Resistance Matters: The Activism of Don Weitz

Irit Shimrat
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I have spent much of the past few years compiling and editing Resistance Matters: An Antipsychiatry Activist Speaks Out, which will document the long and rich activist career of Don Weitz, the grandpappy of Canadian antipsychiatry. I thought Mad in America readers might like to know something of the background and content of Resistance Matters in advance.

In 1951, when he was 21 years old, Don’s parents responded to his existential identity crisis by having him committed, first at Austen Riggs and then at McLean Hospital (both located in Massachusetts, USA). At McLean, where he was incarcerated for fifteen months, Don was forcibly subjected to 110 sub-coma insulin shock “treatments.” After his release, he became an institutional psychologist, hoping to effect reform in facilities such as the one in which he had been psychiatrically tortured. After fifteen years of this work, he realized that change was never going to come from within the system, and joined the nascent Mental Patients Liberation Movement.

In the 1970s, inspired by a visit to Vancouver’s Mental Patients Association, Don, together with his friend Alf Jackson, co-founded the Ontario Mental Patients Association, which later changed its name to On Our Own — Ontario’s first autonomous self-help group for psychiatric survivors.

“On Our Own,” Don explains, “helped survivors re-develop social, practical and vocational skills that they had lost through psychiatric oppression. Our democratically run drop-in was a place of safety and empowerment, and our newsletter provided an outlet for the commentary and creativity that had been stifled by the ‘mental health’ system.”

In 1980, Don and his then-partner Carla McKague, a mental health lawyer and shock survivor, founded a national magazine: Phoenix Rising: The Voice of the Psychiatrized. Of Phoenix, Don writes:

It was Carla who thought of the name. In Phoenix, psychiatric survivors could finally tell their own stories of abuse and marginalization, and of how they survived and recovered from the devastation of psychiatric “treatment.” Each issue included sections called “Write On” (letters to the editor), “Mad News,” “Shock Waves” (on electroshock), “Phoenix Pharmacy” (on psychiatric drugs) and “Rights and Wrongs” (on legal issues and human rights). We published a list of shock doctors; we named specific physicians and their hospital affiliations. We had special issues on themes like poverty, housing, work, advocacy, prisoners’ rights, and the psychiatric oppression of women, children, elderly people and gay and lesbian people. And of course we always featured survivors’ art and poetry, in a section titled “Out of the Ashes.” In all, we produced thirty-two issues of Phoenix Rising between 1980 to 1990. We got funding from individual donors and sometimes from government, but we never solicited or accepted money from any part of the “mental health” system, because we were against it. We charged a modest price for individual issues and subscriptions, but current psychiatric inmates, as well as prisoners, received the magazine for free. The only reason we had to stop was because people were getting burnt out — the constant search for funding and the long hours worked for very low pay eventually took their toll.

Before I met Don in 1986, I thought I was the only person in the world who didn’t believe in “schizophrenia” (with which I had been diagnosed), and who realized that the “medical specialty” of psychiatry was completely bogus. The discovery that I was not alone in these views, and my subsequent work as the magazine’s editor, were huge in helping me recover from the devastation of “mental health care.”

When I look back at Phoenix now — happily, all issues can be read on the website of the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto — I am awed by the magazine’s beauty and power. And not just because of the considerable skills of Phoenix’s designers. What made Phoenix so spectacular was the contributors’ brilliance, and the magazine’s uncompromising ethical stance against psychiatric oppression. Don and I both hope that I, or someone else (or, ideally, many someones), will be interested in producing similar publications in the future; that the Phoenix will rise again.

In 1983, Don, Bonnie, and a few other psychiatric survivors co-founded the Ontario Coalition to Stop Electroshock. In 1988, he and Bonnie Burstow co-founded Resistance Against Psychiatry and co-edited the unique anthology Shrink Resistant: The Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada (New Star Books).

In 1994, Don started “ShrinkRap” (later called “Anti-Psychiatry Radio” — check it out here), which for the next sixteen years showcased the views and work of psychiatric survivors and activists. In 2003, he and Bonnie co-founded the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault. Don has organized and attended countless demonstrations and protests, and has more than once been arrested and charged for acts of civil disobedience.

It was Don who first made me realize the power of speaking out against injustice, of coming together with other psychiatric survivors to tell and record and publicize our stories, and of showing off our talents and skills — rather than accepting psychiatrists’ judgement that we are inadequate, incapable and diseased. It was Don who first gave me not only a forum for my own ideas but, much more importantly, the opportunity to encourage others to step out from the shadows and find their own voices. Above all, it was Don who taught me that resistance matters.

Even though psychiatry continues to damage the brains, bodies, hearts, souls and minds of those it captures, more and more people are realizing that it has no scientific basis, and that much of what is done in the name of “mental health” boils down to the deprivation of fundamental human rights. Every book, every website and e-list, every letter to the editor that tells the truth about psychiatry wakes more people up to these facts.

It is a privilege and an honour for me to have been entrusted with the task of compiling and editing Resistance Matters. Don has accumulated a massive amount of writing over the years, and he asked me to choose from among hundreds of pieces to create a coherent whole. The selection process was daunting; I have had to leave out many important pieces, and I hope that those I have chosen will do justice to the scope and intensity of Don’s activism, which has spanned nearly half a century. The labour of cutting lengthy pieces down to a manageable size, while preserving their passion and intent, has been dear but difficult, as was the selection process. I could never have managed any of this work without the patient and generous help of Elaine Hutchinson, Suzanne Johnson, Initially NO, Dale Hammell, Ronda E. Richardson, Tom Sandborn, Diana Girsdansky and Cheryl Michaels.

Don has been published extensively, and much of his work can be found online and in various anthologies and journals. Although most of the pieces that will comprise Resistance Matters have not previously been published, I have also included important material that has been published but not widely read.

Clearly, Don Weitz will go on writing and fighting for justice until he drops, because, as he once said at the end of an interview, “I just won’t keep silent. I can’t and I won’t.” An activist who works with Don recently referred to him as “Don Weitz, the energizer bunny” — a commercial symbol of unstoppable determination.

As a fierce and tireless social-justice warrior, Don does not limit his activism to combatting psychiatry. He is a longtime and dedicated member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and of the migrant justice organization No One Is Illegal. The latter’s website describes “a worldwide movement of resistance that strives and struggles for the freedom to stay, the freedom to move, and the freedom to return” [emphasis mine]. Both groups stand in solidarity with and in defence of Indigenous struggles for sovereignty and self-determination. Both stand in opposition to colonialism, capitalism and oppressive politics.

Mental patients are denied the freedom to stay in our homes and communities when we are forcibly detained in psychiatric hospitals and wards. Once incarcerated, many of us are literally denied the freedom to move, thanks to psychiatry’s ubiquitous use of physical and chemical restraints. Then we are denied the freedom to be “discharged” — the freedom to return to our homes, our jobs, our lives — unless we toe the line.

Experienced psychiatric survivors know that the only way out of the loony bin, or of outpatient committal (“assertive” community treatment), is abject submission. We must stroke psychiatrists’ egos by telling them they are right: that we understand that we are sick, and that only they can help us, and that every day, for the rest of our lives, we will take the drugs they have prescribed.

Don knows all too well that the politics of psychiatry are the politics of oppression, and that it is capitalism above all that drives psychiatry. A fraction of the billions of dollars used to invent psychiatric drugs, create markets for them and maintain the structures that force us to take them would be more than enough to eradicate hunger and homelessness throughout the world. And plenty of money would still be left for creating opportunities for joy, learning, creative self-expression, mutual aid and all the other good things that psychiatry has worked so hard to eliminate from our lives.

Resistance Matters will be an important resource, not only for survivors of psychiatric oppression, but for anyone who cares about human liberty and dignity. It will illustrate, strikingly, the war that psychiatry is waging on both, by means of the coercive, dangerous, morally bankrupt and scientifically illegitimate “treatments” that psychiatrists inflict on an ever-increasing number of unsuspecting citizens.

Readers unfamiliar with psychiatry will begin to find out about the terrible damage done by psychiatrists with their drugs and other “treatments” and procedures, notably including electroshock “therapy,” physical restraints (shackles), and “locked seclusion” (solitary confinement). They will be introduced to some of the ways in which psychiatrists destroy people’s lives by colonizing our minds, bodies and spirits. They will learn about some of the particular horrors that psychiatrists and hospital staff (as well as police responding to “mental health” calls) inflict on people of colour, and read about some of the ways in which psychiatry specifically brutalizes women.

As for readers who, like Don and me and many of you, have been subjected to forced psychiatric “treatment” and incarceration, I hope they will be heartened to find out more about the ever-growing number of people who understand and care about what they’ve been through, and who are working towards a world in which these atrocities never have to happen to anyone again.

Don and I, along with many others — not a few of whom also write for Mad in America — envision a time when the disease model of strangeness and distress becomes a sorry footnote to the tale of human history; when “otherness” and emotional intensity are clearly seen as spiritual, rather than medical issues; when actual physical ailments and sensitivities are no longer misdiagnosed as signs of “mental illness.” A time when people of all societies learn to embrace diversity, and to treat each other with forbearance at those moments when extremes of feeling and expression make kindness and compassion too difficult.

With luck and effort, even we who have been half-killed by psychiatry can discover the possibilities of working together for change. We can find the power that systems have taken away from us — or that we never had in the first place. We can learn from each other about ancient ways, and new ways, of dealing with problems of mind, heart and body. I believe that, in doing so, we can make the world better for everyone. Unquestionably, we can do better than the so-called mental health system. Or, in Don’s own words:

By building communities based on freedom and the acceptance of difference, all of us can help end psychiatry’s reign of terror. It’s time to de-stigmatize and reclaim our selves. It’s time to assert our credibility. It’s time to celebrate and be proud of our victories and our power.

Please note that Don and I are still looking for a publisher; all suggestions are welcome!

38 COMMENTS

  1. I have well been aware of Don Weitz and his activism in Canada for some time. I am excited and encouraged to hear about this book, and I certainly hope you find a publisher soon. When all sorts of people in the USA and elsewhere in the world seem to have moderated their views in recent years, or ‘sold out’ as I would put it, at least, you have a few brave Canadian souls who have held out, and continue to resist the oppressive system. I also know that there are secret and public admirers of that resistance around the world who could help breathe volatility and life back into our flagging movement for radical change. Once we weren’t a mental patients’ movement, we were a mental patients’ liberation movement. Until all hope is dead, that mental patients’ liberation movement continues to simmer under the surface always ready to resurface again. I look forward to seeing your book in print and to reading it.

  2. sounds good…I hope it is helpful…
    I need to mention another side of psychiatry..
    my psychiatrist started a private outpatient practice..
    he spent time with his patients..he did not use drugs..
    but he brokedown after 5 years…he is now retired..
    he still is broken hearted that the psychiatry system
    is upside down….the doctor on top and patient down..

  3. Shrink Resistant, was the second book I found after Paula Caplan’s They Say You’re Crazy. It set the tone for my own activism and determination to speak truth to lies, despite the oppressive silencing of ideas that do not fit neatly into the permissible discourse and the retribution that inevitably follows when power mongers beliefs are exposed and challenged.

    Don is an icon of the movement. Best wishes for the new book.

  4. Bravo Irit and Don!

    It’s the “scientifically illegitimate “treatments” that psychiatrists inflict on an ever-increasing number of unsuspecting citizens,” especially the kids, that still keeps me up at night. So glad that you are going strong, generously and forgivingly include so many of us in your life, and will continue doing Don’s good work.

  5. Thank you so much for all the work that you are doing. I’ll buy your book when it comes out! I’ll be interested to learn why Don found that change from the inside wasn’t working, and what worked for him instead. I’m new to all of this and am still trying to understand it.

  6. I read your article here and found myself growing lighter and optimistic in these extremely troubling and dis- heartening times. When I think of you, Don, I remember walking with you at a protest in Montreal – I believe it was around your 85th birthday. I always remember your words to me: “I live to protest.” Irit, it’s great to see the work you’re doing and the long-deserved recognition Don is getting. Don, we are brothers in our experience and survival from insulin shock. Our brother Leonard is gone but like you his work and being is strong and in my heart and many others. The two of us along with our sister survivor, Dorothy Dundas must continue to testify and shout out against the newer, powerful attacks on our humanity. Don you are a treasure.
    Ron

  7. To Don And Irit

    It is great to celebrate your devoted years of anti-psychiatry activism.

    And much kudos for how clearly you both have linked the struggle against psychiatry with the struggle against capitalism!

    Both psychiatry and capitalism are today inseparably linked, as is their ultimate demise on this planet.

    Richard

  8. No blog ever , here on MIA has lifted me more with articulate resonance then this one. I’m going to read and hear everything I can about Don Weitz the grandpappy of Canadian antipsychiatry and the other freedom fighters of Canada. I can send $50 in advance toward a copy of Resistance Matters with no pressure on you to ship it whether it gets published soon or later in any case I won’t want a refund . If more is needed to ship one copy let me know . Maybe if people can pay in advance with no pressure on you maybe that could make it easier to find a publisher . I’m no expert on these matters . If you think it’s a good idea, let me know where and how to send credit card , cash, postal money order , in whatever form . I live in Oregon in the USA . My email [email protected]
    Best Wishes to you Don and Irit and unending thanks
    For living lives of such splendid integrity. You are National Treasures of Canada and beyond .May the beacon of your light shine wherever there is darkness .
    Fred

  9. Thank you for this, Irit! I am so happy to learn about Don Weitz and you and both of your contributions. I receive the weekly emails from Mad In America and am learning so much more about the oppressive nature of psychiatry. I am a survivor myself and was able to wean myself off antidepressants over three years ago after having been on them for over twenty years. Luckily I have always been an intellectual who studies everything I become interested in so that’s what led me to this site to begin with. I look forward to reading Don’s work, as well as your work in your Phoenix. Bringing the truth forward is always the most important work. We will not stay silent! Solidarity always.

  10. Bravo, what incredible work Irit and Don! I was a very responsible and independent woman in my mid- fifties when I was deeply harmed by a psychiatrist I agreed to see while in cancer treatment because chemo and steroids had caused major insomnia. I was told I was seeing the psychiatrist simply to get “help with sleep meds”. This young and junior female psychiatrist prescribed me anti-psychotics at my first visit. I didn’t know what it was, I thought it was just a sleeping pill. I took it the first night and had horrific side effects so refused to take any more. That made her very angry. Then this psychiatrist tried to get me admitted to the psychiatric ward. When I refused that made her even more angry. A year after I last saw her (a total of 6 visits over 6 weeks) I discovered she had written many damaging lies about me and labelled me with 4 severe psychiatric diagnoses that are totally absurd and completely unfounded. These labels were the reason I ended up being forced against my will and without my consent to have a cancer-free body part removed. I am now paying dearly for the brutal and unneeded surgery and for her fictitious report and fake labels that she posted to the province-wide electronic Netcare system. The electronic records are accessed every time I require health care services and has very negatively affected every encounter I have since had with the health care system. It has led to stigma and discrimination I never knew existed, as well as extremely delayed and substandard treatment of any medical emergencies (i.e. a torn retina) and for me to continually be denied consults with specialists, etc. I have evidence of the severe violations made pertaining to unprofessional and unethical conduct and lack of consent, and lots more solid evidence that the damaging labels are totally false. I have been fighting to have my records corrected for 7 years but the College of Physicians and Surgeons of AB has staunchly defended her unjust actions. I was naïve and had no knowledge of the oppression, stigma and harm of psychiatry before. I thought I was alone in my traumatizing experience until I found this website. I am shocked and alarmed by the stories of harm done to so many other innocent people. I could not understand how it is that people were forced to take drugs and ECT until I began reading the various blogs and posts. After I read a couple issues of the Phoenix Rising tonight (thank you for the link) I was even more appalled. I so look forward to purchasing your book. If you do resort to self publishing it seems Balboa Press is a company that promotes books on self-help and improving your life. However I do hope you can find a publisher so the book can reach as many people as possible. Thank you and Bless you and Don for your incredible dedication and integrity to fighting these horrendous injustices.

  11. I don’t see self-publishing as something I would “resort to,” but rather, it is my first choice. It not a cop-out. Self-pub means you take charge of what happens. Times have changed and many authors are choosing this route over traditional publishers. I have written ten books and published two. My next book will be self-pub, my first choice, because of my past experience and what I saw my colleagues go through with publishers.

    You have to decide. Do you want fancy, or do you want to spread the word to many people and potentially save lives? Why do you want to see the book in print?