Leaders in the disability field asked for advice about how to help people diagnosed with a disability after any major disaster in empowering and knowledgeable ways. David Oaks, MFI director, responded with a warning that after a disaster, many of those diagnosed with ‘serious’ psychiatric disabilities can be in for a second wave of trauma in a flawed mental health system.

Earth imageThank you to disability leaders for asking about the topic of “disasters and disability.”

I raise here the danger of the “second disaster” that hits many trauma survivors who become harmed by a deeply flawed mental health system.

I hope everyone interested in this topic has taken a look at the book by ETHAN WATTERS, “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.”

In some ways, Mr. Watters does not go far enough. (E.g. he doesn’t talk enough about the movement led by mental health consumers/users/psychiatric survivors… he doesn’t adequately address domination by the medical model.)

But his chapter about post-tsunami mental health help in Sri Lanka is so important. He wrote his book before the huge tsunami in Japan. So linking his chapter about the Sri Lanka disaster to another chapter in his book about marketing techniques for psychiatric drugs in Japan is especially chilling.

I talked with a Japanese member who said that many disaster survivors in Japan are experiencing harm from the mental health industry, such as over-prescription of psychiatric drugs.

Let me hasten to say there are so many people providing amazing services for those caught in many disasters, on many levels. This is not to diminish this contribution for a moment!

However, a key thing to recognize is the absolutely astounding, indescribable power imbalance between those who are considered “seriously mentally ill,” and those leading the mental health industry.

It is a chasm.

We all know about that, I hope. However, this power gap is so big, that it causes untold problems, such as muting those harmed.

We say there is a moral imperative to dialogue about this gap, see my chapter in book published by World Psychiatric Association https://mindfreedom.org/coercion

Bottom line on “disability and disaster”


After a disaster like a huge tsunami, there can be a second tsunami of trauma and harm caused by inherent harm embedded in a disastrous mental health system.

So yes, many trauma survivors may find help in ways that are useful. But especially those who experience what are considered severe difficulties – who are not eating or sleeping, or who speak of harming themselves – they can end up with a second wave of harm caused by inappropriate labeling, massive over-drugging, hopelessness from a bullying medical model, discrimination, unregulated involuntary electroshock, etc.

Note that this applies not just to after disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

  • For returning veterans traumatized severely by war… many end up severely traumatized by human rights violations in mental health care.
  • For many victims of domestic abuse who experience severe mental and emotional problems… many end up being severely traumatized by mental health system violations.
  • Especially heart-breaking: There are some services for those who have experienced state-sanctioned torture. We have come across instances of wholesale over-drugging at well-meaning clinics to assist torture survivors.

The chasm that is the power imbalance between those on receiving end of serious psychiatric diagnoses, and the mental health industry, should give us pause, let me take a look at history on this:

I’ve had contacts in Israel tell me about how after World War II, of course some Holocaust survivors experienced overwhelming mental and emotional problems. Sadly, a number of them ended up in institutions, experiencing still more trauma through labeling, domination, over-drugging, electroshock.

In one of the few times of dialogue with World Psychiatric Association, we were able to get a keynote by Dorothea Buck from Germany, who is now in her 90’s and had experienced involuntary sterilization during the Nazi era. It’s interesting that her keynote focused on the lack of DIALOGUE during her subsequent seventy (70) years of psychiatric treatment! She said during her whole 70 years, she did not have a true dialogue with her mental health providers, have the trauma that she experienced.

Ironically, this moment of hope with the WPA itself has not resulted in any ongoing dialogue.

You can read about the dialogue that Dorothea Buck and others sought with World Psychiatric Association here. 

Just the other day I was talking with a wonderful cross-disability attorney who has dedicated their life to these issues internationally, and has a special concern about mental health. Like many people I speak with, this leader had not heard that one of the very, very first groups targeted in the Holocaust, were children diagnosed with mental disabilities. That’s how huge this power imbalance is: Even many of our own wonderful leaders have not heard of the history of atrocities like the Action T4 program.

And we know what happens when we don’t learn from history.

Back to the question of “disability and disaster,” I do not have an easy answer.

But thank you for asking, and for the opportunity to at least stand at the end of the chasm of this power imbalance with you all, and witness it.

This is my 35th year working as a grassroots community activist for human rights in mental health. I have still not discovered how deep this chasm is.