Up until a month ago I had endowed three university scholarships, all in the antipsychiatry and mad studies area. In all three cases, though far more with the first than the other two, it was an uphill battle to get the universities to accept the endowment; in all three cases I persevered; and in all three cases, I won (for details on the previous scholarships, see “Three Antipsychiatry Scholarships”). Which brings me to my fourth scholarship.
On September 5 of this year, the Vice President of University of Toronto, the Dean of Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and I signed a contract, paving the way for a new scholarship that I was intent on endowing. With help from others, what I have in essence set up at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) is a scholarship for thesis students doing research in the area of violence against Indigenous women. Now to my surprise, while I thought gaining acceptance for this particular endowment would be a “piece of cake”—for at this juncture in history, who cannot see that important work needs to be done here?—once again, as with the first scholarship, I found myself facing an extended battle, this in large part because antipsychiatry principles were involved.
One purpose of this article is to explain the new scholarship and why it is important. On a level of more direct relevance to the Mad in America audience, though, it is primarily to look at the considerations and the fight that ensued in relation to the psy disciplines, and to at once make sense of and to articulate what that fight tells us.
To begin with the general issue of the scholarship per se, the name of the new scholarship is Burstow’s Scholarship for Research into Violence Against Women: In Memory of Helen Betty Osborne. Every year, the interest on the invested principle will be going either to a student already at OISE doing a thesis in this area or to an applicant to one of the thesis degrees in the Adult Education and Community Development program more particularly. Correspondingly, not only does what is conventionally construed as violence qualify (e.g., violence perpetrated by individuals such as murder, rape, and battery), but so does violence perpetrated by institutions (e.g., the removal of children to residential schools).
A bit of context: So who is Helen Betty Osborne? And why is the scholarship dedicated to her memory? A high school student in The Pas Manitoba (a small northern town in western Canada), Helen Betty Osborne was an Indigenous woman who was viciously murdered (she was stripped and stabbed 50 times with a screwdriver) in 1971, with four racist and misogynous young white men being the suspects and with considerable evidence existing against all of them, including the fact that her blood and hair were all over the vehicle in which they had been travelling. The investigation into her murder was marred by racism and sexism right from the get-go. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s than anyone was convicted of her murder—and then only one of the four men was convicted. Correspondingly, she quickly became a symbol for murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada (for further details, see “What Detectives Hide from You: The Story of Helen Betty Osborne”).
So why is this scholarship important? Because it will fund, create recognition for, and in the process promote research into violence against Indigenous women—a horror which remains at an epidemic level. In Canada alone, note, according to the official records, there are now 1200 murdered and missing Indigenous women (see “Helen Betty Osborne’s story is timeless — and it shouldn’t be”), with the figure looming far larger in the US.
Moreover, what is covered by the concept “murdered and missing” is but one of the many ways that Indigenous women are being violated. Who has not heard frequently of the raping of Indigenous women? Who has not heard of the rampant removal of their children? As a society, we direly need to come to terms with what is going on, and supporting research into this devastating phenomenon is one of the avenues open to us. In that sense, the advent of this scholarship constitutes a needed breakthrough, this being the first university scholarship in Turtle Island explicitly in this area. So given how obvious it is that a scholarship like this was needed, the question is: Just why was it hard to gain approval for it? Which bring us back to the struggle between me and the university and the impasses that arose.
The first problem that occurred when I tried to gain approval for the endowment was that people were uncomfortable with institutional violence being included under the definition of “violence.” No reason whatever was given why this should be not be spelled out, and so I can but speculate. Let me ask the reader, however: does it not individualize and trivialize the problem of violence against Indigenous people to focus in exclusively on individual violence? And let me just note in passing that individual violence against Indigenous people is just the tip of the iceberg.
Even greater discomfort was expressed when I provided examples of different types of institutional violence against Indigenous women. What were my examples? To cite the exact wording that I used in the draft document of the endowment which I sent the university. “For purposes of this scholarship, violence against Indigenous women is defined broadly. It includes not only what is conventionally seen as violence such as murdered and missing, battery, and rape, it also includes such institutional violence as imprisonment, psychiatrization, and interference by child welfare.” (Burstow draft endowment, May, 2018)
Now obviously, I could have used other examples, such as incarceration of children in residential schools. But that is not the point. What is of interest here is that the examples given immediately met with discomfort. And of the three examples used, which is the one that anyone explicitly expressed that they were uncomfortable with? You guess it! Psychiatrization. A reaction which itself suggests why this area had to be clearly named. Raping, murdering, taking away their children, and imprisoning Indigenous women for innocuous offences like first time shoplifting for which white women typically get off is among the many horrendous ways that Indigenous women are violated. So, however, is interpreting their distress at how they are being treated as a “mental disorder” and in turn subjecting them to psychiatry’s brain-damaging “treatments” and/or psychiatrically imprisoning them. And to make a critical connection here in passing, if we look at the most notorious of the psychiatric institutions in which Indigenous people were historically locked up—the infamous Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, from which inmates typically never got released—one of the primary reasons that they were locked up here was precisely for their expressing dismay over the removal of their children (for a telling article on this institution, see “Wild Indians: Native Perspectives on the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians” by Pemima Yellow Bird).
To focus back in once again on the endowing of the scholarship, were there other problems expressed over the endowment as I framed it? Yes, objected to was my:
- specifying that priority be given to theses dealing with analysis of violence, as opposed to theses theorizing how to deal with the aftermath of the violence
- stipulating that theses concerned with attending to the aftermath of violence could only be considered if they were vested exclusively in traditional Indigenous approaches.
Why did I put in these stipulations? Because the last thing I wanted was to be funding what would be tantamount to further colonization of Indigenous people by the psy disciplines. Correspondingly, I was well aware that such colonization is rampant—all in the name of help. In this regard, in Canada, for example, more and more money is being poured into “mental health services” for Indigenous people—all of which is interpreted as help and all of which at once pathologies and furthers the work of colonization.
How strenuous were the objections to these stipulations? Very strenuous. Including by one Indigenous person who was consulted. While people made only vague references to research going on at University of Toronto that should qualify and wouldn’t qualify given these stipulations, nonetheless, what was abundantly clear was that people were specifically uneasy about excluding the psy disciplines. Which itself is an indicator of the degree of colonization currently underway. So how did I win the fight?—for yes, win it I did. By finding Indigenous allies. By Indigenous stalwarts like the Dean’s Advisory Committee on Indigenous Education weighing in. By holding fast to my other allies (throughout, the Dean of OISE and the head of community outreach at OISE for example, were sterling allies, with OISE itself kicking in money). By not budging an inch. By repeatedly making it clear I would withdraw the offer to endow rather than agree to anything that I saw as compromising the integrity of the scholarship. Though it took a long time, in the end what emerged is a scholarship and a victory of which we can all be proud. So the story has a happy ending, but it is not the ending that it is critical for us to wrap our minds around right now.
Now you may think I had unnecessarily “shot myself in the foot” by how I framed the scholarship. Obviously, if I had not been intent on blocking inroads into the scholarship by the psy disciplines, moreover, had I not explicitly named psychiatrization as a form of violence, gaining permission for endowing this scholarship would have been considerably easier. And yes, indeed, it would have been. That is precisely the point of this story, however, for the stipulations in question and the naming of psychiatric violence were critical. Had I not explicitly named psychiatry, students in the Indigenous area doing thesis work involving psychiatric violence would unlikely ever be seriously considered for the award. Correspondingly, had I not worded the endowment in a way that prevented this from happening, this scholarship could easily have ended up being used to fund explorations into the use of psychiatric “treatments” on Indigenous women. The more general point being made here is that forgetting psychiatry and what it does in society is something we can ill afford to do. The oppression that is psychiatry has to be integrated into our understanding of other oppressions—and the fact that this scholarship does so helps safeguard it as a force for good in the world.
Let me suggest that the same principle holds whenever we are involved in any kind of anti-oppression work. It is not good enough to ghettoize concerns about psychiatry, allowing them to enter in only when the focus is explicitly on psychiatry. We need to bring it in at other times as well, whether we are mobilizing a march against police violence against people of color or teaching a course on trauma (for a highly informative article on how to integrate antipsychiatry principles into a trauma course, see https://breggin.com/bonnie-burstow/). In short, tunnel vision or failing to integrate, common though this is, is a mistake that those of us trying to rein in psychiatry can ill afford to make.
So what are the take-away lessons from this endowment struggle? Always remember psychiatry and antipsychiatry when you are trying to address any oppression—for whether they are obvious or not, psychiatric tentacles are everywhere. Be prepared for the longer fight that will necessarily ensue. Don’t budge an inch. Find allies. Hold fast to the allies that you already have. And persevere, for most of these fights that seem impossible can indeed be won.
In ending, to focus in once again explicitly on this scholarship, let me express my delight that such a scholarship now exists and encourage the creation of scholarships of this ilk at other universities. How we as a society need such awards! It is high time that violence against Indigenous women starts receiving the attention it deserves, including at universities! Correspondingly, let me invite readers who are political and who are interested in applying to graduate school (both those wanting to pursue research into violence against Indigenous women and those who simply want to be enrolled in a graduate school where the oppression of psychiatry is integrated) to check out the adult education program at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education for the beginning of the 2019 admissions cycle is fast approaching. Correspondingly, OISE in general and the adult education program in particular is a terrific place to be—and you just might find what you are searching for here.
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.