Off the Cuff with David Oaks

David Oaks, Director of MindFreedom International, spoke on Wednesday, May 2 in West Lecture Hall about the need for a revolution within the mental health system. He addressed the problematic silence surrounding mental health, the shortcomings of the psychiatric system, and the varying campaigns of MindFreedom International intended to promote awareness and activism within the mental health community. Oaks sat down with the Review on the morning of his lecture to discuss his experience as a psychiatric survivor, his belief that mental disorders are social constructs, and what he thinks can be done to effectively change the mental health system.

Alex Howard, News Editor

What sparked your interest in mental health activism?

I like to say my recruiting room was when I was a working-class kid going to Harvard, and I ran into mental and emotional problems, and I ended up in a psychiatric institution. There I was in solitary confinement, getting forcibly drugged, and I vowed that when I got out I would do something to change it. I’ve always been kind of an activist. Even at 9 years old, I was putting out an underground newsletter, so I’ve always been into social change and activism.

When was MindFreedom International founded and what is its overall purpose?

It was 26 years ago, back in 1986, that we formed what became MindFreedom. Part of its purpose is to keep the activist part of the mental health advocacy field alive and organized. MindFreedom’s overall mission and goal has been what we call nonviolent revolution of the mental health system. Just reform is not enough. If we have a million peer advocates and peer support specialists and they’re still giving forced electroshock, we haven’t won. We’ve been shut up; we’ve been bought off. The thing that MindFreedom has done is use mutual support to keep activism going. That’s very important in social change because if you don’t have money keeping you together, what do you have? You have community.

We have campaigns to reach the public and the media. We have a radio show along with web and print. We have a searchable directory of alternatives. Our most popular campaign has been the MindFreedom shield campaign where members can pre-register for free so that if they are threatened by forced treatment they can activate an alert system similar to Amnesty International.

Once we prove what we are talking about to the public, we are the uniters. We have Republicans behind us; we have Democrats. Right-wing radio is very interested in our issues, but so is Occupy. We have Occupy and Tea Partiers. Once we prove what we’re talking about, the average American does not want to be paying to have a neighbor taken from their home for a forced electroshock. Almost all states now have laws quietly passed that you can be court ordered to take your psych drug while you’re living at home, or follow any doctor’s orders while living at home. In other words, once you are on this, simply refusing to follow a doctor’s orders can get you locked up. Your worst nightmare.

Why do you think today’s mental health system is dysfunctional?

It reminds me of the financial system. A few years ago people invested in Bernie Madoff and derivatives and the population just trusted this small number of people to run everything, and we can’t do that. Democracy has got to get involved in all of these things, including the mental health system. We shouldn’t just drop off our troubled loved ones at the emergency rooms and wash our hands; we have to really get involved in the details of the mental health system.

I think everybody would identify as wrestling with mental and emotional challenges. For me, the climate crisis is one of the main breakthroughs in a way in our field because it means we are all struggling. What is called normal behavior is actually wrecking the planet. What’s normally called normal isn’t normal. It’s wrecking our ecosystem, our one planet.

What we’re saying is 100 percent of the population is affected. In fact, the way the majority treats our people proves it is a 100 percent issue because the society is mentally and emotionally disturbed in the way it works with our folks. For me, the word origin of “psychotic” just means spiritually ill, and I think Martin Luther King was right, we all wrestle with that. That is what it means to be a human being, to exist, is to deal with the spiritual or mental, emotional, however-you-want-to-put-it extreme challenges.

I talked to a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer for an hour, and she said, “Oh no, I don’t hear voices.” And I said, “Yeah you do really.” You hear a voice telling you to buy, consume. It’s a voice of the dominant, majoritarian madness.

How were you able to maintain emotional and mental balance without the use of psychiatric drugs, and do you think it is possible for every person diagnosed with a mental disorder to do that?

I personally was told in college that I had a permanent mental health chemical inbalance, and I would have to stay on psych drugs for the rest of my life, period. A lot of people have been told that. I can just say that for me, they were wrong. I would have been on these powerful neuroleptic, or antipsychotic, drugs for the past 35 years. I heard about our movement, and I’m glad that I got in touch with them. For me, it’s not about balance, though. For me, health is on this edge between balance and inbalance. We’re on this edge; there is not state of perfection. We’re all struggling all the time. I use peer support, a men’s group, a counselor, vitamins, exercise, gardening, wilderness, friends, spirituality, playing the piano.

Psych drugs I am personally against, but we are pro-choice as a coalition. If a member, fully informed, chooses to take the prescription as part of their well-being, that’s their choice. We have a number of members on psych drugs, but if you ask them, they have a similar path to me; their housing, their job, their environment, have been way more important to their recovery. But even the existence of recovery for serious mental health issues has been controversial and just getting it out there that there’s hope is important.

We have a lot of people who are using the mental health system. Find out you are not alone. In our field it is so quiet, people are so silent about it. You may have peers available to help you out and support you, there will be attention to the environment, but it won’t be this traumatizing event that scares you. It can be a turning point. When you break through in an overwhelm[ing situation], you can often experience states that we only read about in religious texts about saints or mystics, and you actually live that. In Native American culture, they would go on a quest to have a spiritual experience, to have a tree talk to them or to hear a spirit song. For us, often there will be a young person doing recreational drugs, and they will think the TV is talking to them and they don’t know what the fuck is going on. We need to talk about this. In Europe, it has become common to be in a peer support group to manage distressing voices. In the U.S., if you go to the infirmary and talk about hearing voices, then boom, it’s antipsychotic drugs. We now know that often distressing voices can be managed using non-drug approaches like peer support.