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283 15 Psychiatric Survivors Judi Chamberlin cites as a fundamental principle of the psychiatric survivor movement the belief that “all laws and practices which induce discrimination toward individuals who have been labeled ‘mentally ill’ need to be changed, so that psychiatric diagnosis has no more impact on a person’s citizenship rights and responsibilities than does a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease.”1 Indeed, many advocates reject the entire concept of “mental illness” as socially constructed and having no grounding in any demonstrable physical illness or pathology. These advocates contend that those individuals living through “altered” or “extreme states” are in fact responding to extreme stress or trauma or experiencing profound religious or spiritual transformations which our current era has come to define as symptomatic of a “mental illness.” However one defines the experience, it is an inescapable fact that those labeled “mentally ill” are among the most oppressed people in our society. Popular culture and mass media often portray them as strange, dangerous, and violent . These misconceptions are then used to justify many of the degrading and harmful “treatments” that have been developed to “cure” people of their mental illness, treatments which have included insulin-shock and electro-convulsive therapy, incarceration for extended periods, isolation from family and friends, and forced drugging. Certainly, before the advent of deinstitutionalization, hundreds of thousands of Americans labeled mentally ill were incarcerated for much of their lives in massive state hospitals where neglect and abuse were rife. “For centuries psychiatric inmates wanted to organize,” says David Oaks, a prominent voice in the movement. “In the 1800s there was a group called ‘Friends of the Allegedly Insane’ in England,” and various support groups, such as WANA (We Are Not Alone) in New York City, formed in the 1940s and early ’50s for current and former patients. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that “the infrastructure,” as Oaks calls it, began to develop which enabled people to think in more political terms. 284 chapter 15 “We had an analysis, that we took from the left, that had looked at economic oppression, and that was important. There were the examples of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the prisoners’ rights movement for us to draw on. Portland, Oregon, had one of the first survivor groups to form—1970—the Insane Liberation Front. It was gone before I started in the Mental Patients’ Liberation Front in Boston, but we were in touch with Project Release, in New York City, and the Network Against Psychiatric Assault in Berkeley, which put out a publication called Madness Network News. So there was, as I like to put it, the sunlight, soil, fertilizer, and rain to make our organizing happen.”2 Among the most influential of the early organizers was Howard Geld (1952– 1995). Institutionalized when he was thirteen or fourteen years old (accounts vary), Geld spent more than a year in a facility for “disturbed youth.” By age seventeen he was living on the streets of New York City, where he played his harmonica for change, earning his nickname “Howie the Harp” (or “Howie T. Harp”). Geld was a founding member both of Portland’s Insane Liberation Front in 1970 and of the Mental Patients’ Liberation Project in New York City in 1971, as well as Project Release, the nation’s first client-run residence for people labeled mentally ill. The MPLP drafted and distributed a basic mental patient’s bill of rights which articulated the core principles of the movement. “You have the right not to be treated like a criminal. . . . You have the right to refuse to be a guinea pig for experimental drugs and treatments,” and so on.3 Geld, like David Oaks, believed that the struggle of psychiatric survivors was part of a broader movement for civil and human rights, encompassing prisoners and ex-prisoners, women, people of color, poor people, gays and lesbians, migrant workers and immigrants. Like Chamberlin, he was also involved in forging links to advocates in the independent living and disability rights movements. To this end, Geld in 1981 took a staff position with the Berkeley CIL, so that when advocates at DREDF and elsewhere began pushing in 1988 for an Americans with Disabilities Act, people labeled “mentally ill” were among those whose civil rights were to be explicitly protected. Judi Chamberlin “It all comes down to these very simple issues of human dignity.” Judi Chamberlin was born in 1944 to parents who were both “leftists.” Her father...


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