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Delivered at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, Queen Street site, Toronto, Canada. Dedicated to my close and lifelong friend, editorial consultant, and brilliant advocate Carla McKague.

Acceptance Speech for “Award in Advocacy” from the Mental Health Legal Committee

Date Published:

Apr 22, 2008 01:00 AM

Author: Don Weitz

I wish to thank the Mental Health Legal Committee for giving me and three other activist-advocates your annual award. I accept this important award not only for myself but mainly for many other psychiatric survivors and antipsychiatry activists who are not here, perhaps because they’ve been disabled and disempowered by psychiatrists or other mental health professionals, perhaps they’re going through a personal crisis, or perhaps because they did not survive psychiatry’s so-called “safe, effective and lifesaving treatment”.

Before continuing, I want to say a few words about being here. I have mixed feelings, to say the least. At first I felt like not showing up. For me, and I’m sure many other survivors, former patients and antipsychiatry activists, Queen Street is not an emotionally or socially neutral or safe gathering place in the community. For me, this place triggers a lot of frustration, anger and resentment, it triggers disturbing images and vivid memories of witnessing people being emotionally, verbally and physically abused, re-traumatized, unjustly locked up, forcibly drugged or electroshocked, humiliated and degraded daily. This is a warehouse, a psychoprison – not a real hospital, not a place of healing. I feel I have to say this because I must be honest with you, and myself and because I refuse to cover up or betray the trauma and terror I’ve witnessed here.

I know something about trauma, terror and torture. Over 50 years ago in 1951-1953, I was locked up, forcibly drugged with 110 insulin subcoma shocks administered without my informed consent in McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated psychoprison a few miles outside Boston. At that time, none of us so-called “mental patients” had an advocate or lawyer to turn to, we had no rights. Despite the excellent advocacy and public education initiatives of this Committee, other advocates and “rights advisors”, many people labeled “mentally ill” today do not know their legal rights including the right to refuse any psychiatric procedure providing they’re “capable”, their right to appeal their involuntary committal, forced treatment and/or stigmatizing labels including the damning word “incapable”, and no right to appeal while locked up during the first 72 hours of incarceration called “observation and assessment”.

Once locked up in a psychiatric facility, you are a prisoner of psychiatry, sometimes a human guinea pig for hi-risk psychiatric experiments funded by the multinational drug companies or ‘Big Pharma’. Psychiatric patients and survivors, like all other marginalized and oppressed people, are easy targets of misinformation, disinformation, stereotypes and myths about how dangerous, violent or “incapable” they are, stigmatizing and pseudo-medical labels, and what the American playwright Tennessee Williams calls “mendacity”- lies, especially psychiatric lies of “mental illness”, the lie of “safe and effective medication”, the lie of “lifesaving ECT”, the lie of “clinical improvement”, the lie of “biochemical imbalance”, the lie of “schizophrenia”, the lie of “bipolar mood disorder”, the lie of “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ or “ADHD” and other non-existent medical conditions.

For 2 years, 1970 to 1972, I worked as a community psychologist here at what was once called “Queen Street Mental Health Centre”. I’m not proud of that experience, but I was very fortunate to have met Harvey “Alf” Jackson. Alf was the co-founder of On Our Own (originally called Ontario Mental Patients Association), the first self-help group of psychiatric survivors in Ontario, a close friend and brother.

As a street worker, Alf educated me about poverty, homelessness and drug addiction in ‘Cabbagetown”; he trained and inspired dozens of survivors to develop practical business skills, and helped establish The Mad Market, he boosted their self-confidence made them feel proud of themselves while the system was making them feel ashamed, incompetent, worthless, ‘damaged goods’. Alf once helped save my life when I was suicidal. If it weren’t for Alf’s support and understanding, I probably would have thrown myself on the TTC tracks, ended up in Queen Street or the Clarke where psychiatrists would forcibly drug, electroshock and re-traumatize me.

In September 1972, I resigned from Queen Street and stopped calling myself a psychologist shortly after I witnessed tortures such as the Cold Wet Pack; after I witnessed forced drugging and daily humiliation and degradations of many patients; and after I had received no support from other psychologists when I protested against the ‘pack’ as cruel and unusual punishment. Approximately 20 years later in the mid-1990s, I witnessed more instances of psychiatric abuse and torture in Queen Street.

I saw my good friend Mel being overdrugged and physically punished (“restrained”) and languishing in “seclusion” (solitary confinement) on one of Queen Street’s locked wards. Thanks to his strong will to survive, the collective advocacy of Marshall Swadron, Lilith Finkler and myself, and a public protest organized by other survivors and activists in the political action group Resistance Against Psychiatry (RAP), Mel was finally released. He’s lucky to get out alive, many were not so lucky. Many have died here, like 19-year old Aldo Alviani who died 36 hours after admission to Queen St. in 1980 from prescribed drug overdoses of Haldol and other neuroleptics. Mel is here today, he deserves to be recognized and respected as a courageous survivor and activist.

Carla McKague, one of the award recipients who unfortunately can’t be here today, is my very close lifetime friend and one of my few heroes – besides Beethoven. I first met Carla in 1978, a year after Alf, Bob Carson and I co-founded On Our Own (the first self-help group of psychiatric survivors in Ontario). She was a law student working in Queen Street’s Student Legal Aid Office, I admit I was a big pain in the ass because I bugged her almost everyday while she was working-day-and-night trying to remove the stigmatizing label of “incompetent” the psychiatrists had unjustly imposed on Evelyn Parm, a feisty elderly woman languishing in one of Queen Street’s geriatric wards.

When Carla succeeded in getting the incompetence label removed on Evelyn’s medical records and after Evelyn was released, we celebrated, it was a great thrill and victory for all of us. Carla taught me a lot about Ontario’s Mental Health Act and mental health legislation generally (see her book Mental Health Law in Canada) – particularly its many restrictions and medical model bias. For psychiatric patients or those labeled “mentally ill”, mental health laws are the psychiatric equivalent of the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany. They all should be challenged as unconstitutional or Charter violations, because they discriminate against people labeled “mentally ill”, advocate coercion, violate a number of human rights.including freedom and due process, and obstruct justice.

For example, consider involuntary committal, In fact, it is a form of preventive detention which is prohibited in international law. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what every mental health act in Canada and the United States authorizes – denying citizens a court hearing or trial before locking them up and losing their freedom – on the belief they might commit a dangerous or criminal act. Consent and Capacity boards and mental health review boards are a cruel joke and perpetuate injustice -these government-appointed boards are psychiatrically biased and anti-democratic. They resemble ‘kangaroo courts’ and ‘show trials’ where the “clinical judgment” of psychiatrists invariably rules and trumps patients’ appeals for freedom that are usually minimized or dismissed as “unrealistic”.

The “community treatment order” law passed as an amendment to the Mental Health Act by the Harris government in December 2000, authorizes outpatient forced treatment as “community treatment orders” (CTOs)–e.g. forced drugging which some activists call “chemical incarceration” or psychiatry’s “leash law” that authorizes psychiatric probation for months or years. I hope this Committee or other lawyers sue the Ontario government and challenge CTOs as unconstitutional, a Charter violation.

I also want to talk about the struggle against electroshock that has consumed most of my activism during the last 25 years. I’m proud of being a part of this human rights struggle that is on the verge of becoming international. Many people, including those with MD & PhD degrees look stunned when I tell them electroshock was never banned but has actually increased during the last 10 years. They mistakenly assumed that “ECT” is no longer prescribed after having seen the shock scene in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Electroshock today is more dangerous than it was 10-20 years ago – more electrical energy (150-300 volts) is required to override the higher seizure thresholds resulting from the drugs. Despite what the Canadian Psychiatric Association claims in its “ECT”position papers, virtually very shock t treatment causes small hemorrhages and rapid and sudden rises in blood pressure in the brain and heart, and a host of many other effects including physical weakness, migraine-type headache, difficulty concentrating and learning new material, permanent memory loss and brain damage. The shock doctors call the grand mal seizure caused by ECT “therapeutic”. I’ve never heard of a neurologist calling seizures “therapeutic”, they try to prevent them, which is why they prescribe anti-convulsants to people with epilepsy. Only shock doctors and their apologists believe this nonsense.

The ECT statistics I’ve collected for over 25 years from the Ministry of Health clearly show that electroshock has in fact increased over the last 10 years. In year 2003-2004, over 14,000 shocks were administered in Ontario, about 70% of the shocked patients were women, roughly half were 60 years and older; two to three times more women than men are shocked. I don’t have the figures for CAMH because they’re virtually inaccessible or not reported to the Ministry. Electroshock is another form of elder abuse, another good example of how psychiatry preys on the more vulnerable among us.

Almost 25 years ago in 1983, several shock survivors and feminist-activist Dr.Bonnie Burstow decided to take action against electroshock. We came together to start the Ontario Coalition to Stop Electroshock – after a successful and riveting public forum held in Toronto City Hall where several survivors including Carla publicly and courageously testified about some of their horrendous experiences and urged a total ban on shock. The next day, the Coalition demonstrated in front of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry – Toronto’s shock mill. In December 1983, the Coalition supported Carla while she represented “Mrs.T.” in the Supreme Court of Ontario. “Mrs. T.” was a woman incarcerated in Hamilton Psychiatric, her psychiatrist was repeatedly threatening to shock her despite her competent refusal and the refusal of her husband and brother.

Although the case lost on a technicality, “Mrs. T” was never shocked, thanks to Carla’s brilliant argument and advocacy, Mrs. T’s supportive husband, and Coalition members who packed the court. The case triggered national media attention, since the public and political leaders, including NDP leader Bob Rae, didn’t know that electroshock could be forcibly administered over the person’s refusal. In October 1985, the Ontario Coalition held 3 days of public hearings on electroshock in Toronto City Hall, and two years ago, the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) also held two days of public hearings on electroshock, because the Ontario government has flatly refused to call public hearings into electroshock – arguably the most “controversial” and health-threatening procedure in psychiatry.

At these two public hearings over 50 people including many shock survivors and family relatives courageously spoke out against shock and advocated an immediate ban on electroshock. Largely because of “Mrs. T.”, the informed consent recommendations in the Ontario government’s 1985 Report on ECT, and public pressure, today’s Health Care Consent Act and other mental health acts in Canada currently prohibit electroshock and other psychiatric procedures without consent. However, informed consent in psychiatry is a sham, it’s constantly violated and must be publicly exposed and challenged more frequently.

During the next 10 years, the Coalition and its successor Resistance Against Psychiatry (RAP) organized a number of successful protests, demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience. On January17, 1984, the Toronto Board of Health passed a resolution that called for an immediate moratorium on electroshock in Ontario after several of us Coalition members spoke out against shock at a public meeting. The board members believed us – not the psychiatrists.

This was an historic event and victory – it was the first time in Canada that a government health body criticized and tried to limit a psychiatric procedure. Unfortunately, the moratorium resolution died since the provincial government refused to support and enforce the board’s resolution. Then in the summer of 1984, three of us carried out nonviolent civil disobedience, we carried out a “sit-in” in the office of Tory health minister Keith Norton – we protested against electroshock and his refusal to appoint Carla, a shock survivor, to the 16-member, doctor-dominated ECT Review Committee he announced shortly the Toronto Board of Health’s resolution. We were never arrested but got some media coverage, and Carla was appointed a few months later to the review committee as the only shock survivor. She was the only committee member who recommended a total shock ban.

In May 1988, shock survivor Jack Wild and I tried to hand out factual information on shock inside the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. We wanted to help inform patients about some real facts about electroshock, also to combat the usual misinformation and lies. When Big Nurse refused to allow us to distribute the information on the ward during visiting hours, we sat down with arms linked in protest in front of the elevators and were soon arrested on a trespass charge. We appealed but lost.

Next month, on Mothers Day, May 13, the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) which I co-founded with Dr. Bonnie Burstow almost 4 years ago, is organizing an arts-based anti-shock march and demonstration called Stop Shocking Our Mothers and Grandmothers. It promises to be big, noisy, entertaining and empowering, over 25 organizations have endorsed the demo, and similar anti-shock demonstrations will be held the same day in Ireland and Montreal. I invite everybody here today to come to and participate in this peaceful and historic event. Feel free to check out the CAPA website for more information.

Psychiatric survivors and their allies including social justice and human rights activists will not and should not be silent. We must continue speaking out, acting out, protesting against the psychiatric system until electroshock, forced drugging and other health-threatening psychiatric atrocities masquerading as “safe and effective treatment” are outlawed as serious violations of our human rights.

Abolishing the psychiatric system probably won’t happen in my lifetime. However, I’m convinced we can abolish the memory-destroying, brain-damaging psychiatric procedure of electroshock with the support of survivors, activists, feminists, women’s and human rights organizations across Canada, the United States and other countries – and with advocates like you. Thank you again for this award which I will proudly share with other activists.

[Actual speech was shorter due to time constraint.]