Bonnie Burstow and Nick Walker: An Introduction to Cognitive Liberty


The issue of forced treatment is a fundamental one for society, and for those who are subjected to it. While the psychiatric mainstream argues that such force is at times a medical necessity, and thus of benefit to the individual being so treated, which is a view generally accepted by society, I have had personal experience being forcibly treated, and like many others who have been so “treated,” I experienced it as an assault on my very being, and a violation of my cognitive liberty.

I am pleased to announce that MIA Radio is hosting a series of podcasts on this important—and controversial—topic. I will be interviewing a variety of guests who have written and researched this topic, starting this Saturday with an interview with antipsychiatry scholar Bonnie Burstow and neurodiversity scholar Nick Walker.

Central to both Bonnie and Nick’s work is the concept of cognitive liberty or freedom and integrity of the mind. Early proponents of cognitive liberty have defined it as the right to control one’s own consciousness and be free from mind-altering drugs and technologies, as well as the right to use mind-enhancing drugs and technologies without facing legal consequences. Contemporary proponents of cognitive liberty have expanded the definition to include the right to experience and express each and every thought, feeling, state of mind, and belief as long as it does not harm anyone else.

Both Bonnie and Nick describe cognitive liberty as the right to express oneself authentically. In this first episode, they get to the core of why so many human rights activists oppose forced treatment—it can interfere with people’s right to be themselves.

Over the next few months, a variety of guests will join us to discuss a number of different topics relating to forced treatment and cognitive liberty. In the second podcast, we will speak with Celia Brown, a longtime activist in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric labels. A psychiatric survivor, Celia is the president of MindFreedom International and also serves on the board of the National Empowerment Center. She has led protests against the American Psychiatric Association, electroshock treatment, and other human rights abuses. Celia will speak about the history and future directions of the movement against forced treatment.

Another upcoming guest is international disability rights attorney Tina Minkowitz. Tina is very active with the United Nations, and her work has resulted in a call for a ban on involuntary commitment and forced treatment in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She is also the founder and executive director of the Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry. Tina will speak about her work and describe how forced treatment became a disability rights issue. In addition, she will explain why she believes that it is necessary to abolish, not reduce or reform, forced treatment.

After Tina’s interview, therapist Jeffrey Michael Friedman, who provides trauma-informed care to individuals and couples, will speak about the impact of forced treatment on the brain and the body. In his view, forced treatment is a traumatic experience that, although carried out in the name of mental health, can lead to a great amount of emotional distress, thereby worsening people’s mental health. While some human rights advocates view health and liberty as at odds with one another, Jeffrey sees civil liberties as an essential component of mental health.

During this podcast series, we will also have a chance to hear from Mad in America bloggers Sera Davidow and Sarah Knutson. Sera will speak about the ways that forced treatment is parallel to and intersects with the issue of sexual violence, and how it can be a re-traumatizing experience for sexual assault survivors. Sarah will discuss the impact of verbal and visual privilege on forced treatment—how people who speak in ways that others do not understand or do not speak at all, as well as people who do not meet conventional standards of attractiveness, are more likely to be committed.

Finally, we will invite survivors of forced treatment to join us and share their stories. We will be featuring the stories of survivors of involuntary commitment, forced drugging, electroconvulsive treatment, and Applied Behavior Analysis.

Our forced treatment series is ongoing. Later on, we may feature philosophical, theological, and sociological perspectives on the issue. Please feel free to email us with topic suggestions or post them in our forum.

Relevant Links

Bonnie Burstow

Nick Walker

Bonnie Burstow’s articles for Mad in America

The Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry

Autonomous Press

Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm by Nick Walker

Neuroqueer: An Introduction by Nick Walker

The social model of disability vs. the medical model of disability

To get in touch with us, email: [email protected]


  1. Two of my mentally ill friends ( we spent time in hospital-prison together) are happy to be indentured to psychiatry or too stupid to realize they are indentured to psychiatry. The drugs called medicine may inhibit the cognition necessary to perceive and understand their indenturement.
    Their cognitive liberty was crushed years ago.

    Psychiatry is a perfect system but not to the government who has to pay all the bills without receiving genuine service/labour.

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  2. I don’t think this really constitutes equal time for antipsychiatry yet, still it’s something.

    I think it would be great if MIA were to have a panel discussion, debate even, between critical psychiatry and antipsychiatry people sometime.

    Something to think about anyway.

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    • “I don’t think this really constitutes equal time for antipsychiatry yet, still it’s something.”

      Antipsychiatry is pretty much an abolitionist movement. Neurodiversity is (radically) reformist. What they have in common is the rejection of a medical cure (otherwise known as acceptance), the rejection of forced treatment. Peculiarly, psychotherapy is considered unproblematic.

      The notion of cognitive liberty is problematic for both movements. Much of the thrust of both movements is facilitated by academics (the organising class) and people of so-called higher functioning status. Both movements by and large side-step those they count amongst their number who are unable or unwilling to add their voices. This problem is worsened by the fact that a very small number of repeated faces assume the role of mass representation (without an actual attempt at gaining mass approval).

      Personally, my way of thinking finds a better fit amongst the neurodiversity movement. They do not abandon psychiatric nouns. They do not consider the terms schizophrenic, autistic or depressive to be offensive, by and large.

      “There is no such thing as a “neurodiverse individual.” The correct term is “neurodivergent individual.”

      An individual can diverge, but an individual cannot be diverse.””

      What about people with co-called DID?

      If you enjoy language it’s a rich seam to mine. Although it takes a while to adapt.

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      • Antipsychiatry is not reformist when it comes to forced treatment. Anything short of abolition is reformist.

        I’m not sure what to say about neurodiversity except that it is another theory among theories.

        What links the two together is this idea of ‘cognitive freedom’–freedom to alter one’s state of consciousness–mentioned in the broadcast.

        Neurodeviance is one thing, behavioral deviance another.

        “What about people with so-called DID?”

        There is a book, buy it or not, that arrived not that long ago that would have exposed Sybil. It points out that whenever a movie on DID comes out, the DID rate, once astronomically rare, now rivaling so-called “schizophrenia”, skyrockets.

        DID is like “schizophrenia”, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, you name it disorder, etc. When it comes down to do we have a “sick” person, or do we have a “drama queen”, in the realm of “mental health”, who can prove that one is not the other? Not so, where people are actually stricken by ascertainable disease.

        Language may be a rich seam, but it is also fraught with illusion. Logic helps us to separate what’s real and of value from fool’s gold and mere dross.

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      • Are there neurodiversity forums?

        “They do not abandon psychiatric nouns. They do not consider the terms schizophrenic, autistic or depressive to be offensive, by and large.”

        Curious who “they” are.
        I do think even if a client does not find a label offensive, the legal and many systems do, or else the medical care or legal representation would never be compromised.
        Is it offensive to get secondary med care, or not be able to visit grandkids because a son in law thought he would be opportunistic nasty?

        And then of course there is enforced “care”, if you don’t mind the tags. So it would seem that many must be offended at WHAT the label represents.

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  3. The UN Resolution on Human Rights (1948) addresses the right to a unique interpretation of one’s environment; this seems to cover “cognitive liberty” as a human rights issue. Psychiatry seeks complexity to obscure human rights violations; I believe that it is more in our interest to focus on UN human rights violations than invent a new concept.

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  4. Thank you for your hard work.

    I do not really care whether you want to be critical or anti, as you provide valuable arguments against the current system and let me rant about my reality. 🙂 Unfortunately, audio files are not very good citation material. 🙁
    Youtube isnt very scientific either but this time i found a real pearl:

    Please trust me in that these world views can be quite real and very rewarding. 🙂

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