When the American Psychiatric Association held their annual meeting in May, 2003 several hundred psychiatric survivors and activists gathered to protest.
How to Have Mad Pride While You’re Protesting in Front of Thousands of Psychiatrists
by David Oaks, Director, MindFreedom.org
Brace yourself for some news: Some day, one of your friends or family members may very likely end up using the mental health system, or maybe they already are. So you may want to find out about how the psychiatric profession’sown clients led a protest when the American Psychiatric Association held their Annual Meeting in San Francisco this May.
When 19,000 participants arrived here for APA Annual Meeting, several hundred people gathered to peacefully protest at two events. One event was a free counter-conference on May 17. The other was a Freedom Rally on May 18, held a few feet from the entrance to the Moscone Center as the APA meeting began.
There was plenty of guerilla theatre. Psychiatrist Sally Satel was at the protest. Or at least it was someone wearing a full color mask of Dr. Satel, who is a key Bush administration mental health advisor and close friends with both of the Cheneys. Dr. Satel calls for a massive increase in forced psychiatric drugging, and says events such as the protest are anexample of “inmates taking over the asylum.”
Sally was not pleased. Around her, a group of protesters had a huge wheel that passerby could spin in order to get their latest “scientific”diagnosis, which was gently slapped on them as a label. Some other protesters dressed as psychiatrists, as patients and of course as President Bush.
The two San Francisco protest events that weekend drew together an eclectic band of disability, youth, anti-globalization and homeless activists, plus legal advocates, family members, wholistic health practitioners,dissident mental health workers and more. A source of much of this ferment is a 33-year-old social change movement that is uniting more and more of psychiatry’s own clients: Mental health consumers and people who say they experienced human rights violations in the mental health system, also known as “psychiatric survivors.”
One organizer was Sally Zinman, who is director of the California Network for Mental Health Clients (CNMHC), and a psychiatric survivor. Why pick on theAPA? Sally said, “There is a full scale attack on the rights of people with psychiatric disabilities raging throughout the country: to increase forced treatment. The American Psychiatric Association hasbeen in the forefront of this siege on our rights.”
The reality is,the APA is hurting people, said Sally: “The medical profession takes an oath to do no harm, yet consistently, in state after state, the psychiatric associations support polices that harm: forced treatment,seclusion and restraint, forced shock treatment. The APA has consistently been the defender of human rights abuses in the mental health system.” Zinman announced that the Governor of California had proposed terminating all funding to CNMHC in his new budget.
I asked several of the protesters about what it was like to protest psychiatry directly in front of thousands of psychiatrists.
Tammy is a psychiatric survivor who found it fascinating to observe the psychiatrists at the protest: “I took the bus 12 hours one way to be there, but it was worth it. I don’t feel comfortable being near psychiatrists but being with our large group felt better. It was surprising how many psychiatrists photographed us. At times there were more like ten at once.”
Tammy walked into the Moscone Center and caught a glimpse of the exhibit hall from above.”There were panoramic windows that give a birds eye view of the whole main room. It was like Las Vegas. There were lights and waterfalls…yes, little waterfalls running over posters encased in glass. There was a giant purple walk-in dome that was lit up from within. There were 20 foot spinning 3-D banners hanging from the ceiling and a jumbo-screen TV, so big I could easily make it out from hundreds of feet away. There was a laser projection sign. There was glittering and spinning everywhere. The room was acres under a roof and all of these things were displays made by the drug companies to advertise their drugs.Words like ‘Lilly’ and ‘Abilify’ were in lit up letters everywhere. I realized how big it is, how much money is in it and how much it isn’tabout caring, or happiness, or normality or even health.”
Psychiatric survivor Kathie Zatkin also made a study of the psychiatrists:”Confronting psychiatrists is a profoundly disturbing but necessary business. I talked to psychiatrists who came up to us at the Freedom Rally. The older docs were much more willing to at least appear to consider questions. The younger ones were extremely defensive,unwilling to acknowledge any risks of the drugs, but one did admit that much of his schooling was paid for by drug companies.”
Dissident mental health professionals joined in the protest, too. One of these was Jerry Bass who said we all needed to challenge what he calls the Dominant Psychiatric Paradigm or DPP: “A given in mainstream psychiatry is that the doctor knows better than the patient. Patients are relegated to passive recipients of drugs by psychiatrists: manipulated, lied to,abused, experimented on, rendered powerless, treated as objects rather than subjects whose feelings and experiences are disrespected and ignored.”
Jerry took a walk around the Moscone Center, and said, “It looked more like a meeting of drug companies than anything else. At the Conference I picked up the current issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry and counted 67 full-page, glossy, multi-colored drug ads, as against 113 pages devoted to articles. One vivid images I took away from was how almost every attendee clutched attractive tan carrying cases provided by GlaxoSmithKline.”
Matthew Morrissey, a psychiatric survivor who is now a registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, was a key organizer of the counter-conference.He said, “I decided to help organize this in order to provide an alternative to the APA meeting, to bring together new groups of people in the Bay Area who are natural allies, and to further galvanize our movement in the Bay Area.
“I was a presenter in the Alternative Humane Treatment workshop. I framed the issue of what “alternative treatment” meant — ‘alternative’ means alternative to the medical model that sees emotional-behavioral phenomena as signs of faulty biology. ‘Treatment’ connotes not that we are the experts and you are the patients but rather in the sense of’how have you been treated today by others, how did they treat you?'”
Joyce Johnson got re-involved in the movement because of this activity: “I’m an ex-patient having been hospitalized and ‘thorazined’ in my teens. I distanced myself from the mental health system and movement for a longtime. But I was inspired by the insights of the book Mad in America and the courage of people in the survivor movement.”
Al Galves is a clinical psychologist who works with physicians in treating low income,Hispanic patients in a community health clinic in Colorado. Al said,”For me, the most moving scenes of the weekend were messages from bright, articulate, energetic people who had been forcibly drugged and shocked because they were different, challenging, threatening, perhaps bizarre. It was a testimony to the incredible resilience of human beings and the power of our drive to be healthy and alive. The message that we put out is that the treatment that is provided to patients by mainstream psychiatry is fundamentally inhumane and damaging to human beings.”
Why is psychiatry hurting people? Al analyzed the situation: “The symptoms which bring people into treatment are functional responses to life situations that are perceived and interpreted in certain ways by individual patients.The responses may be considered to be excessive, ineffective, bizarre and threatening. But to regard them as illnesses and treat them with methods that discount, demean and hurt patients is fundamentally wrong as well as a violation of the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath which is to do no harm.”
Al agreed with Jerry that the Dominant Psychiatric Paradigm had to be challenged: “The conception of human beings that is reflected by mainstream psychiatry is overly narrow and reductionistic. It portrays human beings as a mass of random chemical and physical dynamics at worst and weak, dependent,irrational victims at best. Psychiatry has lost track of the most important and valuable parts of human beings: their drives, instincts,emotions and wills. Without an accurate conception of the organism they are treating, it is impossible for psychiatrists to provide effective treatment.”
Al concluded: “It’s important to keep protesting APA because lots and lots of people are being mistreated.”