“Psychiatry alienates people from their capacity to name, invalidates people’s conceptualizations, imposes a stigmatized identity on them, places them on paths not of their own choosing, deprives them of liberty, and imposes harmful treatments on them.” — Bonnie Burstow.
There appears to be a fundamental fear of human distress in the patriarchal industrial colonist culture wherein anyone in psycho-spiritual distress is seen as a leper and then shuffled off or dumped on this psychiatric “expert” or that one, into this department or that department, and pumped full of toxic, brain-damaging anti-depressants (SSRI’s), anti-psychotics, or blasted with electroshock as a “last resort treatment” (usually for depression but sometimes for other things like eating disorders). Up until the 1970’s, electroshock was used as punishment for and a deterrent to homosexuality which was viewed as a mental “illness”; these days the targeted mental “illness” has just changed.
All this happens with little to no time being taken to just sit down with people and listen compassionately and non-judgmentally to their distress, which goes SUCH a long way in helping people de-stress their distress and make room to find better ways to cope. The inhumane way that people in distress are generally treated by psychiatry and much of western psychology results in even more suffering, all (or much) of which is so god damn unnecessary and preventable.
I am at the tail end of completing my Masters in Counselling Psychology, and in my studies it was repeatedly taught to us in one way or another that if/when we’re ever in doubt about a client or if their issues are too complex for us to handle, to refer them to the “experts” of psychiatry. To me this feels like throwing gas into fire. No way in hell will I refer my clients to psychiatry; I will instead refer to other counsellors who I think are better equipped to deal with whatever client issue(s) I am unable to. In my work at a Distress Center, I usually dissuade people from going to psychiatry which they typically receive as more of a confirmation than dissuasion because they already know nothing good will come from it.
Psychiatry’s Harmful “Treatments” of Electroshock & Psych Drugs*
One must be unplugged from their humanity to not identify psychiatry’s “treatment” of electroshock “therapy” (known as electro-convulsive therapy, or “ECT” these days) as a form of violence. Worse yet, it is disturbingly on the rise across the world but remains largely invisible as much of the public mistakenly thinks it’s a thing of the past, a relic of old movies like the 1975 chilling classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The whole “that was then / this is now / we know better” mentality is just not the reality of things today; this “We” do not know better, or if they do, they just don’t care, because psychiatry is very much the same thing as in that movie, except that fashions, lingo, and architecture have changed (in some places more than others).
Electroshock/ECT is violence against women in particular because it is coercively inflicted 2 – 3 times more often on women than men. Radical feminist therapist, activist, researcher and educator Bonnie Burstow explains how this:
[F]unctions as and is experienced as a form of assault and social control, not unlike wife battery. […] Electroshock [is] life destroying, a sign of contempt for women, punishment, a means of enforcing sex roles, a way to silence women about other abuse, an assault, traumatizing for those who undergo it and those forced to witness it. Patriarchal enforcement of stereotypical wife and mother behavior is evident […] with doctor as instigator and husband as reluctant participant.
Electroshock has no special efficacy in relieving depression. […] Brain-damaging, controlling, and terrorizing women hardly changes the oppressive conditions in which women live.” (source — see other articles from this website for more excellent information.)
Though women of all ages are subjected to electroshock, women over age 60 are especially at risk for the simple reason that the elderly (especially elderly women) are deemed worthless in the dominant colonist patriarchal industrial culture and changes that come with old age are pathologized. Elderly women are especially vulnerable when they are alone or without a solid support system in place, leaving them exposed to psychiatry’s paternalistic coerce-and-assault tactics.
Listen to Bonnie talk more about electroshock/ECT here (mp3).
Electroshock “therapy” is not the only violent aspect of psychiatry, though it is perhaps the most obvious and damaging in its savagery. Anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drug “treatments” are very damaging too because a) they don’t really relieve distress, b) they numb people’s emotions rather than deal with them, and c) they can and do cause suicidality, violence, mania, tardive dyskinesia and akathisia (neurological disorders) — for more detailed info and research on the harms of psych drugs, go here and here.
There is so much insidious violence and blatant disrespect towards patients/clients of psychiatry that the institution as a whole is an incredibly harmful one which we must stay FAR away from, and keep loved ones out of its grips.
Psychiatry is a Feminist Issue
Albeit a bit on the conservative side of feminism, K.C. Jones rightly explains:
[A]s feminists who care about the mental health of women, children, and those we love, we must look at the patriarchal system of labeling illness with some skepticism. We must, of course, dismantle the stigma attached to “mentally ill” people, and work toward humane treatment and adequate resources. However, we must also examine the mental health system as a tool of the patriarchy, and cease labeling human differences as psychopathologies. We must stop hiding behind psychiatric diagnoses and examine the realities of trauma, oppression and abuse on the lives of women and children.
The psychiatric profession is an institutionalized arm of a sexist, heterosexist, and transphobic patriarchal system. Diagnosis, I repeat, is political. (from this excellent article.)
Psychiatry’s ‘bible’ is the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) about to go into its fifth edition. The DSM is a fancy and official-sounding name for a book full of symptoms and codes for so-called mental illnesses. It is used for the medical industry’s health insurance system and administration of “treatments” (predominantly drugs and shocking).
In my school’s psychopathology class, our entire coursework revolved around discussing the pros, cons and “implications” of the administrative circle jerk of shuffling around symptoms and collapsing or creating new categories of mental “illnesses.” There was ZERO talk about actual pathology (i.e. simply human distress), let alone what to do about it other than psych drugs and electroshock. This kind of academentia is not only an exercise in dangerous mind-numbing of would-be counsellors, it is also disrespectful, offensive and a failure to future clients who come to us with psycho-spiritual distress if all counsellors can do is gaze at a list of symptoms and slap a label or three on a person. Where is the humanity or HEALING in such bureaucratic lameness?
I do not advocate discarding diagnoses altogether without radically changing the culture and how we respond to people in distress only because that would mean taking away access to financial support i.e. Disability. It just comes at a high psycho-spiritual cost.
Bonnie Burstow discusses the conundrum of labeling/diagnosing PTSD and how it (mis)fits with healthcare in this article. All of this is not to say that what we call PTSD doesn’t exist for it very much does, but this is to say that the way it is framed and treated leaves much to be desired, as do most if not all other DSM mental “illness” diagnoses. Human psycho-spiritual distress is a very real and serious thing, but it needs to be responded to in a VERY different way than the dominant culture’s current methods, most especially psychiatry’s.
Psychiatry does not just institutionalize sexism because it harms men too (mostly those on the margins of society). Psychiatry is a profoundly oppressive institutionalization of harm and social control — it is a literal (medical) colonization of our psycho-spiritual health and well-being.
Feminist therapy has helped normalize trauma (versus pathologize it) by framing “symptoms” as “coping skills” because to survive trauma is to cope, in whatever way we are able. Oppressed people are very normal, though wounded, it is our fucked up environments that produce so-called “mental illnesses.” “Insidious trauma [comes from] living day after day in a sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, and ableist society: being ogled by men on the street, slaving long hours and for minimum wages in a fish processing plant, hearing racist innuendos even from one’s White allies” (Burstow). The worse the oppression and harm inflicted on us, the worse our psycho-spiritual wounds become and the more intense our coping mechanisms must develop to survive. I like how Burstow describes trauma from a feminist standpoint:
[P]eople who have not had the ground come out from under them, and so are not fundamentally traumatized, can walk around with a certain cloak of invulnerability, and they can edit out anything that tells them the world can get at them. What happens to a person who is badly traumatized is that the person loses that cloak of invulnerability. When a woman is raped, for instance, she loses the capacity to “edit out.” She knows that life can get at her. [Therefore] the highly traumatized person actually sees the world more accurately than the less traumatized. That is not to say that trauma does not create its own distortions or that it is illegitimate for practitioners to help clients work on those distortions. However, decent trauma praxis simply cannot rest on a deficiency model [i.e. psychiatry’s whole foundation]. […]
Trauma’s […] strengths include the development of profound survival skills, an enhanced ability to understand other traumatized and oppressed individuals and groups, a passion for justice, a desire for a different kind of society, a certain critical realism, and what is particularly significant, a less distorted view of the world.
There is no [mental] disorder at this point, nor will there be, unless somebody with authority applies a psychiatric conceptualization as mediated by the DSM. And it is this application that creates the mental disorder. Mental disorders, whether they are called PTSD or anything else, in other words, are a function of the power of psychiatry mediated by the psychiatric text, irrespective of whether the practitioner making the judgment is a psychiatrist or a feminist practitioner. […]
[Psychiatric diagnoses/mental “illnesses”] cannot do justice to the psychological misery of people’s lives, never mind the social conditions that give rise to the misery. (source)
Dr. John Breeding explains the diagnosing of “mental illness” from its inception to present day:
How Did This Happen? A Brief History on Psychiatry
Rotten roots do not produce healthy trees. In looking at the history of psychiatry, a deeply troubling picture emerges; one in which the passing of time and the bleaching of words only works to blow smoke screens around in a (failed) attempt to normalize the wrongs.
When embedded in an arrogant, self-appointed superior culture, it is easy to forget that there are other ways of knowing and doing things. In her book Radical Feminist Therapy, Bonnie Burstow reminds us that psychiatry is a white patriarchal European invention and that before its creation, powerful female healers known as witches, midwives and wise women (often lesbian) were the most sought after medical experts in that culture (and in many other indigenous cultures) because they were the most affordable, reliable, and effective.
Europe’s elite male medical clan, the Church, and businessmen were threatened by the power of these wise women and condemned and punished them; i.e. the infamous Church witch burnings. The doctors frowned upon this, stepped in, and called for “treatment” of these women instead. Burstow explains:
Although the Church had persecuted these powerful women, it did not deny or trivialize their power. Psychiatry went one stage farther. It transformed women therapists or healers into mental patients…a role reversal was effected – one with enormous repercussions. Before long the male physician had rewritten history by casting the witch as madwoman and himself as healer. In so doing he created a legend out of his own prehistory and hid the truth: THAT WOMEN ARE THE REAL MOTHERS OF PSYCHOTHERAPY**. What is equally significant is that he effectively pathologized the strong woman and placed her under his control.
Okay, I Get it, Psychiatry is Bad. Now What?
I hope that all this has painted a clear picture of what is wrong with psychiatry, how it fears, pathologizes and responds to human distress, how it is a tool for oppression and social control, and why it is dangerous and harmful for all, especially women.
This post wouldn’t be complete without offering alternative and humane ways of relating with people and their distress. I think the first step to being humane is RESPECT — therapists modeling and giving Respect to all their clients, which includes paying attention to power dynamics and taking care to maintain as equal a client/therapist relationship as possible (i.e. very non-hierarchical with the therapist not acting like an emotionally-removed “expert”). I like how Dr. John Breeding discusses respect in general, and therapist respect for clients (of all ages):
The colonist patriarchal culture likes to chop things up into “manageable” pieces (i.e. easy to control this way, and this culture is obsessed with control), and its religion of science cements the over-attention being paid to biology, or the physical realm of things, and we hardly EVER hear about Spirituality other than it being framed as a hippie-type “alternative” practice. This is an example of the radical difference between the eurowestern/colonist/industrial culture and Indigenous ones. Though very diverse, Spirituality is a common, critical, and CENTRAL theme among all indigenous/Earth nation cultures. Anishnawbe Health Toronto (AHT) describes traditional indigenous health and healing:
Traditional Healers and Elders say that the Great Spirit works through everyone, so that everyone has the ability to heal, whether it’s the mother who tends to the scrapes of her child, a friend who eases your pain by kind words or the Healer who heals your sickness. Everything that was put here is healing – the trees, the earth, the animals and the water.
Native people know that everything in Creation — the plants, trees, the water, wind, rocks and the mountains – have Spirit. As part of Creation, we also are sacred and have spirit. Healing is understood in terms of the spiritual basis of everything.
Our healing ways are referred to as Traditional Healing. This way of healing is holistic, based on an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of balance and harmony in Creation.
Traditional Healing is the restoring of balance to the mind, body, spirit and emotions. There needs to be harmony and balance in us just as there is in all of Creation. When that harmony and balance is lacking, sickness ensues. It is said that a great deal of healing comes from ourselves because we want to be healed. (source)
Feminist therapy strongly holds that our individual, personal suffering is due to the social conditions we’re living in/that are imposed on us. A big piece of healing/empowerment is then doing political work which externalizes our suffering and connects us to others in our community. I think adding a strong Spiritual component into this will make us that much more powerful in our individual and collective healing and health.
I’m struggling with achieving Balance in my own life, so I more easily fall into my own distress more than if I had more Balance; it’s really hard to maintain when living in such an UNbalanced culture that pressures us to GO GO GO, DO DO DO, MORE MORE MORE and don’t stop or else you’re a lazy loser! Basically the goal of the dominant culture is for human beings to be mindless, emotion-less robots and “productive” capitalist citizens. GRRRR! When I get better at Balance and Spiritual healing, I will write more on it.
One excellent treatment for psycho-spiritual distress is horse-assisted therapy, known as equine-assisted therapy, or EAT; if interested in learning more, go here. This is a very powerful form of therapy and something I would love to do for my own health and healing as well as with clients, if I win the lottery and can afford to buy some land and horses.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a good counsellor, check out Dr. Breeding’s article, How to Choose a Counsellor here. And, if all else fails, there’s always good ole Slapping Medicine Man type of therapy: 😀
* I am not “anti-drug” at all, I believe there are some very good, powerful, and needed medicines out there that greatly help people in reducing their suffering, whether it’s physical or emotional/mental/Spiritual. These safe and effective drugs are also the most controlled and denied to people (e.g. opiates and benzodiazepines, though the benzos don’t work for everyone, and effective doses (of any drug) can differ quite radically from person to person since some people have much higher tolerances than others). Given the fascist socio-cultural landscape we live in, one must question how safe and effective drugs are that are given out like candy, as is the case with anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. There’s a reason why drug addicts aren’t snorting or injecting anti-depressants! We should not be quick to judge or dismiss the effectiveness of certain drugs just because some people abuse them. There is a reason they are abused — because they work!
As with everything in Life, we must strike a Balance, and some people have so much distress that they can and should be allowed to take whatever drug, and as much of it as needed, to ease their suffering. This is achieved by not treating people like idiots and Respecting their choices and listening and believing them when they say what does and doesn’t work for them in relieving their suffering, rather than arrogantly and ignorantly imposing what WE think “should” work for them. As John Trudell says, some hurts are too big to “get over”, and no one deserves to or should have to suffer. People should have easy access to whatever they need to help their pain, end of story, and don’t ever feel bad for doing whatever you need to do to cope. We do the very best we can do until/unless we find better ways.
**This is not to say that all female psychiatrists and psychologists are automatically better at helping/healing people’s distress than male ones. Unfortunately women can and do act as paternalistically, coldy and disrespectfully as men can and do because the dominant colonist patriarchal culture rewards such male-type behavior and discourages and punishes women from stereotypically female behavior (e.g. being emotional, compassionate, understanding, etc.). Us women have to be careful not to trap ourselves in patriarchal/paternalistic mentalities and behaviors and instead follow our guts and plain ole’ common sense when it comes to mental health and the intimacy of such work. One thing I can say with certainty though is that there is nowhere near as much power abuse in the form of inappropriate sexual relations with clients as there is between male psychotherapists and female clients. This happens more often than some would think.
A song about dehumanized detached treatment of people forced into mental institutions (then and now). From Ministry’s 1989 album “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste”.
thrown into a cell
swallow your pride
in an infant mind
thrown into a cell
a punishment fit
for a crippled mind
don’t do that to me
criminals, someone’s always laughing at me
life is hell
a deficient mind
we’re all left alone and poisoned
a sickening trap
a sight worth seeing
thrown into a cell
swallow your pride
in an infant mind
don’t do that to me
don’t do that to me
force breaks our back
time preserves, fearfully
you know what i said
hideous and strange
thrown into a cell
a punishment fit
for a crippled mind