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Interview with David Oaks, May 2010

David Oaks

David Oaks has been a psychiatric survivor and human rights activist since 1976. He is director of MindFreedom International. He lives in Eugene, Oregon, USA.

Flick Grey: How would you describe what psychiatric survivors, mental health consumers and users are doing currently, what's the current state of play, in terms of changing systems and or the world? Do you think our political heyday has come and gone?

David Oaks: I call myself a psychiatric survivor - certainly a lot of people refer to themselves as consumers or users - but I do think that at MindFreedom, people tend to identify as survivors of abuse in the mental health system. That voice tends to get lost a bit, but it's important to remember that voice. It'd be like if we were reforming the Roman Catholic Church from abuse, it would be important to very clearly have an organisation of those who have experienced abuse.

I agree with an academic paper I read somewhere that said there have been two big changes over the last few decades. If you go to a meeting about mental health issues - say at a county, or local, or city, or district level, or province or state, you will now find an individual who identifies as a user of the mental health system, on that council. And also, there is some acknowledgement in the language to include user/survivors in there.

I think the main thing is, really, that we exist! I think the key achievement is that our social change movement exists. Because for centuries there has been this kind of oppression, and only briefly in the 1800s was there a known group of survivors organising - maybe at a few others times. There has always been this abuse, but now there is actual organizing going on, internationally, and has been for decades - nowhere near what we had hoped, over the years, in terms of how much, but the fact is that we're here.

And the struggle is that much more important now, because the biggest increase in the history of mental health is about to take place over the next 10 to 20 years. What has been happening in the richer countries hasn't been happening in the vast majority of the world. And now the battleground for the mental health system is in poor and developing countries, in Asia and Africa. This is the globalisation of the mental health system. So as never before, we are poised to engage with challenging the system on this global stage.

So, no, the heyday is definitely in front of us. How well will do, though, is up to each one of us. The key question is unity, whether or not we can unify. And by unity, I don't mean lock-step conformity. No, nobody's suggesting that! And I don't mean hierarchy. I mean people working together in a spirit of mutual co-operation, even when - especially when - there are significant differences of opinion. I think that is the key for oppressed people - are we going to work together or not? And if we do, I think we will have one of the most exciting and beneficial non-violent clashes ever. And as MLK [Martin Luther King] said, he didn't make conflict, he just made it visible.

FG: What place does activism have in mental health and what top three areas would you target?

DO: Near and dear to my heart! Thank you for mentioning activism! I think that the big challenge - the elephant in the room as they say - since the mid-80s, is mental health system funding of this field. The mental health system is eager to bottle the spirit of empowerment - which we used to call power. And while there are some well-meaning people in the mental health system who do want that, I think minor reform is actually a problem. What's driven the mental health system to increase for decades is this kind of reform effort. So, if you ask the average mental health leader, they'll say they think the mental health system needs "activism," it needs "reform" and everything. But we call for a non-violent revolution purposefully, because reform is actually a problem - reform has grown the system for 200 years!

The system will not fund real activism. So, for example, I think we need to be questioning the power of the drug companies, what we call "the bully model." Having only one choice is no choice, and we are pro-choice! We don't want to be cornered as being anti-this and anti-that, like anti-drug or anti-psychiatry. We're pro-choice or anti-bullying. And so, I think a top issue is to point out the bully in the room, which is the very narrow, very medical model that is used as the organising system.

It's not the model itself which is the problem - we have members who very much utilise the medical model - you know, vitamins and nutrition are very much medical model - but it's the bullying. So I think, this is one of the top things that has to be discussed. I think that the system-funded change has tended to leave that out. I'll go to several-day-long conferences, about recovery, and peer-support, and mental health alternatives, and hear nothing about the power of the drug companies. You know, they are putting one-year-olds on neuroleptics, they're forcibly drugging people in their own homes. And the drug companies are paying for pushing this - the USA parents' group gets more than half their money from the drug companies.

And so in terms of the role of activism - how could we have a peace movement, or an environmental movement or a women's movement, funded by corporations and the government? And I'm not denouncing the system-funded folks, I don't think we should denounce them, when they are doing good work. System funding is crucial - we should be asking for more of it - but we need to be smarter about also supporting independent activism. And that's often the missing part in a lot of organising. People start getting money for conferences, drop-in centres, consulting, peer-support and all that, they need to keep aware, just like the disability movement, that everyone needs to support activism as an ingredient.

Another issue I would say is other human rights issues. We've been talking about involuntary electroshock, because that's very unifying. People are sometimes not so sure about forced drugging, but most people are sure that involuntary shock over the expressed wishes of the subject has got to go. So, it's a very unifying point about an abuse that isn't numerically maybe as big as other abuses. Actually, we're critical of all shock. But forced shock really focuses us. How can there be any empowerment, any recovery or any self-determination in a system that allows that electricity be forced through our brain? It's worse that water-boarding. It's torture. We need to bring this up, for example at the UN, now that we're in the tent of the United Nations and the Human Rights scene. We need to push really hard that this is torture - and use the "t" word. And things like forced shock are growing internationally as the western medical model is exported. Drugs are expensive, so shock is going up.

The third key issue is to promote a range of humane, empowering alternatives, especially peer-run, peer-support alternatives. There are good jobs in "them thar hills," as old time gold miners used to say in the USA about gold where you can hire people who were formerly considered un-hireable, disabled, and now they are providing peer support, and being a role model. So, the whole upsurge of interest in alternatives, the Finnish and the Scandinavian models, the Open Dialogue Project, Mosher's Soteria House model, and all of these … a huge rainbow of alternatives need to be provided! It's like organic food - we should be very clear that there is natural care. MindFreedom has a directory of screened alternatives, but it's actually pretty small, which is telling..

FG: What would you expect to be different if we lived in a community that embraced people who have mental health difficulties or who experienced madness?

DO: One of the big issues for us is the universality of our issues. I talk about 'sanism' although some people prefer 'mentalism.' Sanism is an enormous -ism, I'm still plumbing the depths of this -ism each day, I'm just amazed. In the Western model, we are apparently thinking, rational beings and so forth. For me connections with the environmental movements have been really important. The tragedy of the climate crisis and environmental devastation is so nightmarish, but there is benefit to our connecting with their movement. We know that to be human is not to have a grip on reality. And what is called "normal" is one of the most dangerous things to the planet. Certainly the worst kind of what is called "normal" are the people who claim that they're normal, that they have a firm grip on reality, that they are certain, that they can tell us what to do. And I'm not kidding about this, this is not word play, this is deadly serious, this is Planet Earth in trouble and we are connected to all the movements, we sprang from all these movements - civil rights, women's, anti-war - all these movements work together and we emerged from that in about 1969/70, this particular phase of organising.

We're all interconnected, and this is the tricky part for us, is the fact that if any human is considered crazy, all of us are crazy. I tend to think everybody is crazy. So, for example, I just came from a meeting where one of the participants, was cutting herself and weeping in the toilet over a relationship, and yes, she was having an overwhelming crisis. But her similarity to the world is more than her difference. The world is cutting itself and the world doesn't have a grip on reality. When people really get in touch with that universality, that is an overwhelming thing. And we need to be going to the people who have had extreme and overwhelming emotional issues, who have gone through it and have reached some level of recovery, and take notes. Because this is about everybody.

So with this vision what would the world look like? Well it wouldn't be different just for the 5 or 10 or 20% of us considered "troubled." Would the emergency rooms look better? Yes, that's important, but it would be more like it takes a village to heal a mind. There would be enormously more support for a huge diversity of mental and emotional feelings and thoughts, and enormously more listening to one another and connecting with each other.

As Martin Luther King used to say, "The salvation of the world lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted" and the world's in dire need of a new organisation, the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. That was no joke! Not all maladjustment is good, it was creative maladjustment, but you're not going to have change without a crazy person. If to be totally different from everyone else is to be crazy, then one person has to start, and will look crazy. Something that really motivates me is that this is a planetary issue that we're dealing with here. I think why the oppression against us is so fierce is that we are a reminder - that person weeping in the corner is a reminder that your heart is weeping right now. Don't look down, because the floor is glass and you're looking at the whole universe below you and you may fall. So let's turn to each other and hold each other, and support one another, because nobody has a grip - we're in universal crisis, every moment.

FG: What are some things that could happen in one day that would give you a really good night's sleep where you woke up feeling hopeful and ready to take on the world?

DO: I like that question. As Judi Chamberlin reminded me when I visited her in hospice - I thought we'd have this real heavy talk - but she reminded me that when we were younger, 30-something years ago, on the wall of the drop-in centre for the Mental Patient's Liberation Front, we had a sign that said "Overthrow Psychiatry by Tuesday." Since then, one of my sayings is "Non-violently overthrow the mental health system and have a nice day."

For me personally, it involves being in nature, being outdoors with wilderness and friends and directly challenging oppression in a creative way, such as creativity, art, peaceful activism, mutuality and healthy movements and supporting one another in a thoughtful way… I'd go to sleep with a grin on my face!

You know, I have glimpses of that. My partner, Debra and I, we have our little garden and our cat and our friends, and I'm in a men's group and I seek to take care of myself and to enjoy things, not get totally absorbed by the movement. But it's a struggle, I think we all struggle with it.

So, bring me to Australia!