of whom are dealing with historical trauma as indigenous persons, putting their bodies on the line and facing militarized police. They are caring for each other and not denying the trauma, and yet many have faced it numerous times. It made me wonder if I would be willing to remain in prayer and nonviolence to defend my body against forced psychiatry, to refuse to cooperate with it while remaining nonviolent.
When I was 18 years old and subjected to forced psychiatry, a long time ago, I lost myself; I did not have it in me to resist and thought that their might was unanswerable. Knowing they could physically overpower me and hurt me even more led me to look away from myself and put the pills in my own mouth. Today, I would like to be strong enough to face torture without giving it any of my acquiescence, without giving it energy and remaining calm. I do not know if I can, and I don’t judge anybody who breaks under torture. It is possible to heal, and at the same time healing also means restoring the part of oneself that can face violence and disobey to protect what is most sacred.
I am that sacred, and so are you. Our bodies and minds and souls are the same earth and water and sacredness that we need to protect when it is the planet and our communities. Putting our bodies on the line is not the same as cooperating in violence. One kind of suffering and sacrifice is not the same as the other, even though suffering and sacrifice happen in both cases.
If we can contemplate prayerful nonviolence in the face of forced psychiatry, what else must we ask of ourselves and our allies? An ethical commitment to stop forced psychiatry cannot be compromised in one’s personal life without calling into question one’s actions in relation to the cause. To put it plainly, if any of us profess to support the abolition of forced psychiatry, but in one’s work or personal life continue to collude and cooperate with having someone locked up or forcibly treated, the professed support becomes questionable. It is time to walk the talk, for everyone.
Whether you are a peer specialist, a psychiatrist, a social worker, a family member, friend, lawyer, police officer, or any other role, if some situation comes up where you think about handing someone over to psychiatry, just don’t. There is always a choice, it is not a question of excuse ‘because there is no alternative.’ The alternative is always to not do it, to not be used by the system to harm another person.
There are situations where your own safety is at risk, i.e. another person threatening your life, and I will not say don’t call the police even though the police might have the person locked up in psychiatry. There are situations genuinely beyond your control, though we owe it to our own ethical commitments to consider all the ramifications and make the best choice we know how. But don’t call 911 on somebody who is singing, or crying, or tells you they have a plan to take their own life, or all the situations we know about where people are struggling. Be with your own pain and theirs. Have enough humility to know that they know, that you aren’t special for being worried, that acting on your worry just makes it about you, and (despite what we’re taught to believe) puts you into a destructive relationship with power rather than making anything better for the other person.
Being real about our ethical commitments as a movement is necessary as an ongoing challenge to rise out of hopelessness and resignation. For too long we have had no support and no prospect of changing anything; resisters just get punished harder, like so many of our warriors continue to be. CRPD, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has changed the landscape, and a few countries are starting to make significant reforms. Costa Rica recently enacted a reform of legal capacity that is not perfect but explicitly prohibits any substitute decision-making for free and informed consent to treatment; it must be consent by the person concerned. We have many allies at the UN and one colleague in a high position has said to me that the changes we have put in motion are ‘unstoppable.’
You can read about initiatives I’m working on in my last post and join them if they appeal to you. There is also some good news about a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on mental health and human rights, that upholds the absolute prohibition of commitment and forced treatment. It is not yet linked on the web, but I will provide as soon as it is available.
Yet all these notifications and arguments mean little if we cannot step up in some small way, whatever is in our power, to make the ethical commitment to abolition of forced psychiatry and follow through on it in every part of our lives. What can we challenge ourselves to do that has loomed as an obstacle, where do we fear to go? What are we willing to risk, and if we are not willing to risk our own bodies, our own jobs, our own possibility of being ridiculed and our own failure, can we support others who can?
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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