Sunday, April 7, 2013

Resisting the State - Chapter 5

This was maybe the most problematic chapter of Scott Neigh's Talking Radical:Resisting the State for me. It's about Don Weitz of the Anti-Psychiatry Movement. Now, I've heard of the Anti-Psychiatry Movement before. And I get that mental institutions were, and remain, frightening places where horrific abuses have occurred. I get that people are over-medicated, given what are essentially chemical lobotomies. I know about the CIA mind-control experiments (read: torture) at the Allen Institute in Montreal (to provide but one Canadian example of this horror). But I also know that there is such a thing as mental illness. I know people personally who are lonely and confused and occasionally tortured by imaginary conspiracies based on hallucinated phone messages and other things. I know about people allowed to make harmful, life-altering choices while in treatment, to preserve the ridiculous fiction that they're in control of their own lives. In Hamilton, Ontario alone, I know of two tragic cases where people died because physicians were unwilling to risk censure or lawsuits and have them committed to treatment even after they and their family members pleaded that somebody do so.  (There were probably more, but these two stories really affected me.)

This chapter got my hackles up right away, which is probably a good thing. Even in my defensive state, I was able to get Neigh's case against the abuses of psychiatry. Here's one part though, that got me. Weitz describes how, as a privileged young man at university, he began to question what he was doing with his life:
It was 1950 and I was in college at the time. My grades were falling and I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, which is not unusual. I was very confused, but I was never violent, never committed a crime toward anyone at that time or since. Because I was saying some things that they didn't understand or agree with, my parents thought I was mentally ill so I was locked up ... Within a very short time I was subjected to the horrors of sub-coma insulin shock treatment, which is really a form of torture.
Now, obviously, depriving someone of their liberty should require more than just having your parents think you're weird. And the "treatment" that people like Weitz suffered was often based on a combination of delusion and sadism. At the same time, this very vague "I was saying some things that they didn't understand or agree with" led me to doubt Weitz's credibility.

Did Weitz say: "I don't know Mom and Dad. The subjects that I thought I'd be interested in have turned out to be completely uninteresting. I think maybe I should take a year off, work in a factory or planting trees or something" or did he get into some manic, incoherent rants at two in the morning?

Yes, there's a stigma against mental illness. But part of the process of infantilization is the way some mentally ill people refuse to admit they have a problem when it's staring them and everyone else in the face. If a guy drinks all the time to the point of losing several jobs, killing his kids while drunk driving, and ending up on the streets, and says: "What's wrong with having a little drink now and then?" nobody would take anything they have to say as being worthwhile.

Bonnie Burstow and Weitz begin their book Shrink Resistant thusly:
The labels say: "Don't take this person seriously. There's nothing to what she says. So what if she complains about the pills making her dizzy or sick? She doesn't now what she is talking about. After all, she is mentally ill." ... As pychiatric survivors, we know what it is like to be permanently  brain-damaged by psychiatric drugs, electroshock and other forced treatments - for our "own benefit" and against our will ... We know too that the stories in this anthology are not unusual. Go into any psychiatric facility in any major city or region in this country, and you will hear them.
 Here's an important section where Neigh and Weitz confront the politics of psychiatry:
To sort out some of the politics surrounding psychiatry, it can be useful to start by considering the two general classes of moment - two kinds of though, really - that can lead to engagement with the psychiatric system. One might be encapsulated by the sentence, "I feel bad." This captures the idea of an individual experiencing distress, identifying that experience, and making choices about how to navigate it. The other though is, "S/he is acting oddly." This can play out in many different ways, but what is key is that it is not someone acting on their own experience of distress but rather is someone acting based on observations and judgements about someone else's behaviour. However sympathetic the observer might think they are being, centering their judgement rather than that of the experience of the person in distress opens the door for coercion and oppression, whether the observer intends this or not.
Very true. This is a complex subject. Perhaps, as with free speech, we have to accept it as a value in itself, even if it means tolerating speech we find repugnant. I remember reading a journalist's account of reporting on a homeless woman. She was living inside the entrance of a Montreal subway station. When they did a tv news report on her, the only real result of the story was that the bureaucrat who had tolerated her presence there felt compelled to evict her. She moved underneath a pine tree nearby, which had branches that extended to the ground, providing a canopy and wind-barrier of sorts. According to this account, she was happy there in the winter, pissing and shitting on one side of the canopy and living on the other. She did not want to be moved to a shelter, so nobody took her away. The reporter didn't do a story on her, he just made some enquiries about it, which resulted in the owner of the building (which housed either another government office or some large corporation) having the branches of all the trees cut so that they no longer provided shelter from the elements. It was at that point that the journalist decided he'd done enough to help this woman.

The same institution that let a friend of mine make all sorts of bad decisions while in a state of prolonged mental confusion because "she was in charge of her own life" and who told her she was a voluntary patient who could leave any time she wanted, was also keeping a young woman in 48 hours of solitary confinement for being confrontational. Every time I went to visit my friend at this hospital, I always felt a twinge of fear, that in some vague process, a guy in a white coat would determine that I was likewise insane and that orderlies would restrain me as a sedative was injected into my arm.

I think there's a lot of fucked-up stuff in the mental health world. I also know that medication created by some giant, corrupt pharmaceutical company has permanently helped me overcome a debilitating problem with OCD.

Pages 131-140 is basically Scott providing an overview of the big issues.

Pages 140 - 157 talks about Weitz's life and his history of activism. Pages 151-154 deal with Weitz's involvement with the overall successful campaign against shock treatment in Ontario.

I'm still conflicted about the whole subject but I'll let Weitz have last word:
I don't care how dissident or different a person may be, no one deserves to be locked up, even if they're suicidal. They claim that if someone is suicidal, he or she should be locked up. It's in every Mental Health Act: "Oh, well, he's talking suicide; we have to lock him up." Excuse me, whose life is it anyway? You want to help me if I'm suicidal? Understand why I'm suicidal. You want to help me? Don't give me any drugs; understand my existential situation. how did I get that way? Why do I want to kill myself?

I was once suicideal. Alf Jackson saved me. I could have ended up in the Clarke with electroshock. How did he help me? I was very suicidal. I was going to lie down on the TTC subway tracks. This is a fact I'm telling you now. It was 1978 or '79. I had a nine-year-old son who had died from cancer a few years before. I was getting a divorce about the same time. Doesn't take a PhD or MD to understand how somebody can feel very depressed and suicidal about theri life. Alf let me stay with him for two days - no drugs, no antidepressants, no locked wards. I got through it because he was the mensch, he was the person that he was.
We do not have a healthy health system. We do not have an understanding system. We have to get rid of the medical model. That has to be abolished. It has to be destroyed. The medical model in psychiatry is a fraudulent scheme; it's destructive, harmful.

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