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Strength in any human rights movement is usually measured by people power — this can be witnessed both in the courts and on the streets.

Protests against psychiatric oppression have taken place around the world. Worldwide electroshock rallies organized by MindFreedom Ireland call to abolish shock treatment, in which seizures are electrically induced in people diagnosed with mental illness. Activists hold these rallies every May around Mother’s Day to emphasize that twice as many women receive electroshock than men.

Protests of the American Psychiatric Association take place outside its annual meeting holding psychiatrists accountable for the harms of forced treatment.

The MindFreedom Shield, a program created by David Oaks, is another example of people power in action. Once activated, a Shield alert reaches all members of the Shield to begin organizing and protesting on behalf of the person being subjected to involuntary treatment.

One successful campaign in 2011 involved rescuing Geetha Rathnamala, a 31-year-old woman being held against her will and forcibly drugged inside the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, which is part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Geetha was a registered MindFreedom Shield participant and an alert was issued. An easy-to-complete form was set up to send emails to Pennsylvania’s governor, alerting him of the injustice. MindFreedom also posted contact information for key decision makers such as the president and CEO of UPMC, the medical director, residency director, and president of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Geetha is now free and writing about her experience.

The most notable of all Shield campaigns rescued Ray Sandford, a 55-year-old Minnesota citizen who was receiving ongoing involuntary outpatient electroshock. MindFreedom issued 21 Shield alerts, activating thousands of people who peacefully but passionately contacted elected officials, held protests, visited Sandford in the hospital, and won extensive media coverage. Hospital authorities ultimately canceled Sandford’s shock treatment and sent him home.

Numerous civil lawsuits have been filed against pharmaceutical companies, costing them billions of dollars. One such lawsuit involved the controversial TeenScreen program, which screened children in public schools across the U.S. for mental illness. Evidence later revealed that TeenScreen was funded by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly — Lilly was sued for off-label marketing of Zyprexa to children and the elderly, resulting in one of the largest criminal fines in U.S. history, totaling $1.4 billion.

In terms of impact, the 1975 U.S. Supreme Court case O’Connor v. Donaldson is a landmark decision in mental health law. It stated that a psychiatric diagnosis alone is insufficient to lock someone up against their will. Anyone capable of living independently or with the aid of responsible family members or friends cannot be committed involuntarily — unless they are declared a danger to themself or others.

Another landmark civil rights law is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prevents discrimination based on disability.

Psychiatric survivors continue to fight to have a voice in the development and implementation of health care, mental health, and social policies at the state and national levels. The National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, started by psychiatric survivor Dr. Dan Fisher, has advocated tirelessly on the slogan: “Not about us without us.”

On an international level, the United Nations created the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Supported by the World Health Organization, the Convention outlines the civil, cultural, political, social, and economic rights of people with disabilities, including immunity from forced psychiatric treatment.

A special rapporteur for the UN advised that countries must scrutinize their use of electroconvulsive therapy, forced psychiatric drugging, seclusion, restraint, and forced outpatient treatment. The UN declared that forced psychiatric treatment is a form of torture and should be abolished.

At the beginning of Voice for Choices, we set the intention to break the silence … connect … heal … and organize to drive a nonviolent revolution in the mental health system. We have journeyed together to uncover what mental illness is, what involuntary psychiatric treatment looks like, and how survivors are taking back control of their lives.

Has the mental health system harmed you or someone you care about? You are not alone. You don’t have to go it alone. There is a movement — join us. We’re here when you’re ready.


Watch the rest of the Voices for Choices series