A week before the tragedy of 9/11 I attended the First International Congress on Reducing Stigma and Discrimination because of Schizophrenia held in Leipzig Germany. At that conference I met Judi Chamberlin (click to read Wikipedia entry), an outspoken advocate of patients’ rights and a fierce critic of psychiatric labeling, of forced hospitalization and compulsory treatment. I got to spend a bit of time with Judi and enjoyed hearing her thoughts.
Judi Chamberlin died in 2010 but her book On Our Own is still available. She didn’t pull her punches. In the introduction she writes:
George Orwell would find the language of the psychiatric system an instructive example of his profound understanding of how words can be used to transform and distort. Just as Big Brother uses benign words to mask totalitarianism, so does psychiatry use words like “help” and “treatment” to disguise coercion. “Help,” in the common sense meaning of the word, must flow from an individual perception of what is needed. There are many things that can be done to a person against his or her will; helping is simply not one of them.
I do not see psychiatry as a tool of social control; I see it as the area of medicine that deals with the most complex part of the body – 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections. I also think it’s worth going back to the ideas Judi Chamberlin articulated; the need for persons with mental health issues to advocate for change, the importance of protecting the rights of individuals who may find themselves disempowered, the need for those granted power – especially psychiatrists – to always be aware of how they exercise it. I still remain an advocate for forcing medication treatment(click to view previous blogs on this) in certain situations.
Listening to critics and critiques of what we do is of indisputable value. Without reminders as to the dangers of labeling people (please consider reading my blog on APA -Best/Worst) , of the inherent trauma in what we must do at times, such as involuntary hospitalization, we lose a valuable perspective.
Mental health clinicians should come back to these periodically. How about ACT teams have one education session per year to look at Judi Chamberlin’s criticisms of the mental health system?
Shalom Coodin MD FRCPC