Remembering Bonnie Burstow


Dr. Bonnie Burstow was a legend in her own time. She died too young, at 74, surrounded by close friends and loving students, after a short stay in the palliative care unit of Toronto General Hospital. Bonnie had become more and more ill and disabled over the past many years, suffering from multiple rare disorders, some undiagnosed. The world has lost a truly great woman: a phenomenal antipsychiatry/anti-electroshock warrior, and a tireless fighter for human rights. And I have lost a beloved sister.

Bonnie has long been a widely respected faculty member at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), and was a recipient of its Excellence in Teaching award. Known not only as a brilliant and outspoken scholar and author, she was also a leading radical feminist therapist, specializing in trauma; an innovative and beloved mentor, who created and conducted empowering courses on trauma and trauma counselling; and a powerful antipsychiatry activist.

I first met Bonnie almost 40 years ago, when she became a contributing writer for Phoenix Rising: The Voice of the Psychiatrized, Canada’s only antipsychiatry magazine (together with our mutual friend, the late shock survivor, author and mental health lawyer, Carla McKague, I co-founded Phoenix in 1980, and it ran until 1990 — see the archives here). In 1982 — around the time she started writing for Phoenix — Bonnie published her first book: Radical Feminist Therapy: Working in the Context of Violence. This critically acclaimed work has since been translated into several languages, and is still used as a textbook for several university courses in Europe.

Bonnie Burstow was the first academic I ever met who was not only a prison abolitionist and anti-racism activist (her manuscript “No Platform for Fascists” is unfortunately unpublished), but also a passionate and unstoppable antipsychiatry theorist and activist. In her writings and in person — as a professor, a therapist, an empathic interviewer, an ever-supportive friend, and a tireless organizer and speaker — Bonnie helped empower so many psychiatric survivors, especially women. Despite increasing physical difficulties, she somehow always found the time and energy for teaching, for completing one book after another, and for organizing and speaking at an astonishing number of public lectures and other public events, including rallies and protests against psychiatrists’ lies and human-rights violations.

A number of milestones are worth mentioning.

In 1980, by leaking key medical documents to the NDP, Bonnie helped expose the unethical forced drugging that killed 19-year-old Aldo Alviani. In 1984, together with several of us shock survivors and our allies, she organized the Ontario Coalition to Stop Electroshock (OCSE), Canada’s only anti-shock organization. That year, Bonnie, together with six other Coalition members, gave powerful testimony before a public meeting of the Toronto Board of Health, which passed a resolution authorizing a moratorium on electroshock. (Unfortunately, the moratorium was never put in place.) The following July, three of us — including Bonnie — carried out an act of nonviolent civil disobedience: a two-day “sit-in” in the health minister’s office, protesting his refusal to appoint Carla McKague to the ministry’s Committee to Investigate Electroshock. Over the next five years, ECT (electroconvulsive “therapy”) became a national health and human rights issue, thanks to the unprecedented exposure of the fact that shock could be administered to psychiatric inmates not only without informed consent, but by force.

In the mid-1990s, as chair of Resistance Against Psychiatry (RAP — successor to OCSE), Bonnie helped organize a public protest to demand the release of our mutual friend, activist Mel Starkman, from the notorious Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now part of CAMH — the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). Mel was involuntarily “hospitalized” (incarcerated) at “Queen Street,” where psychiatrists were forcibly drugging and often physically restraining him, as well as brutally isolating him in solitary confinement for weeks at a time. (Mel was finally released about a year later.)

In 2003, the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) was born: Canada’s first and only antipsychiatry political action organization, with Bonnie as its chair. CAPA’s top priority was strategizing against what we recognized as the two most dangerous aspects of psychiatric “treatment”: psychiatric “medications” and electroshock “therapy.” In 2005, CAPA organized and hosted a public meeting at Toronto’s City Hall, during which only psychiatric survivors were permitted to testify. We remained firm on this empowering decision, since the voices of survivors were almost never heard at any public meeting; even when survivors were included, they often felt too intimidated to speak out. Bonnie chaired the panel on psychiatric drugs, and I chaired the panel on electroshock. The personal testimonies we heard were both riveting and heartbreaking. We were awed by the courage of these survivors, bravely telling their stories despite the terrible emotional pain they felt in remembering the horrors of psychiatric coercion, the disability and agony caused by psychiatric “treatments,” and their long struggles to recover from what had happened to them in the name of “mental health.” Many excerpts from these testimonies were later published in two online reports. The public sharing of so much personal trauma caused by psychiatrists and their “safe and effective treatments” would never have been possible without both Bonnie’s firm leadership and her sensitive respect for all psychiatric survivors.

In 2010, CAPA organized PsychOUT: An International Conference for Organizing Resistance Against Psychiatry. This phenomenal two-day conference, held at OISE, was conceived and chaired by Bonnie. It included many powerful and empowering lectures and workshops. PsychOUT ended with a unanimous resolution to ban electroshock, followed by an anti-shock protest.

In the following years, Bonnie and I became even more outspoken and visible in our fight to abolish electroshock. Bonnie led or hosted several more anti-shock demonstrations, mostly at Queen’s Park, held on or around Mother’s Day, with the theme “Stop Shocking Our Mothers and Grandmothers.” By 2015, the movement to ban shock had gone international. On May 16 of that year, many Ontario survivors — together with NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo — publicly demanded an end to shock. This historic International Day to Ban Electroshock was marked by simultaneous demonstrations in 30 cities, not only in Canada and the United States but also in six European countries, including the UK and Ireland. Infuriatingly, and predictably, the Canadian news media were missing in action. (It was always difficult for Bonnie — or for me, or any antipsychiatry activist — to get public support and attract allies, in large measure because the CBC and other Canadian corporate media outlets have consistently ignored us. They never once showed up at any of our press conferences or other anti-shock/antipsychiatry events. Mainstream reporters and editors have been co-opted by the psychiatric establishment and its shock doctors.)

Bonnie was a prolific and brilliant author and blogger. Much of her recent work can be read here at Mad in America. One of her last books, and one of my personal favourites, was the novel The Other Mrs. Smith, a gripping narrative featuring a woman who survived electroshock.

I am so proud of Bonnie, and so grateful, in particular, for the very special legacy she left us in 2016. That was when she endowed three scholarship programs at the University of Toronto. One program focuses on Indigenous women. One addresses the homelessness crisis. The third, amazingly, is the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry; the world’s first antipsychiatry scholarship. All of us psychiatric survivors and our allies owe a debt of gratitude to Bonnie for the determination, courage, and brilliance that distinguish all of her work, and especially for creating this unique opportunity to expose and combat the psychiatric establishment from within academia.

To donate to any of these scholarship funds, please contact Sim Kapoor, Advancement & External Relations: [email protected] (416-978-5047).

R.I.P. Bonnie Burstow, 1945-2020

Bonnie Burstow


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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  1. A great article about a great scholar and a great activist. We’ve lost so many in our movement over the recent years, and this is a loss that it is certainly going to be difficult to recover from. I sincerely hope you’ve got the people in Canada to take up where Bonnie left off, to continue her work, and to strengthen and support her legacy.

    As for the struggle in the USA, maybe we could take a few lessons from Bonnie on behalf of the struggle here. I hope so. Our struggle certainly needs more people with her kind of determination and resolve.

    Thank you, Bonnie, for everything you’ve done. I wish you were still around so that I could say so in person.

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  2. Thank you Don, and my condolences to you and those who knew Bonnie and thanks to MIA.
    I have followed the efforts of you and Bonnie for some years, and was so happy about the scholarship.
    You have my admiration.
    It is indeed sad and bewildering that our newspeople are only representing one side, but at the same time,
    it is very telling, which I hope is noticed.
    People really don’t take kindly to media or government ran institutions hiding abuses.
    It really comes down to popularity, what is popular at this time.
    Some people see an attempt to expose abuse as simply a “radical” or “antisocial” move, unless of course
    it becomes big enough to make the non joiners look like they are bad guys.
    Bad guys only look bad if they are not part of a larger group.

    It is sad to lose Bonnie, and we hope someone can fill those big shoes. You all have beaten a new trail,
    and we need to keep it well trodded…we won’t go away.
    No rational government can deny abuse is happening. These are human rights issues, where so called doctors of the mind are virtually allowed to wield destructive drugs, confinement yet for no crime committed.
    It is chemical warfare and yes, I realize readers will think of “warfare” as an exaggerated term, some crazy term coming from some delusional person.
    No one sees the practices inside. Perhaps it is time for people in the house of commons to pretend to be ill. Because no shrink can tell if you are ill.
    Carry on Don, we appreciate you.

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  3. For Bonnie Burstow

    From Peter Breggin

    It seems impossible to believe that I last saw Bonnie live, but not in person, on November 27, 2019—a mere 40 days before Stephen Ticktin told me of her death. I saw her as my honored guest on my radio/TV show. You can see her now forever on YouTube, perhaps her last public appearance, along with two of her dear friends, Stephen and Oriel Varga, and myself. We had a wonderful show titled “United Against Psychiatric Abuse.” And we were united!! Bonnie was an active participant with no hint that she might not be with us much longer.

    I have known and worked with Bonnie for so long that I don’t know how long. Almost five decades? I think of Don Weitz, another great Toronto activist. Or Leonard Frank from San Francisco who is now gone. Back to the earliest days of the movement in the 1970s, it seems I’ve known Bonnie that long.

    Bonnie was such an enormously creative human being. A pioneer in psychiatric reform. A scientist. A novelist. A teacher, intellectual and academician. A writer and performer of plays. Of course, a friend.

    The Yiddish word chutzpah—audacity with a flare. Who else would even have imagined gaining acceptance for a scholarship in “Antipsychiatry” at a major international university? Who else could possibly have carried it off? I remember when she first invited me to back her effort. I thought it was merely a fun way of sticking it to them. It turned out to be much more than that. It turned out to be real! People are working toward PhDs on Antipsychiatry Scholarships!

    Chutzpah does not really capture how I knew and remember Bonnie. She was more about seriousness. Dr. Bonnie Burstow was one of the most serious people I ever met. She had intention. She had purpose. She had goals. And she accomplished so many of them. And she did it with righteous anger.

    Bonnie, I’m glad I saw and worked with you, so very recently, if only connected by video Skype. It leaves me with a good feeling that we worked together until the very end. Thank you for that, and all the other shared moments over the past decades.

    Lots of love, my friend, and goodbye


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  4. Thank you, Don, for this wonderful essay about Bonnie.

    I had heard about Bonnie Burstow — and Don Weitz — many decades ago and found the revolutionary work that each of them did individually and together to be stunning, courageous, and inventive. Over the years, Bonnie and I were in touch about the work, and I was always struck by how hard she worked, how varied were the kinds of ideas she had, how knowledgeable she was, how she put together the pieces of information in revelatory ways, how she combined intelligence with compassion, how her determination to make a better world never flagged. With regard to this last matter, we rarely communicated with each other, for no reason other than that both of us were busy, but awhile back, I called her after learning that she was struggling with terrifying vision problems. I made some suggestions, but she explained there were reasons she could not try them. I was thinking how scary and difficult it must be to try to continue working, as she had said she was doing, while losing one’s sight. And then after awhile, I learned that she had written a novel! A woman with a passion to reduce human suffering and who worked to do that in so many ways — writing nonfiction articles and books, writing a novel, and creating an anti psychiatry scholarship — there has never been anyone like Bonnie Burstow. The world is impoverished by her death but forever enriched by her spirit and her work, which will live on.

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  5. I also extend my thanks & sympathy to Don, you wrote a great tribute. It’s amazing and more than disconcerting how many anti-psychiatry comrades have been dropping left and right over the past 2 months. And that this is the fourth such memorial we have been contributing to on MIA.

    Bonnie of course is already an anti-psychiatry legend, and occupies a key place in the pantheon of AP theorists and activists who have struggled over the past 5 decades to not only criticize psychiatry, but to abolish it — a goal on which she would harbor no compromise. I particularly have admired her resilience — she told me several years ago that she was teaching her classes propped up in bed, or something close. We had some political differences, but Bonnie had a very clear idea of who she was, what she was doing and where she wanted to take it, and the world is a better place as a result.

    I must admit I have not yet read more than excerpts from Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (it and “Anatomy” were on my Xmas list a few years ago, and I was given “Anatomy”). But Bonnie’s concept of “decontextualized behavior” is key to understanding the nature (and fraudulence) of psychiatric labeling and categorization. (I expect to discover more such insights once I do finally read the book.) Beyond that, her largely single-handed work to establish antipsychiatry as an academic discipline has had a major impact on efforts to legitimize the AP struggle in the eyes of academia, and bolster the growing campaign to delegitimize psychiatry as a branch of medicine.

    Simply listing Bonnie’s achievements here would be a little beside the point, and maybe a bit unnecessary. What is important to grasp is the totality of her work since the 80’s aimed at abolishing psychiatry. That is the “prize” she kept her eyes focused on throughout it all, which is what the rest of us should be doing as well.

    Though I believe Bonnie considered herself an atheist, I also believe that energy is neither created nor destroyed but simply changes forms. Bonnie’s energy is all around us, surrounds her circle of friends and loved ones, and will infuse the AP movement for years to come. And it is from that understanding that I invoke the phrase yet again:

    Bonnie Burstow Presente! 🙂

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  6. This is the fourth loss of a significant MIA contributor and antipsychiatry activist in the last month or so, and it is hitting me and others very hard. Bonnie in particular always seemed so immutable, so inexorable and so powerfully present, it is hard to imagine her succumbing even to death. Her spirit will continue to be with us as we fight on, but this is a huge loss to us and to the world. RIP, Bonnie, and keep fighting on, wherever you are!

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  7. I was very shocked and sad to hear of Dr. Bonnie Burstow’s sudden passing. What a huge loss for all who face oppression and all who are fighting the oppressive, harmful establishment of psychiatry. Thank you Don for this beautiful memorial essay and for detailing the enormous amount of tireless work Dr. Burstow accomplished even while coping with her multiple physical illnesses.

    What makes this crusade for justice so difficult is exactly as you stated Don, “Mainstream reporters and editors have been co-opted by the psychiatric establishment and its shock doctors”.
    Surely there must be reporters and editors out there with enough integrity and courage to step up and bring these dire matters into the mainstream and honour Dr. Burstow’s selfless work.

    Thank you Dr. Burstow for everything you have done. Bravo for fighting such a valiant battle on behalf of humanity. RIP Dr. Burstow, your legacy will live on.

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  8. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to convey to Bonnie in a post once how she influenced me so signficantly, after she wrote in a comment to someone that “we are here to discover what it means to be human.” A light bulb went on and it so directly and unambiguously gave me the broadest perspective possible, I felt it ring through me. Changed the direction of my path and life work, I’ll be forever grateful.

    RIP Bonnie, you have been a supreme example of and to humanity, indeed, with your courageous heart, shining spirit, and exceptionally brilliant mind. Condolences to family and friends, Bonnie is so obviously beloved by many, and for good reason.

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  9. Great tribute Don. Thank you.

    Although I disagree with Bonnie about many things, she was a tireless antipsychiatry warrior and abolitionist, for which, among other things, she is to be commended. I’ve read Psychiatry Interrogated, Psychiatry Disrupted, and Psychiatry and the Business of Madness, all of which are great books, indispensable works in the antipsychiatry canon.

    The Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry is an amazing achievement in and of itself.

    It will take vision and perseverance to continue the work that Bonnie helped to establish. For those of us who understand the need to abolish psychiatry, can you imagine antipsychiatry being taught in universities around the world? Can you imagine a best-selling book that reveals the true history of psychiatry? Can you imagine antipsychiatry articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal? Can you imagine a blockbuster film that reveals the truth about psychiatry? These are just some ideas that the Burstow’s legacy inspires.

    Thank you Don. Thank you Bonnie. And thank you to all those who fight to reveal the truth about psychiatry.

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    • STD, I think any modern university is narrow in scope to not offer the opposite of mainstream.
      I too hope that other universities allow visions to be incorporated.
      Schools are not doing anyone favors by being “old school”. To dare to be different is exactly what schools should encourage.
      What is society afraid of?

      I do think that we need to take advantage of media, make some indie movies, plays and documentaries EVEN if the only place they are seen is on youtube or the local small independent theaters.
      I do think that there is a possibility of someone being able to write material for a script, and a possibility of some anti-psychiatry actors (perhaps in universities) to help see it through.
      I would like to see “fringe plays” devoted to this.
      Sometimes one has to start at a grass roots level, not expecting monies to roll in.
      Many are limited by health, yet there must be some healthier people out there?
      Perhaps knocking on university doors, the philosophy depts.?

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  10. I never met Dr. Burstow myself, but one of her articles — I forget the name of exactly which one it was, but it listed the basic tenets of antipsychiatry — affected my own writing so deeply, because when I read her idea that psychiatry is both “authoritarian” and that it “colonizes” society, I realized how powerful, invasive, and destructive psychiatry actually is. I based my entire conception of psychiatry on how she described it, but I added some details of my own that came to me almost immediately just from reading that word “colonizes” and also “authoritarian,” it came to me to add “irresponsible” and “unaccountable.” I wrote about these qualities in an essay I wrote for Mad In America that I called “Death of a Psychiatrist” which was unfortunately never published, probably because I was so angry from being held in a psych hospital for five months, where I was hooked and booked and bagged and tagged and forced to take Haldol, of all things, from which I got horrible akathisia. I dedicated the essay to Dr. Burstow, which she never commented on, and I regret that I was so angry that I called for the complete annihilation of psychiatry, challenged a mental health worker to a duel, and actually described how psychiatrists should go commit suicide with their own deadly drugs.

    Dr. Burstow’s writing affected me very deeply and she will be missed terribly.

    Rest in peace, Dr. Burstow.

    — Eric Coates
    written at the Brattleboro Retreat in Brattleboro, VT

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    • Well, I think it’s a tribute to Bonnie that she helped “trigger” such a life-changing epiphany in you, beyond the level of sheer intellectual analysis (at which Bonnie was obviously also excellent).

      Btw, unlike the other things you attribute to raw anger and say you regret, calling for the end of psychiatry is not just an “emotional” statement (which it can be at the same time) but an exceedingly rational one, and should not be regretted. Though it helps to be strategic.

      It still outrages and scares me that you can be held so unjustly in the grips of psychiatry while writing so logically, clearly, and coherently.

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  11. Thank you Don for such a fitting tribute to the life and activism of an amazing warrior for the oppressed.

    Bonnie Burstow represents the very best of humanity. She never settled for just enjoying the privileges available to those of us living in a first world country. She was a tireless fighter for ALL the oppressed who gave of herself to her last breath. We should all be inspired by her example to do even more to make this world a better place.

    In addition (and very much connected to) her advanced anti-psychiatry activism and radical feminism, she was a major critic and fighter against the capitalist system. She was very aware of the deep connections between all psychiatric abuse and a profit based/capitalist system.

    While I have corresponded with Bonnie in the past, I only wish I could have engaged with her in person to strategize and plan more activism to end ALL psychiatric abuse and help move the planet beyond the crippling effects of a profit based/capitalist system.


    Comradely, Richard

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  12. The passing of Bonnie Burstow is a devastating loss for many
    for Canada
    for this community
    Condolences to all who knew and loved her
    Condolences to a world in turmoil with so few true and fearless leaders
    May it be true that our spirits live on
    May Bonnie continue to guide and inspire us to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
    no matter what the cost
    May Bonnie’s real work, have just begun

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  13. I was very sad to hear about the death of Bonnie Burstow. Fittingly, this important news was shared with several of us during a psychiatric survivor strategy planning meeting to defend human rights. I just read the essay by my friend Don Weitz, tremendous. I am so grateful that Bonnie and our movement has the friendship and support of this courageous psychiatric survivor, Don. Bonnie and Don created quite a team for activism, writing and perseverance for decades.

    The main opportunity I had to know and work with Bonnie face-to-face is when the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) organized the 2010 PsychOUT: An International Conference for Organizing Resistance Against Psychiatry. Certainly, the leadership and call-to-action by Bonnie were felt by many by me and I am sure all of those present and impacted.

    Several times I have remembered and repeated to folks a key point that I heard from a keynote by Bonnie there. I do not have the exact words, but the lesson I recall for us all is that it is very okay to have a very strong position and share that with others. Expressing your vision, even if different from others, is not coercive, and should be heard peaceably, even if radically different from others.

    Yes, Bonnie, you spoke out for “antipsychiatry” even though others do not. I have used the phrase “human rights activist” rather than “antipsychiatry.” But you, Bonnie, made several important values clear when you spoke about this topic: We are all called to contemplate this principle in how we relate to this dream. Also, even if folks have a different point of view, and of course there are many, there are often civil and unifying ways to discuss these differences.

    This may seem like an obvious value. But hearing Bonnie express this to our gathering in Toronto was powerful and memorable.

    I have many other treasured memories of Bonnie from that event, such as getting to know her complex personality more at a restaurant, and certainly protesting electroshock with many others at an outdoor park/government building location.

    Bonnie, thank you so very much for genuinely and strongly taking clever, beautiful, uplifting actions that supported our difficult movement and so many psychiatric survivors internationally. Thanks thanks thanks!

    And to Don and the many who loved Bonnie, I offer my deepest support. Revolution!

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  14. G-d Bless Bonnie Burstow with the best that can be blessed . I wish I could of met her and talked to her in person. I read her book the “Business of Madness” absolutely brilliant . What an example of a great freedom fighter.
    Harvard University and vicinity being the focal point of psychiatric power why oh why can’t all the Harvard graduates that have posted at MIA and some of their schoolmates retired or not, together as one demonstrate and petition in a big way ,Harvard University to allow Anti- Psychiatry courses and even Scholarships along the lines like Dr. Bonnie Burstow did in Toronto. Call it The Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at Harvard, because Truth can’t be denied and Harvard’s got the money to do it and real education is a necessity .
    A Legend in her own time inspiring freedom fighters for as long as they are needed …
    R.I.P.Bonnie Burstow I will read more about the things you did , wrote, and demonstrated about . And I somehow know you listened to the oppressed better than most anyone.

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    • Sam,
      When I was 16 years old I arrived against my will for the first time into a private mental institution , I asked for something to help me sleep. I was told that sleeping meds were too dangerous and they choose (I didn’t realize it at the time ), a chemical lobotomy toxic poison for me . It was 800 milligrams of Thorazine a day for 2 1/2 incarcerated months . At the first dose of it ,I thought (at the time) these well meaning people didn’t know what they were doing. The sensation was of a waking visual dream of particles of my brain in a trail floating upward toward the ceiling and beyond into outer space while my neck became stiff and in pain. When I complained at the nurse”s station they told me to go sit down . I was then convinced they didn’t know what they were doing . Soon afterwards I was also on cogentin , stelazine , haldol , and an anti histamine. Out of frustration , and because I didn’t want to hurt anyone , I punched the solid cinder block wall as hard as I could and broke my right hand .
      Inside of me ,for me, natural as rain during that first mental institution incarceration without knowing anybody or anything of any movement , spontaneously without any doubt I became privately inside myself antipsychiatry . In later years after even worse tortures electrical and others against my will ,even worse , done by psychiatry , I became even more natural as rain totally against psychiatry. There are many others like me all over the planet . There needs to be teams of lawyers all over the place to defend us against coercion. And there must be antipsychiatry courses in Universities and schools all over the planet .Real Soteria houses too. And may psychiatry and the mindset that supports it have no power over anyone ever again as long as human beings exist.Those that have felt and survived psychiatry’s arsenal are the ones who really have the understanding of what psychiatry is . The rest that study from the outside can at best only repeat what we have told them.
      The most knowledgeable of us have never told them everything because we wouldn’t be taken seriously our words would be twisted by others, and also we know the psychiatry/pharma establishment is listening and will use all gained info against the innocent . Bonnie Burstow was an exception . Antipsychiatry to the core . The mostly unspoken truth of the wise .

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      • Heartfelt Fred.
        Psychiatry becomes irate if challenged.
        They walk out of the room when challenged. How dare anyone challenge their practice.
        Who does that? Who when hearing stories of how the abuse and labeling affects them, just ignores it?
        Those who are guilty.

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