There's More Than One Way to Get Out of the Looney Bin
In late spring of the year 1980, about ten years after radical feminists in America began attracting national media attention, I was pressured into checking into a psychiatric hospital to have my sanity ascertained...for promoting essentially the same ideas. I guess that makes me a committed feminist.
My invitation to talk to the nice doctors came about because no one seemed able to understand what I was talking about. Despite ten years of actively outspoken feminist women, people still did not have much understanding of the terms "feminist" and "feminism", and no one could figure out how to pigeonhole or categorize a fervent male passing out xeroxed literature and talking about why we need to dismantle patriarchy.
Aside from that, I had not concentrated in the social sciences in school and therefore was not accustomed to putting such ideas into words, and these early efforts--hastily written in pen on scratch paper--were probably hard to follow. I saved the first page of the first of these little manifestos, and have scanned it, so you are welcome to come judge for yourself. Either way, I did not succeed in making much sense to people, and managed to upset them with my fervor and my confusing content.
I was not upset by their request that I speak to a psychiatrist even though it was obvious that the reason for the request was that they thought that I and my senses had parted company, but I probably would have been more worried about it, and far less cooperative, if I'd known then what I know now about institutional psychiatry. I was expecting to have the content of my beliefs challenged, paricularly in those places where they contradicted Freudian and other conventional beliefs about gender and sexuality, and, of course, the religious-visionary content. I was prepared for such a confrontation, and was in fact actively looking forward to it!
Instead, after I had signed the agreement form, I was ushered behind locked doors and relieved of my belt and shoelaces (lest I try to hang myself), assigned to a doorless room with a doorless bathroom that had no faucet handles on the tub or sink (lest I try to drown myself), was told that I'd be seeing my psychiatrist in about three days, and would be spending the intervening time on the one-room locked ward. There was a nursing station, walled-off and glassed-off, from which psychiatric nurses and aides policed our activities and dispensed psychiatric drugs to those who were supposed to receive them.
The only people who were there to talk to for the time being were the other patients. One of them shuffled by talking to herself, pacing endlessly; one sat huddled on a couch by himself, weeping about Jesus casting him into hell; two younger ones, a couple, were constantly being separated by the nurses who loudly proclaimed "No P.C.", by which they meant "personal contact", universally disallowed between any two patients on the ward. There was an air force wife who had been placed there by her husband for unknown reasons, and who seemed entirely coherent and to make far more sense, emotionally and cognitively, than the nursing staff, who were quite unreasonable. Soon I had also begun talking with the young couple, who had been incarcerated because they were a couple, and their respective families thought that they were a bad idea for each other. They were angry about it, and the more people attempted to drive them apart, the more they had only each other as allies. The man who was weeping on the couch, afraid of God and Jesus, seemed lonely and terrified and no one on the staff was listening to him or comforting him, so we sat with him as well (and of course I got the chance to share my own, vastly different, conceptualizations of God, and my revelation experiences, and tell everyone about patriarchy and sexism and the sexual identity spectrum), and soon the nurses were yelling at all of us for interacting too closely ("No P. C.! No P. C.! Do you want to go to the seclusion room?") and informing us that we were interfering with each other's therapy. By the end of the second day I had met and spoken in meaningful and personal ways with everyone on the locked ward except the woman who paced and talked to herself, and by that time had reached the conclusion that the psychiatric hospital staff had no clue about how to be helpful or useful to us, and that, furthermore, there was nothing wrong with us, and if they'd simply treated us as people and come out and listened to us, none of us would be having half the problems we were having.
Somewhere in my years of omnivorous, random reading, I had read something about a political movement of mental patients who called themselves "Mental Patients' Liberation Front" and without remembering much more about it than that, decided there and then that I was part of that movement--this kind of mistreatment was ridiculous!--and so I shared this piece of recollected information with the other patients and we started our own chapter of "Mental Patients' Liberation Front" there in Albuquerque's Vista Sandia Psychiatric Hospital. We also referred to ourselves as "the patient people" rather than "the patients" and began demonstrating our patience with the impatient and pushy and highly irrational people who were our keepers. We issued statements declaring that there was nothing wrong with us, and that, although we appreciated being introduced to one another, and had no objection to the building *per se*, we felt it would be more appropriate to change the locks so that we could lock the rest of the world *out*, and then issue the keys to *us*.
Although it was scary to do so, we began supporting each other against the staff when they bore down on one of us. We tried explaining our position to any staff members who would listen, and some not only listened but became supportive of what we were saying. Others, however, either would not listen or would listen briefly and then begin "correcting" us or ascribing our statements to the confused condition of our mentally impaired heads. One psychiatrist stated that from this behavior it was obvious that I was in need of strong psychiatric medication, although fortunately he was not my assigned doctor. The head nurse found all of this very disruptive and looked for opportunities to yell at us and split us apart, and seized any opportunity to declare a psychiatric emergency and subject us to forced Thorazine injection.
Eventually, I think, the staff became more concerned about angry divisions among themselves about all this than they were about the possibility that we might be in need of their help. One day when some activity had taken me off the ward, the staff gathered all my belongings from my room and dumped them unceremoniously on the lobby floor, and when I came back, I was told, "You can't stay here any longer." There was no attempt to provide me with a discharge plan, with or without continued psychiatric-system contact, and I was informed that if my possessions were not removed from the ward by nightfall, they would be dumped as trash. I was not allowed to go back onto the ward to speak to any of the other inmates, and therefore have no idea to this day whether or not others received the same unorthodox discharge, but in my case, at least, my first involvement with psychiatric inmates' liberation movement politics resulted in me getting *kicked out* of a mental institution.
"You Mean There Really *IS* a Movement?"
Four years later, I had reached the conclusion that the best response to my own visions was for me to get back into college and major in women's studies, because the core belief systems of my vision were feminist ones. My initial reseach led me to a database, and I asked for the most affordable campuses located near a large city and offering a women's studies program, and learned that my best bet would be one of the campuses of the SUNY system in New York (at that time, both Oneonta State and Old Westbury State fit the description). So I emigrated in my backpack, carrying with me enough money for a couple month's rent of some unfurnished apartment, with plans to find a job. Unfortunately, things did not work out that way, and my money dwindled, I found neither job nor reasonable housing, and for a short time became one of New York's most famous 1980's cultural icons: a homeless and formerly psychiatrically labeled / incarcerated person.
By 1985, I had maneuvered myself into a showcase halfway house for so-called "homeless mentally ill" people, which gave me a permanent mailing address and a locker in which to keep my paperwork, and I was in the process of applying to SUNY @ Old Westbury when the insulting, humiliating treatment to which we were all constantly subjected in the shelter drove me to attend a public conference at which the NY Commission on the Quality of Care was prepared to brag on the excellent things they were doing at our facility. It was a facility in which people who "acted out", who became uncooperative or violated curfews or came in drunk or were caught being sexually active or displayed insubordination when yelled at by the staff, were at risk of being evicted as "inappropriate", but at the same time, all of the programming was geared towards the lowest common denominator, as were the rules, rights and responsibilities. Although we had been promised a program intensely devoted to helping us get off the street and out of the shelter system, what we had ended up with was just another warehouse in which welfare and SSI income, established in our names by the social work staff, was redirected to the institution, which fed us, gave us a bed, yelled at us and humiliated us, and as much as possible tried to make us invisible to the surrounding community without operating a single program designed to get any of us back on our feet and out of the system.
At the conference, I joined other advocates in questioning panelists and speakers during the time when questions from the audience were invited, and made my points. All the other advocates I'd traveled with were involved with the issue of homelessness, but a woman came up to me in the hallway and introduced herself and explained that she had traveled to the conference with other mental-patients' rights advocates, all ex-inmates, and invited me to join them.
So we spent the night sitting up on cushions and pillows, telling tales of our incarcerations and sharing information about psychiatry and psychiatric drugs and the legal rights and ramifications of being psychiatrically labeled or having a psychiatric history. It was like coming home to a home I'd been away from so long I didn't remember it! I wasn't alone! I had dreamed of this, but except for one faintly-remembered article, this was the first indication I had of an actual movement. And, yes, they were organized, they had a group name and weekly meetings and had been meeting for years. Several groups, actually. The group from New York City was called Project Release, and there were some other people from an upstate group called the Mental Patient's Alliance. Not only that, but one of the presentations scheduled for later included a guest speaker from out of state, a Judi Chamberlin who belonged to a Boston organization of ex-inmates called Mental Patients' Liberation Front.
"Mental Patients' Liberation Front??", I yelled. "That's the group I read about in that article!"
An activist named Laura Ziegler handed me some old copies of actual newspapers and journals published by *us*--our own media--the Madness Network News ("All the fits that's news to print") and Phoenix Rising ("The voice of the psychiatrized"). I read these cover to cover. Psychiatric inmates' groups were lobbying in Atlanta. We held public rallies and speakouts in Washington DC. Contributors penned articles from California, Florida, Texas, even New Zealand and Germany.
Oh my god, there really *is* a mental patients' liberation movement.
Statement of Principles
from the 10th Annual International Conference
on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression
The Tenth Annual International Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression, held in Toronto, Canada on May l4-l8 1982 adopted the following principles:
1. We oppose involuntary psychiatric intervention including
civil commitment and the administration of psychiatric
procedures ("treatments") by force or coercion or without
2. We oppose involuntary psychiatric intervention because
it is an unethical and unconstitutional denial of freedom,
due process and the right to he left alone.
3. We oppose involuntary psychiatric intervention because
it is a violation of the individual's right to control his
or her own soul, mind and body.
4. We oppose forced psychiatric procedures such as drugging
electroshock, psychosurgery, restraints. solitary
confinement, and "aversive behaviour modification".
5 We oppose forced psychiatric procedures because they
humiliate, debilitate. injure. incapacitate and kill people.
6. We oppose forced psychiatric procedures because they
are at best quackery and at worst tortures, which can
and do cause severe and permanent harm to the total
being of people subjected to them.
7. We oppose the psychiatric system because it is inherently
8. We oppose the psychiatric system because it is an extra
legal parallel police force which suppresses cultural and
9. We oppose the psychiatric system because it punishes
individuals who have had or claim to have had spiritual
experiences and invalidates those experiences by defining
them as "symptoms" of "mental illness."
10. We oppose the psychiatric system because it uses the
trappings of medicine and science to mask the social-
control function it serves.
11. We oppose the psychiatric system because it invalidates
the real needs of poor people by offering social welfare
under the guise of psychiatric "care and treatment."
12. We oppose the psychiatric system because it feeds on
the poor and powerless, the elderly, women, children,
sexual minorities, people of colour and ethnic groups.
13. We oppose the psychiatric system because it creates a
stigmatized class of society which is easily oppressed
14. We oppose the psychiatric system because its growing
influence in education, the prisons, the military,
government, industry and medicine threatens to turn society
into a psychiatric state made up of two classes: those
who impose "treatment" and those who have or are likely
to have it imposed on them.
15. We oppose the psychiatric system because it is frighteningly
similar to the Inquisition, chattel slavery and the
Nazi concentration camps.
16. We oppose the medical model of "mental illness" because
it justifies involuntary psychiatric intervention including
17. We oppose the medical model of "mental illness" be
cause it dupes the public into seeking or accepting
"voluntary" treatment by fostering the notion that
fundamental human problems, whether personal or social,
can be solved by psychiatric/medical means.
18. We oppose the use of psychiatric terms because they
substitute argon for plain English and are fundamentally
stigmatizing, demeaning, unscientific, mystifying and
Plain English Psychiatric Jargon Psychiatric inmate...........................Mental patient Psychiatric institution..............Mental hospital/mental health center Psychiatric system...................... Mental health system Psychiatric procedure.......................Treatment/therapy Personal or social difficulties in living.......Mental illness Socially undesirable characteristic or trait.........................................Symptom Drugs...........................................Medication Drugging.....................................Chemotherapy Electroshock........................Electroconvulsive therapy Anger.............................................Hostility Enthusiasm..........................................Mania Joy................................................Euphoria Fear..............................................Paranoia Sadness/unhappiness........................Depression Vision/spiritual experience................Hallucination Non-conformity................................Schizophrenia Unpopular belief..................................Delusion
19. We believe that people should have the right to live in
any manner or lifestyle they choose.
20. We believe that suicidal thoughts and/or attempts should
not be dealt with as a psychiatric or legal issue.
21. We believe that alleged dangerousness, whether to one
self or others, should not be considered grounds for
denying personal liberty, and that only proven criminal
acts should be the basis for such denial.
22. We believe that persons charged with crimes should be
tried for their alleged criminal acts with due process of
law, and that psychiatric professionals should not be
given expert-witness status in criminal proceedings or
courts of law.
23. We believe that there should be no involuntary psychiatric
interventions in prisons and that the prison system
should be reformed and humanized.
24. We believe that so long as one individual's freedom is
unjustly restricted no one is truly free.
25. We believe that the psychiatric system is, in fact, a
pacification programme controlled by psychiatrists and sup
ported by other mental health professionals, whose chief
function is to persuade, threaten or force people into
conforming to established norms and values.
26. We believe that the psychiatric system cannot be reformed
but must be abolished.
27. We believe that voluntary networks of community alter
natives to the psychiatric system should be widely encouraged
and supported. Alternatives such as self-help
or mutual support groups, advocacy/rights groups, co-op
houses, crisis centers and drop-ins should be controlled
by the users themselves to serve their needs, while ensuring
their freedom, dignity and self-respect.
28. We demand an end to involuntary psychiatric intervention.
29. We demand individual liberty and social justice for everyone.
30. We intend to make these words real and will not rest
until we do.
Movement Tactics and Priorities of the Movement
The psychiatric inmates' liberation movement has functioned on several different fronts simultanously, working around a small handful of primary priorities, each of which has resulted in organizations, programs, and organized events.
First, there have been political and legislative efforts to increase the rights of mental patients to refuse psychiatric "treatment" or to restrict the powers of the psychiatric system to impose it on people. Such activities have included pushing for new legislation, pursuing judicial review in the court system, and either running for political office or supporting political candidates who have favorable attitudes towards expanded recognition of our civil rights.
Political rallies protesting existing or proposed legislation have included "street pageantry", picketing, sit-ins, leafleting, and public speakouts, as well as participation in various advisory bodies that are charged with making recommendations to legislators. Often, such work has involved coalescing with other political factions, such as homeless people and their advocates (protesting against policy changes that would make it easier or almost automatic to incarcerate homeless people in psychiatric facilities who refused to be taken to homeless shelters), disabled activists (fighting discrimination and unsupportably uninclusive laws, policies and procedures), ACLU and other civil liberties groups (fighting against invasive questions on employment applications, insurance policies, and other processes that ask if a person has ever been a resident of a psychiatric institution), and mental health advocates of other sorts (seeking common ground in our mutual attempts to improve the plight of those diagnosed "mentally ill" and/ or seeking therapeutic assistance). For example, there has been a problem with the mental hygiene court in Brooklyn: the unlucky involuntary mental patient attempting to get a release order in that jurisdiction had to face the notorious Judge Maxine Duberstein, for whom it was self-evident that if a psychiatrist thought you should be locked up, you should be. There have been public demonstrations by inmate activists outside the courtroom and during a well-attended Brooklyn street fair.
I have become particularly convinced that it is advantageous and useful for any group of 3 or more psychiatric inmates to make appointments to meet with candidates for any public office, which provides the opportunity to educate and instills in their mind the thought that we may actually be a constituency, possibly even one with political clout. In Berkeley, California, organized psychiatric inmates drew the attention of a local candidate who did choose to appeal to us as a constituency by promising that, if elected, a ban on electroshock would be pursued. Such a ban was actually implemented, only to be overturned on judicial review (the right to privacy exempting services rendered by a physician to a patient being protected by Constitutional law).
In New York, a forced treatment case was appealed through the court systems until it reached the highest court in the hierarchy, the Court of Appeals, which ruled in Rivers v. Katz that even involuntarily incarcerated mental patients have the right to refuse psychiatric treatment until / unless they are judged in a separarate civil hearing to lack competency to make decisions altogether. The attorneys working with the Rivers case on behalf of the incarcerated individuals was actively supportive of our overall goals, and this case had been chosen on the basis of its presentability and the likelihood of establishing a precedent that would expand rights for all people under such circumstances, and the Rivers decision became a major milestone for the movement, one with sweeping implications even far beyond New York State.
The movement has been similarly active but so far less successful in combatting the trend towards forced outpatient commitment, in which people who are not residents of a psychiatric facility at all can be ordered to comply with a psychiatric treatment plan. Theoretically, Rivers prohibits forced treatment via an outpatient program as well, but outpatient programs generally function as gatekeepers: they have persons present with the authority to order a "patient" back into incarceration if they see signs that the "patient" is "decompensating", and in practice refusal to take psychiatric medication often results in such incarceration all by itself.
The ability to make such dramatic test cases and obtain successes such as the Rivers decision depends on the presence of grass-roots advocates--the type of people who go into psychiatric institutions to visit people they do not know and spread the word about the existence of the movement, share the heretical view that the psychiatric system is oppressive and that mental illness does not exist and/or that the things they do to you don't help whatever ails you, and link them up with mental hygiene attorneys and places they may be able to claim as an available residence in order to facilitate getting out. Occasionally, just visiting and calling up the psychiatric facility and causing them to realize that the incarcerated person has associates on the outside who want to see them released can make a great deal of difference in how long they are kept inside against their will. Such advocacy work is not as glamorous as the legislative maneuvers and participation on the advisory boards, but for the individuals who are currently deprived of their freedom and have no idea what is going on or what to do about it, it means a great deal. On such simple principles as personal advocacy of this sort, the New York organization Project Release provided services for almost 30 years, and there are current efforts underway to revive it.
Second, there have been user-run alternatives to the psychiatric system. One of the first cries that people raise when confronted with our demands that the psychiatric system as we know it be shut down is, "Well, then, where are these people going to go for help?" At the same time, our political meetings inevitably and necessarily have to address the personal politics of people's individual needs, and the fact that the only socially organized medium for addressing such things is an oppressive one. Parallel with the political and activist arm of the movement, there has existed a self-help movement in which people have tried to be listeners and sounding boards for others, and to provide them with safe space to retreat and regroup when necessary, and to share experiences with coping with difficult emotional and cognitive material.
In many of the Project Release meetings I attended in the middle 1980s, we would often spend the first hour listening and providing mutual therapeutic support as needed. For many of us, what mattered the most was to have a space in which to vent about our mistreatment at the hands of the psychiatric system--their manipulations, coercions, the interferences in everyday life, the extent to which we were in immediate fear of them--and in this sense, the political overlapped the personal for all of us. There were always some whose needs went beyond that, and whose problems included more than problems with the mental health system, and they could at times be very needy and focused on themselves, often incapable of returning the attention given to them and their problems at least at that particular time. At some specified time of the evening, the political portion of the meeting was scheduled to begin, and it was often our experience that some of those with the most compelling of personal needs were disruptive to the political process because they would continue to take the floor and discuss their personal matters. It was widely felt that such people were our responsibility--that if we couldn't be there for them, they would end up suffering the version of "help" offered up by the psychiatric system, by default, and yet we needed to get on to the business of planning rallies or presentations. Gradually we moved to a format in which there were distinctively separate meetings, and as it turned out there were some people whose interests lay more with exploring alternative coping mechanisms and providing a supportive presence. As I experienced it, we did not have a heavily worked-out strategy or theory for how to help people with emotional problems, but instead simply felt a comradeship, a sense that we'd all been there at one time or another, and as much as possible provided patient, non-judgmental and non-diagnostic listening, and a social environment in which we could come and be accepted even in our more traumatized and incoherent moments. Usually, it was enough, and it was always nice to know that it was there. Even for those of us who had not had to go through miserably vulnerable times in several years, the world with its worship-of-normality "mentalist" attitudes and blind pressures to conform was enough of a load that it was inherently therapeutic to be with each other and celebrate our survival and our insurrection, and to experience this wonderful sense of community and common bond.
Although I have never been an active participant in such a program, there have been many more formally structured user-run alternatives--"all-the-way houses", community drop-in centers, emergency crisis telephone lines, and so on.
I shall at this time issue you another homework assignment. Judi Chamberlin's bookOn Our Own contains a chapter with an excellent writeup about user-run alternatives to the mental health system, which you should read before continuing.
The third major thread of what the movement does is public education. If our perspective on the phenomena called "mental illness" and our experiences with the mental health system and its institutions, practices, and laws are not effectively conveyed to the general public, then those whose interests oppose our own are more likely to be able to manipulate public support for pro-psychiatric legislation and policies, and to sway public opinion against us and the things we are trying to say. Furthermore, any failure on our part to make our voices heard will insure that new generations of people with no familiarity with either the mental health system or with people who are its veterans will be ripe for future psychiatric victimization and will have no idea what is happening to them until they are fully enmeshed and incarcerated. I wish that I could list a series of stellar and spectacular public relations and public education accomplishments of the movement, but personally I feel that this has been by far our weakest point. We do get some media coverage, but it has been thin. This web site is a small effort towards public education. On my links page, I have put references to other online resources. In addition to the web pages that are listed there, the following individuals or organizations may also be useful contacts.
(This list is guaranteed to be perpetually incomplete and partially out of date)
David Oaks, editor of Dendron Magazine
Judi Chamberlin, author of On Our Own, charter member of Mental Patients' Liberation Front of Boston and national psychiatric-system survivor's right advocate (email).
New York (Queens area) Mental Hygiene Legal Services
The Ruby Rogers Center in Cambridge MA
The Sayville Project of Long Island NY