Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an essay adapted from Irit Shimrat’s keynote speech delivered at the 2014 conference of the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy. The author was invited by Jim Gottstein to give an updated version in a recent virtual event. The first part can be read here.
I want to tell you briefly about VEEC: the Vancouver Emotional Emergency Centre. Way back in 1974, a group of former mental patients and their allies founded VEEC: a safe space where people in extreme states could stay for a few days or weeks and be accompanied while they went through whatever they were going through. No drugs, no force, no medical personnel. Just people helping people in whatever way was wanted.
Despite (or because of) its unprecedented success in keeping people out of hospital by helping them navigate emotional crises, the Centre lost its funding after only two years. It was just too much of a threat to the psychiatric establishment.
The late, great activist Judi Chamberlin stayed there, in the earliest days of her own activism, and was inspired to write On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System. By the time I moved to Vancouver, in 1993, it was hard to find anyone who even remembered VEEC. But I’ve never stopped thinking about it.
The point of getting support from other psychiatrized people, outside of the system, is not just that they won’t be alarmed by you, or that you can learn from and be inspired by their experiences. It’s also that the support is, or at least has the potential to become, mutual. You are not being “treated” or talked down to. The contact is genuine and natural, rather than being bound by “therapeutic” imperatives. No one in this picture needs to be fixed.
I can just about hear, in the far distance, the howls of people—not any of us here, I hope! —protesting the idea that those with “severe mental illness” or in a state of “psychosis” do not urgently need suppression and drug treatment.
Decades ago, Michael Cornwall, voice-hearer, activist and therapist, was working at a special ward in a California state hospital.
I met Michael at a Toronto conference called Psychosis 2.0. I was stunned to hear him say, “We didn’t use medication, or restraints. We knew we’d get punched, hit, kicked, physically assaulted. But other staff would come, and we’d securely hold the person, in a loving, gentle way. And, almost always, this would result in a real turning point in that person’s process.”
Another speaker at the conference, voice-hearer, researcher, author and counsellor Eleanor Longden, said, “I believe there is no greater honour, no greater privilege, than facilitating this process; than bearing witness, and reaching out, to voice-hearers; than sharing the burden of suffering, and holding the hope of recovery.”
These words made me think of my friend, mentor, and longtime lover, the late, great Chris Bearchell. Chris was a superb journalist; a passionate socialist humanist; and a brilliant and effective women’s and gay liberation activist.
Before she died, in 2007, she and I were planning to write a book together, called Paid to Care, about the problem with making a living from the provision of love and caring—which some practitioners claim to offer by way of therapy. Call me cynical, but I have to ask: When you’re making money from it, can it really be genuine love and caring that you’re providing?
In general, people set high stock by professional expertise. But in truth, each of us is the expert on her own self. And it’s not just psychiatrized people who can help each other. Anyone can get help from friends, relatives, and others—from almost any compassionate person whose perceptions have not been muddied by psychiatric, psychological or social-work training, or by the “cop mentality” that often develops in those who enter such professions, however good their original intentions.
I very much doubt that anything learned from psychology textbooks compares to what an ordinary grandmother understands about life, and has to offer by way of wisdom, kindness and support.
Our society includes more and more old people, retired people—people who can easily be made to feel useless. So many end up being made useless: shoved into so-called care homes, where they are often brutalized with restraints, tranquillizers and sometimes, incredibly, electroshock. And where, lately, far too many have been dying, alone and desperate, as Covid tears through entire facilities.
And yet, if such institutions didn’t need to exist—because, say, we lived in a society in which people took care of each other and elders were honoured—imagine how much they might have to offer to others who are, or are in danger of being, in psychiatric or other trouble.
And what about all the abused, neglected or abandoned children and teenagers currently being labelled and made to take harmful drugs? Surely these youngsters should have opportunities to get support from those oldsters, and vice versa, rather than everyone being expected to get professional help.
I want to return, briefly, to the subject of electroshock. ECT—so-called electroconvulsive therapy—is well known to cause permanent brain damage, with effects notably including permanent memory loss and severe cognitive deficits. Most members of the public believe that ECT went out of use decades ago. But in fact, its use is very much on the rise.
When I was young, shock was mainly used on people who were “unresponsive” to drug treatment and those diagnosed with “clinical depression.” Then, as now, many recipients of forced or coerced ECT were unruly women, and especially older women, and especially women of colour. But of course, men—and especially marginalized or “scary-looking” men—are often subjected to unwanted ECT as well.
And now, the scope of ECT is much broader, and notably includes children. According to the National Institutes of Health, in the United States: “The indications for electroconvulsive therapy in children and adolescents are similar to those in adults…. Multiple published reports demonstrate the safety and efficacy of ECT in pediatric patients with a wide range of psychopathology. ECT has also been successfully used in youth with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities…. However, resistance and stigma persist regarding the use of ECT in children and adolescents in both the professional and lay communities, creating barriers to pediatric ECT access. We argue that the use of ECT in children and adolescents is appropriate for specific clinical indications, and urge removal of impediments to ECT access in this population.”
There is sometimes the appearance of informed consent procedures being followed, as required by law. But who would ever consent to electroshock, or indeed to any psychiatric treatment or procedure, if all of the risks were actually divulged?
Over and over again, we are told, that mental illness is like diabetes and that antipsychotic drugs are, like insulin, necessary for saving lives. But, in fact, there are physical markers for diabetes and for every other real disease—but none for any “mental illness.” Not to mention that antipsychotics actually cause diabetes!
I know, or know of, way too many people who’ve had physical problems that were ignored, or not found, by medical professionals, due to a prior psychiatric diagnosis.
Years ago, Canadian artist and author Persimmon Blackbridge was diagnosed with depression, when she was actually suffering from a physical disorder called hypercalcemia.
But Persimmon had a psych history—so no one thought to look further. Shrinks decided she’d had a lifelong problem with “Bipolar 2.”
“I’m the world’s least manic person,” says Persimmon, “but they had to make my previous, non-depressed, times fit into their diagnosis somehow.”
For ten years, Persimmon took antidepressants. Meanwhile, her kidneys kept deteriorating. By the time she was finally correctly diagnosed, she’d become exhausted and dizzy. A doctor, checking for diabetes, happened also to check her kidney function, and discovered the whole mess. Persimmon ended up losing a kidney, completely unnecessarily.
And now I’m going to tell you my own story about real, versus fake, disease.
In the year 2000, I was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma—an especially pernicious type of cancer. Had my tumour not been found in time—quite by chance—and had I not had emergency surgery to remove it, I would have died.
I had been locked up several times during the previous two years, after 18 years psychiatry-free. And whenever I get locked up, I spend a long time, afterwards, just lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself. So, there I am, pretty much unable to think about anything, except wishing I were dead. And then, all of a sudden, I find out I have cancer. And, instantly, all I want to do is survive!
I’ve always thought this was such a hoot—that the effects of being diagnosed with a fake disease, “bipolar disorder,” caused me to long for death, but being diagnosed with a real and potentially deadly disease made me fall in love with life.
Since then, I’ve developed an increasingly keen sense of what’s most important to me: helping others survive or avoid psychiatry and find better ways of living in the world.
Award-winning journalist Rob Wipond has written extensively about how psychiatric treatment doesn’t work. (I urge you to check out his writing at robwipond.com). In an article published at alternet.org, Rob describes a Danish study which found that people who had visited a psych emergency room were 30 times as likely to kill themselves as those who had not. And those who were actually admitted to a psych hospital were almost 50 times as likely to kill themselves. The study quotes a psychiatrist who admits, “It is entirely plausible that the stigma and trauma inherent in psychiatric treatment, particularly when treatment is involuntary, might, in already vulnerable individuals, contribute to some suicides.”
Another of my favourite writers on psychiatry is UCLA professor, researcher and author David Cohen. In his essay, “It’s the Coercion, Stupid!” at madinamerica.com (see madinamerica.com/2014/10/coercion-stupid), Cohen writes: “Since the beginning of psychiatry, the only constant in psychiatric treatment has been coercion. Psychiatry’s coercive function is what society most appreciates about it. Families and others can call upon police to restrain someone acting strangely, and have that person taken by force to a place run by psychiatrists. Without the shock and awe of a coercive medical discipline, the flimsy theories and continually-refuted hypotheses of physiological defects as causes of distress and misbehaviour would actually have to [account for] what ails people, what makes them tick, and how to help them overcome their problems. After decades of engaging in critical analysis of the psychiatric and other evidence, I conclude that there has never been good evidence to support psychiatric theories. Psychiatry’s top experts admit that they have found no biological markers for any mental disorder. Yet no one cares that 50 years of psychiatric research have failed to turn up a single scientific finding….”
Fortunately, amazing work is being done outside the system to promote better ways of dealing with extreme emotional states. This includes efforts supporting the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which prohibits forced psychiatry and upholds the equal rights of all people with real or perceived disabilities, including psychiatrized people.
I urge you to check out the campaign to support CRPD’s prohibition of commitment and forced treatment (absoluteprohibition.org), and also the Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (chrusp.org), and the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (wnusp.org).
Also promoting many good ideas are MindFreedom International (mindfreedom.org), the Wildflower Alliance (wildfloweralliance.org) and, in Canada, the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, Our Voice/Notre Voix (ourvoice-notrevoix.com), Madness Canada (madnesscanada.com), Mad in Canada (madincanada.org), Health Justice (healthjustice.ca), SeeSpring (seespringcoalition.org) and the Mad Canada Shadow Report Group (madcanada.wixsite.com/shadowreport/report).
And don’t forget to ask Jim Gottstein about Soteria Houses!
I would also encourage you to check out some of the back issues of the Canadian national magazine, Phoenix Rising: The Voice of the Psychiatrized, which Jim has very kindly put up at Psychiatrized.org.
Phoenix Rising was founded in 1980 by Don Weitz and Carla McKague.
Don Weitz was a survivor of insulin-subcoma shock. He was also the great pioneer of Canadian antipsychiatry. Don was one of the angriest, kindest, most tireless, and most generous activists I’ve ever met. And it wasn’t just about psychiatry. Don never stopped fighting against all the different kinds of injustice and discrimination on which “Western civilization” is based.
We lost Don on September 1, 2021.
Carla McKague, who died in 2015 and was supported by Don to the end, was an electroshock survivor, author and, for decades, a ferocious advocate and mental health lawyer.
Both have written powerfully on issues related to psychiatric force and fraud. (You can read Don’s book, Resistance Matters: An Antipsychiatry Activist Speaks Out, at https://www.madinamerica.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Resistance-Matters-April-2019.pdf.)
Phoenix Rising was published until 1990. It gave a voice to psychiatrized people who had never had their work published before, showcasing talents previously buried under the weight of shame and suffering.
I had the enormous good fortune of being hired by Don to edit Phoenix for its final four years. That work revolutionized my life, and helped me more than anything else in recovering from psychiatry. The hopeless, hurt, lonely, angry mess that was me—all that seemed to remain of my self, once the shrinks had got through with it—was transformed into a feisty defender of psychiatric survivors’ rights.
When I look back at Phoenix Rising now, I am wowed by its beauty and power. And this is not because of my competence as an editor, or the considerable skill of its designers.
Rather, it’s all about the contributors’ brilliance and the magazine’s uncompromising ethical stance.
What I have longed for, more than anything, ever since 1990 when it folded, is that the Phoenix should rise again.
And that is why I am so thrilled to tell you that this might actually happen, thanks to the Don Weitz Legacy Project!
December 10th, 2021, was Human Rights Day, and would have been Don’s 91st birthday. On that day, his children—my dear friend Lisa Weitz and her brother Mark—led an inspiring online celebration of Don’s life. One of the upshots of this event was a generous gift from a Canadian philanthropist, to start something new in Don’s memory.
And one of our hopes is to resurrect Phoenix Rising as a downloadable, printable online magazine. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to editing Phoenix again, if that’s what ends up happening. But I can tell you that Don Weitz would have loved this idea.
And, buoyed up by the opportunity to do good things in Don’s memory, I find myself daring to hope. Maybe there will come a day when the entire disease model of strangeness and distress has been made obsolete. When the idea of mental illness has faded from memory, because everyone knows that “otherness” and emotional intensity are not and never were medical issues, and that diversity and difference are at the very heart of what makes humanity wonderful.
Because, despite all the horrors of the 21st century, human beings are amazing creatures. We have the ability to come together with open minds, open hearts, and a will to make things better. And, when we do, we can find the power that systems have taken away from us—or that we never had in the first place. We can resurrect ancient ways, and create beautiful new ways, of dealing with problems of mind, soul, and heart. I think maybe we can change the world. At the very least, we can surely do a whole lot better than the mental health system.
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.