Can the mental health system have the kind of revolt we’ve seen in Egypt? Mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors are leading an international social change movement for major change in mental health care today. How can such activism and advocacy be supported by agencies and programs that are funded by scarce taxpayer funds? Here are David’s “Top Ten Tips” to help the mental health system experience an “Egyptian” moment.

16 February 2011 

David Oaks, director of MindFreedom International, was one of three presenters on a teleconference today entitled, “National Coalition Special Topic Teleconference on Leadership.”

Here are David Oaks’ “Top Ten” points about how the movement led by mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors can create an “Egyptian” movement.

By coincidence, a few hours after this teleconference, the MindFreedom office received news that Elizabeth Ellis, 67, may be taken from her home to a psychiatric institution, for refusing to report for another involuntary outpatient electroshock. What a perfect illustration of the need for not just reform, but a nonviolent revolution. For more info about the Elizabeth Campaign, click here.

AT BOTTOM is “Live Blogging” by David Oaks during the teleconference. 

How Can the Mental Health System Have an Egyptian Moment?

by David W. Oaks


“Imagine the mental health system — in the USA and internationally — experiences a moment, some day soon, similar to what happened recently in Egypt. What is your role?”

How can we resist the human rights violations in the mental health system – such as forced electroshock and forced drugging – and promote humane alternatives?

Below are my top ten suggestions:

  1. Everyone is a leader, and the first job of a leader is supporting more leaders! In a community organizing model, you may have the role of a coach more than a traditional leader. What is your role in helping the mental health system have an “Egyptian” moment? (A shameless plug: For two decades, I’ve given workshops on Community Organizing for Independent Systems Change.)

    1. Inside/outside strategy: Government and corporate funding is necessary for some important activities. But government and corporate funding tends NOT to fund certain things: Direct action, protest, civil disobedience, activism, and addressing controversial subjects like the power of the pharmaceutical industry. These are the things we need! See our independent statement created at a SAMHSA summit last year. See how MindFreedom helped at last minute to prevent forced drugging from being top SAMHSA initiative, and instead helped voice and choice win out.
    2. Role of youth and other emerging leaders: Newly emerging leaders can be of any age, and ought to be encouraged and supported. I’ve been a leader for 35 years, and this is a multi-generational effort. 
    3. “Complex cultural competency”: Our movement has a very special diversity. I wrote my college senior paper on it. Today I work with disability groups in a workshop called “Amplify” about this. We need to include diversity, starting with language. Let’s stop using the term “mental illness.” We need to seek the ‘edge’ between individual and group organizing, with ‘just enough’ organizing.’
    4. Reform is not enough! Leaders are bold! Since Arizona, we have heard about more funding for mental health in general. Disaster has always built the mental health system. We need to stop promoting simply “more money.” “More money” often simply means more forced psychiatry, and more over-drugging. We need to STOP lobbying for more money for forced treatment, and lack of choice. Example: MindFreedom helped get public pressure to make sure Whitaker spoke at last year’s Alternatives 2010 conference. 
    5. Leaders include allies: We need to break out of the ‘mad ghetto.’ Remember the disability movement. Plug: We now have an “Amplify” workshop that connects up with ‘physical’ disability movement (click to download flyer from a past Amplify workshop). Plus, we are now working with mothers and family members who speak out for supporting psychiatric survivors. 
    6. Unite in a spirit of mutual cooperation: We psychiatric survivors are often especially hurt over power issues, on a deep level. Sometimes we’re overly critical of each other, without supplying mutual support. So we need to be especially sensitive to that, and maintain our principles in the way we work with one another. Hold one another accountable to our principles, but then: Make up, move on.
    7. We are our own media! In the era of Web 2.0 each and every one of us is not only a leader, but also the media. In fact, to get mainstream media, we often need to first cover an event itself. Two examples: Alerts — putting out a summary of a problem and a solution you are encouraging through activism. And news: Cover an event yourself like a journalist, with at least one good photo or video. One example of MFI’s use of web 2.0 is our international alert system, which people can join for free here
    8. This is a global effort! We are now working on a handbook for international leadership, and doing a training in Accra, Ghana. International efforts are the main arena in mental health, and we need to be part of that. 
    9. We need both dialogue and peaceful direct action! We at MindFreedom have sought dialogue with representatives of organizations of mental health professionals about human rights violations. This offer has not been reciprocated. We need to look into significant activism. For instance, we are suggesting 5 May 2012 for a “Million Mad March.”


    Live blogging during teleconference by David Oaks:

    11:15 am Pacific Time: I’ve just done my presentation with the BELOW ‘TOP TEN POINTS.” I simply ask: How we can have an “Egypt” in today’s mental health system?

    I am ‘live blogging’ during the rest of today’s teleconference with updates if any, so check back, hit ‘refresh.’ If you want to dialogue during or after today’s event,

    Keris Jän Myrick is next speaker, talking about moving from “I’ to “We” organizing. Good point about need for more leadership by people of color. MindFreedom International board president is the wonderful Celia Brown, African American psychiatric survivor. 

    11:21 am PT: Pam Hyde, SAMHSA Administrator is third speaker: Pam included a candid discussion about how she was once an “outside” leader-attorney fighting against the current mental health system to change it. She pointed out that sometimes when she was an “outside” leader some of her best allies were inside the system. She pointed out that the Egyptian peaceful revolution was only 18 days long, but in a way this is just the start — and there will be months and years of incremental work if democracy truly is brought to the country.

    11:30 am PT: Discussion about to especially encourage leadership among marginalized groups, such as women of color. David mentioned special outreach to neglected groups, such as homeless and ex-homeless among the homeless newspapers all over the US. Keris points out that priorities may be different among leaders, but we need to welcome that diversity. Example: The Homeless Marathon is reaching homeless activists via radio & web.

    11:45 am PT: There is discussion about looming mental health budget cutbacks. David and Keris agree that ‘more money’ in general for the mental health system is not enough, that we need to focus on specific items like peer-delivered services and advocacy. Pat talked about using Supported Decision Making so that “forced treatment is not necessary, or certainly not the first thing people think of.” 

    11:50 am PT: There’s a question about how to divert some of the ‘gold’ from the medical model approach, to peer-run programs. David suggested Lauren Spiro comment, since she was able to shake out more than a million more dollars for peer-run programs. Moderator Jim McNulty talked about the sheer number of lobbiests for the medical model approach in Washington, D.C. 

    Pam said, “Often people lobby in a “way too generic’ way, such as ‘we want more money for peer run programs.’ But legislators then say, ‘I don’t know what to do with that, it’s too generic.’ So we as leaders need to get very specific, and it’s not always Congress. For instance, CMS — which funds Medicaid and Medicare — is more flexible than I’ve ever seen them for funding non-medical approaches. We have to be very specific in advocacy efforts.”



    And be sure to JOIN MindFreedom International! Be part of a 25-year-old international independent coalition working for human rights and alternatives in mental health system, open to the public, and led by psychiatric survivors. 

    To join click the ‘big red button’ on the upper right hand corner of this web site, or click here:


    Document Actions