Judi Chamberlin, On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System

Wanting “better treatment” is not the same as wanting the right to be free of all unwanted labels, treatments, and procedures. “Better” treatment, in the absence of fundamental rights, is merely seeking a more comfortable, less confining prison. The argument that “mental illness is an illness like any other,” or that we should be working to combat “stigma” is, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of how to improve our status and our rights. “Mental illness,” given the current state of the law, is not the same as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, which don’t carry the same legal consequences. Arguments that these should be merely medical, and not legal, matters ignore the fact of the continued existence of involuntary commitment and the resulting loss of liberty and autonomy. Mental patients are stigmatised not by language, but by the fact that it is legally acceptable to treat them differently. The “stigma” of mental illness does not flow from the use of words, and cannot be changed merely by changing language. The stigma is very real–being put into a mental institution is simply not the same thing as voluntarily entering a medical hospital (which one, of course, has the right to leave at any time.) Even the word “stigma” obscures what the real problem is–the fact that “mental patients” really are second-class citizens who don’t enjoy the basic rights of others. Only by fighting this very real discrimination can we realistically talk about doing away with “stigma”. Anything else is merely an Orwellian use of language. George Orwell would find the language of the psychiatric system an instructive example of his profound understanding of how words can be used to transform and distort. Just as Big Brother uses benign words to mask totalitarianism, so does psychiatry use words like “help” and “treatment” to disguise coercion. “Helping” people against their will is an obvious example. “Help,” in the common sense meaning of the word must flow from an individual perception of what is needed. There are many things that can be done to a person against his or her will; helping is simply not one of them.


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