Reflecting back on 35 years of activism in what is called the “mad movement,” David Oaks suggests the various fragmented groups and communities need to connect more for emergent activism. [revised 8/7/11 and 1/17/12]


Earth imageOne cool thing about celebrating MindFreedom International’s 25th year, and my own 35th year as a community organizer in changing mental health, is I get to ‘reflect back.’

I even recently did one of my fasting retreats in Oregon’s beautiful wilderness, in this case the rocky coast and coastal mountain creeks, to think back on this. A Youtube video about that is here. 

But at the moment I just want to comment on a strange phenomenon. Weird really, but then isn’t everything weird? What is not?

The strange phenomenon is the way our social change movement has ended up in dozens of “islands.”

Now, I’m not talking about people with grudges or anything.

I’m talking about mainly friendly islands, who all consider themselves striving together in the same challenging social change movement. But one can sense the need for these various communities to connect, to communicate… for “canoes and bridges” between the islands.

Because MindFreedom International is a coalition, we’re in touch with many of these islands, have good relations. Many are actual Sponsor groups in our MindFreedom Support Coalition. So we’re privileged to have an eagle eye view… but this view says, “Get out your canoes and build some bridges!”


Quick Tour of a Few Islands?


The following are just a few examples, but I realize even this is getting long!

Probably only a few dozen “canoe” folks are in touch with them all, which is heartbreaking. Everyone ought to work with their own island, but if only we had more bridges and canoes, I think we could emerge as a nonviolent revolution!

Because, you see, our movement truly needs to reach people in the millions. If we just fragment, we literally build our own ghetto, and talk mainly with ourselves.


Break out of the mad ghetto!

ISEPP: A number of mental health professionals network via a wonderful organization called ISEPP (International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry, formerly ICSPP). I speak at their conference this October. ISEPP is a long-time MFI Sponsor. But a lot of mental health professionals who care are not aware of them. And many psychiatric survivors and mental health consumers seem not to notice ISEPP.

ISPS: And then there is ISPS, International Society for Psychological Treatments of Schizophrenia, which is a similar group, highly recommended by critical psychotherapists, but at this point is not a Sponsor (some day!).

INTAR: But let’s not forget INTAR, which is also a sponsor group of MindFreedom International, and promotes humane alternatives. Go INTAR!

ALTERNATIVES CONFERENCE: But wait, what about the annual Alternatives conference, which for three decades has connected people in the emerging career of “mental health consumer/psychiatric survivors” Peer Delivered Services. I’ve attended about 10 of these and they have been warm, supportive and given me hope.

NCMHR: Ah ha, but across the street from Alternatives conferences, don’t miss the meeting of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, courageously founded by Dan Fisher, at National Empowerment Center (NEC). NCMHR meets separately, because it’s doing organizing, and federal-funded of Alternatives won’t sanction that inside their own hotel. And there are a few such federally-funded “TA” centers, all with their own networks.

Icarus Project: Another sponsor group, Icarus has been mainly visible through an enormous web site of thousands of communications via a forum, plus a number of grassroots peer support meetings. More cultural and youth oriented that much of the movement, they’ve done well connecting with their constituency.

WNUSP: MindFreedom members played a role in a number of meetings in the 1990’s that led to the 2001 launch of the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry.

NARPA: National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy (NARPA) has kept the candle lit at the intersection of legal activism and psychiatric survivor activism.

PSYCHRIGHTS: Led by the walking coalition Jim Gottstein, PsychRights in Alaska provides a good model of bridging the legal advocacy and activist worlds.

ENUSP: European Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry. A great group! A few years ago I attende done of their small board meetings, and they decided not to be a sponsor of MFI at that time, but that’s okay. But given low resource’s it is difficult to for everyone to stay in touch.

MAD PRIDE groups — doing Mad Pride activities.

US State mental health consumer groups — In most USA states, often focusing on training for Peer Delivered Services, and an annual conference of their consumer/survivors in that state.

Family members such as moms, dads, brothers, sisters of survivors: There are hundreds of passionate, smart, concerned family members of those harmed by the mental health system, some who have loved ones who have died in the mental health system. They quietly network by phone and e-mail, but have not developed many sustained organizations… yet. MindFreedom is launching an initiative to help network them.

Hearing Voices: In Europe there’s quite a network of folks who use peer support to manage distressing voices they hear, and they even have an annual conference.

Cross-Disability Activism: Bear in mind there are quite a few great disability groups (USICD, NCIL, DRI, etc.) that have connections to mental health, and to MindFreedom International. But often consumer/survivor groups don’t know about them. An example of an island: AAPD and NCMHR also have a cross-disability outreach, but not quite enough bridges are connecting up. Now, remember within the cross-disability movement, there are also a lot of friendly islands that sometimes don’t connect! [Update: And now there’s National Disability Leadership Alliance (NDLA) which we’ve heard about, but is apparently a friendly island that has not contacted our network yet.]

Prison Justice: At the start of the ‘mad movement’ in the 1970’s, we considered ourselves part of the “prison justice movement.” We need to reconnect to that important island. Because changing the mental health system requires massive changes in the whole criminal justice system. We need to build bridges with prison justice, similar to what we’ve built with cross-disability.

Environmental Movement: Yes, one of the movements we need to connect up with more are the folks seeking deep change in how we as human beings handle our Mother Earth. There is a field called ecopsychology. Some of these caring mental health professionals are even helping to create safe time and space for people to begin to experience the unprecedented “eco-grief” that is inherent in the dawning realization that “normal” is wrecking ecological fabric of our beloved planet. This connection means we are actually all in the same boat, with one island: Earth.

Academia and Scientists: It is telling that after more than 40 years, no university has an archive related to the psychiatric survivor movement! Something is wrong in there. But there are quite a few individual researchers, academics, instructors, professors, graduate students who are pursuing the field of changing the mental health system. Unfortunately, because of the ‘island’ phenomenon, many grad students don’t even know about each other. MindFreedom has an Academic Alliance to at least try to network more leaders in academia, click here. MindFreedom also has a Scientific Advisory Board, which is a good example of working with clinicians and leaders in the field.

MindFreedom Sponsor and Affiliate Groups. While many of above are officially linked in our coalition, MFI could do a lot more via e-mail lists and teleconferences to connect everyone up. We’ll try harder! In meantime, the public list of MFI Sponsor (using their own name) and Affiliates (using local geographically and using MindFreedom name), is now updated and available, click here.


And That Was The Quick Tour!


Bear in mind above is just a fast motorboat cruise of a few islands…

Since we are serious about the ‘crazy’ vision of a global nonviolent revolution in mental health, social justice, and the environment… Of course there would be many more islands to unite!

You could also add for example:

  • the general human rights community
  • those working to eradicate poverty
  • homeless groups (such as those street newspapers, that are willing to cover us if people wrote articles)
  • vets and their allies
  • legal advocacy systems, such as the USA-funded “protection and advocacy” agencies connected through the National Disability Rights Network. Perhaps because of taxpayer funding, legal advocacy bridge building to more activist approaches (such as NARPA) needs special help
  • the wholistic health care movement, nutritional and orthomolecular approaches, and what some might call ‘new age’ alternative approaches for wellness of mind, body and spirit.
  • other constituencies that are especially targeted by psychiatric abuse: youth, women, seniors
  • individual authors and researchers and artists and attorneys and leaders.
  • [update: Occupy Movement!]
  • and many more, you get the idea!


Please understand if your own ‘island’ is not listed, though you are welcome to email a paragraph about that to

Where’s Your Canoe? What Bridges Are You Building?


The above “island” phenomenon can be quite strange to those who know about it!


In New York, recently, there was a small but dedicated psychOUT conference of activists, that got rave views. Overlapping dates, not far away, there was a larger, effective “Peer Delivered Service” conference, that of course had far more attendees because it held the promise of those three magic words: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Only a few ‘super activists’ like Darby Penney and Celia Brown and a few others were actually in both. These activists really know how to paddle that canoe!

Here at MindFreedom we get to connect with and see all these various islands.

A “human rights framework” has also helped provide some amount of bridge building, and you can read my chapter against psychiatric coercion published in a World Psychiatric Association book, that also makes some of these points.

I totally understand why someone would want to focus on their own ‘island.’

There’s a sense of excitement, ownership, passion in building one’s own group, with one’s own board and one’s own community. It’s fun. In fact, the word origin of “party” derives from the way a group celebrates its identity “a-part” from others.

This is often called the very natural “competing interests” found in any kind of coalition-building (as opposed to unethical “conflicts of interest”).

With scarce resources, once you start your own group you have to keep it all going — web site updates, funding appeals, communications, training, board development, etc. — and that can be like juggling 10 balls in the air, which makes it difficult to also canoe and build bridges.

But with modern technology, it should be more possible to at least weave us all together to be aware of one another, and to connect now and again, with information, informal ad hoc alliances and formal coalitions.

What I’m becoming aware of in 2011, after 35 years, is that all the new computer technology actually lays bare a challenge in our inner souls.

Because you see, in 2011, most of us can just hit a button and — using Facebook, Skype, e-mail lists, web sites — we can at least connect up with others, and be our own journalists. So to the extent we forget to do this… the challenge is nearly entirely internal, what some might call spiritual or psychosocial.

We all have an inner bridge builder.

We all have an inner canoe paddler.

It is mutual support that can encourage those inner community organizers, which can in turn help create more mutual support.

So connect up the islands. Once we do, we don’t know what to expect.

But by making our intent clear for truly major change in mental health, there may be an emergent phenomenon – a “Cairo moment” – that could surprise everyone!

Remember, it’s not a question of, “Can we do this?”

It’s a fact: “We must do this.”


[updated 7 Aug. 2011 and 17 Jan. 2012]