What is the BizOMadness Blog?

This blog is devoted to raising critical awareness of psychiatry generally. It is likewise devoted to the antipsychiatry research projects, publications, and related activities of Dr. Bonnie Burstow. Especially foregrounded are The Psychiatry Project, The Madness Project, and "Psychiatry and the Business of Madness". Related to one another, The Psychiatry Project and The Madness Project involve hundreds of interviews, a dozen focus groups, analysis of several hundred documents and their activation, and dedicated periods of institutional observation. The culmination of both as well as of decades of related interviews and activities is "Psychiatry and the Business of Madness" (timely updates on its publication will be provided)--a cutting edge book in which psychiatry is investigated from multiple angles and which begins to tackle the inevitable question: So if we get rid of psychiatry, where do we go from there?

For the Events page to find events related to this research or this book, see

To check out reviews of Psychiatry and the Business of Madness and related publications, see http://bizomadnessreviews.blogspot.ca/

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Turning the Tables: Using the Academy in the Battle Against Psychiatry

The impetus for this article is an exciting new scholarship endowed in perpetuity which has just been launched at University of Toronto. It is a “matching scholarship” in which I personally match up to $50, 000 of contributions by other donors. Called “The Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry”, the scholarship is to be awarded annually to a thesis student at OISE/UT conducting antipsychiatry research. An award of this nature is historically unprecedented, and as such, is itself something to celebrate. It is also part of a larger phenomenon of using academia in the battle against psychiatry. Shedding light on that larger phenomenon as well as on the scholarship per se, such are the purposes of this article.

Why have I dubbed this article “Turning the Tables”?  Because what is involved here is precisely taking a leaf from psychiatry’s book. In this regard, not unlike other hegemonic disciplines, albeit far more aggressively than most, as shown by Foucault (1963/1973) and Burstow (2015), psychiatry has long used academia to legitimate its claims and further what it regards as “knowledge”. Not only does academic psychiatry train people to think/act in ways that serve it, its sheer existence serves as a primary source of legitimation. 

Albeit we do not have the potential to make the same kind of inroads, let me suggest, it behooves those of us who oppose psychiatry to likewise use academia. Herein we have the opportunity to challenge, to educate, moreover to lend a hand to what Michel Foucault (1980) calls “the insurrection of subjugated knowledge.” In the process, we can at once further antipsychiatry knowledge and add to its perceived legitimacy. 

The rise and growing acceptance of Mad Studies is an example which elucidates this principle (see http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/mad-studies/). Mad views have gained unprecedented legitimacy of late not simply because they provide important perspectives, note, but because courses dubbed Mad History have become a standard part of curriculum in such areas as Critical Disability Studies in several universities. Of course, not being inherently abolitionist, Mad Studies is, as it were, an “easier sell” than antipsychiatry.

Examples of what can realistically be done at this point—and to varying degrees some of us have been doing this for decades—is to rigorously integrate an antipsychiatry analysis into our classes, involve students in our antipsychiatry research, and mount conferences in which antipsychiatry is highlighted—e.g., the historical PsychOut conference (see http://individual.utoronto.ca/psychout/). Via such routes, very real reframing happens.  Some students (both ones new to antipsychiatry and old hands at it) go on to conduct their own research into some aspect of psychiatry, thereby contributing to this growing area of scholarship. At the same time, academia puts the stamp of credibility on such “knowledge”, in essence, legitimates it in the public eye.

Now there are “onside” faculty who intentionally water down their critique of psychiatry, perhaps because they have been attacked by colleagues, as to a fair extent all of us are, perhaps out of fear for their jobs. Given the difficulty of standing one’s ground in the face of this particular power nexus, that is totally understandable. Let me invite such colleagues nonetheless not to automatically to pull back, for the fight is a vital one; we are slowly but surely winning this battle. Moreover, there are other ways for us to protect ourselves. Which brings me to my own extensive history as the one of the sole academics who publically identifies as an antipsychiatry professor.

Since the early 1980s, in every university in which I have taught, I have invariably integrated an unapologetic and hard-hitting antipsychiatry analysis into my work and in every case, the results were positive. That is, despite some students having profound misgivings at least initially, most students quickly found themselves intrigued.  Soon even those who began by dismissing my position or declaring it “extreme” found themselves seriously entertaining vantagepoints that would once have been unthinkable. Telling in this regard is a student who felt she had to be in the wrong class because the perspective utterly alarmed her. By the third class of the course, she vowed never again to set foot in any of my classes.  She proceeded to skip the next class, pretty sure she would not come back. Not only did she soon return and not only did she stick with this class, but she went on to take every single course that I offered. By the same token, over the years a high percentage of my students have ended up abandoning the concept of “mental illness”—something initially unimaginable. Correspondingly many have become antipsychiatry activists and researchers in their own right and gone on to influence others. This is precisely the beauty of what can be achieved in academia.

In this respect, though it may often seem as if no one wants the knowledge which antipsychiatry scholars/activists offer—and on one level this is true—on another, people,  especially the young, are virtually hungering for a radically different vantage point.

Which brings me to the question of direct opposition—a problem that leads many privately highly critical colleagues to “soft peddle” their message. Of course there is opposition, just as there has always been opposition to anything which challenges accepted orthodoxies and runs counter to vested interests. And indeed, I have commonly encountered over-the-top opposition myself as well as more subtle obstruction. More generally, inevitably in every single university in which I have taught, because I am uncompromisingly antipsychiatry and known to be so, at some point or other, there have been efforts to derail both me and my agenda. What is significant here, however, is that none of it ever came from students. Moreover, the opposition has been monumentally unsuccessful. Indeed, if anything, it has but added to my credibility and detracted from the credibility of those out to silence my analysis. The point is that academic freedom is a principle that universities hold dear. And strange though this may seem, it offers very real protection.

Am I in any way suggesting that faculty who introduce new counterhegemonic knowledge are equally rewarded for their efforts as those who replicate traditional (and inherently oppressive) “knowledge”? Not remotely, and especially not in an area like antipsychiatry, which is at odds with disciplinary fields which academia actively supports and whose related industries (e.g., Big Pharma) channel substantial money into university coffers. Am I denying that their work may be trivialized or looked down upon? Of course not. As we all know, that commonly happens, especially to faculty who are psychiatric survivors and known to be so.  Nor would I in any way want to minimize the very serious plight of excellent scholars whose repeated attempts to land a permanent university job have come to naught because of their personal history, their identity (mad, racialized, etc.) or their antipsychiatry stance. This problem is only too real, and this too we need to fight. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to minimize the value of academic freedom as a safeguard.

To clarify the distinction that I am making here, antipsychiatry faculty may be overlooked in all sorts of ways, may be relegated to dead-end positions, may never have their work spotlighted, may even be actively disrespected (all of which, without question, is highly serious and is in its own way a violation of academic freedom). This notwithstanding, if someone obviously and overtly tried to interfere with a faculty member educating from an antipsychiatry perspective, for the most part, even if unenthusiastically, the university will side with the faculty member under attack. Why? Precisely because even in the eyes of the conventionally minded, such interference violates the university’s commitment to academic freedom. The point here is that the commitment to academic freedom has genuine substance, this, despite the ongoing violations of the commitment.

Factor in this commitment and have your wits about you, if your employment is relatively secure, and even in a surprising number of cases where it is not, as an antipsychiatry academic, when it comes to teaching as you wish, you can generally easily win most fights.  Whereupon, in a very effective way, you begin to turn the tables. Some examples from my own history:

In my first year teaching social work in a university in western Canada (and yes, I was junior, and no, I did not remotely have tenure), members of the psychiatry department were distressed upon learning of a ten-minute talk which I gave in one of my classes on the circular nature of psychiatry’s use of language. Their response was to write the head of social work to request that psychiatric faculty be allowed to enter my classroom and in essence teach their own perspective. The rationale given was that this way my students would benefit from having more than one perspective. Well aware that my freedom to teach as I wished (translation: academic freedom) was at stake here, the head of social work handed me the letter and asked me to respond. I wrote back stating, “In the interest of my students having access to more than one perspective, I am more than happy to allow your faculty time in my classes –but only if in the interest of your students likewise gaining additional perspective, I similarly be invited into your classes.” (Burstow correspondence, November 15, 1987). 

Given the ostensible “sensibleness” of my response, given what would be seen as its “even-handedness”, realistically, only one of two things could have happened at that point: 1) they take up the challenge, in which case, as most of us are aware, a solid antipsychiatry critique can beat psychiatric propaganda handily –and so I win (indeed, I win doubly for my message has now gained access to an otherwise unreachable audience) or 2) they decline the challenge, in which case I would have exposed their claim to believe in multiple perspectives as a ruse, moreover, begun to demonstrate that even in their own eyes, they cannot hold their own against an antipsychiatry analysis—in which case once again, I win.  So what happened? The second. We never heard back from them. 

Another example: Shortly after I was offered and accepted a position in social work at a university in eastern Ontario, a credentializing body wrote the President of the university threatening that if this offer of employment was not rescinded, the department’s social work credentialization was in jeopardy. Once again, the attempt to block me backfired, and it did so in part because the university would not tolerate such blatant interference with academic freedom.

A third example: When Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, OISE’s Adult Education and Community Development program, and I mounted the historic PsychOut Conference at University of Toronto, flexing their muscles, as it were, higher-ups in the psychiatric faculty wrote the President of the university, protesting the existence of such a conference and more significantly, its association with University of Toronto. Similarly one faculty member in psychology wrote, stating that the conference should be canceled in the interests of avoiding confusion.  Otherwise the psychology students who would inevitably attend, she argued, would end up unnecessarily baffled, for they would be bombarded with messages at odds with what they were being taught in psychology classes.

The objections were forthwith forwarded to the OISE dean, who was asked to respond. The dean passed them onto the Chair of my department. The chair passed the onus to respond onto me. To hone in on just one of these, to the applause of the psychology students who began excitedly flocking to meetings of the organizing committee responsible for planning the conference, my response to one outraged colleague went as follows:

In the end, we all have to accept that it is part of academic freedom that scholars bring different and often incompatible claims to knowledge to the table. The hope is that students are enriched by gaining exposure to the very different worldviews and agendas. It falls to them as intelligent human beings and budding scholars to sort out where they themselves stand, having listened to the different positions—and I trust in their ability to do so.” (letter from Burstow, April 25, 2010).

We never heard back from the irate colleague again. And for all intents and purposes, the Conference proceeded as planned—except now a growing excitement had been sparked.

The point is, if handed in the manner which Gandhi followers have dubbed “moral jiu jitsu” (see http://civilresistance.info/sites/default/files/thepowerofnonviolence0206.pdf)
opposition to us can actually serve our own ends of exposing and in the process winning hearts and minds. Again, a turning of the tables.

My encouragement to fellow academics, accordingly, is not to make soft peddling your antipsychiatry message your default mode. While for sure there are times when “lying low” makes sense, there are other and generally better ways for us to protect ourselves. And never forget that the liberal value of academic value is highly serviceable, irrespective of the fact that we are not liberals but radicals.

More generally, master the skill of moral jiu jitsu necessary. Whereupon, the university becomes an important and viable site for our antipsychiatry work—something accomplishable, note, in lectures, in class discussions, in the framing of assignments, in the activist/survivor speakers we are now able to bring in, in special events, in the actual norms of our classes (e.g., one of my class norms is “no mentalistic or psychiatric jargon”), even, as shown above, in fighting the very opposition which initially looks like it will derail us. The point is, paradoxically, both despite and because of the elitism of the venue, and both despite and because of the manifest opposition, there are niches in the  academy which are potential antipsychiatry strongholds—we have but to have courage and do the strategic work needed.

Which brings us to this article’s second objective.

A particularly fruitful way that faculty members can use academia to both further antipsychiatry and to add to its perceived legitimacy is to encourage, supervise, and support antipsychiatry theses. Conducting such research affords students the opportunity to contribute in a major way to antipsychiatry knowledge creation.

Now it goes without saying that such knowledge creation will continue to happen irrespective of whether or not students conducting such research receive awards. This notwithstanding, given the economic straights of oh-so-many graduate students, the financial is hardly irrelevant. Correspondingly, one added measure that antipsychiatry faculty can take is to both nominate their antipsychiatry students for awards and help sponsor antipsychiatry-specific awards. The latter, I would add, is particularly important for the reality is that given the hegemony of psychiatry and the privileged place which psychiatry holds within academia, budding young antipsychiatry scholars have appreciably less chance of winning awards than those involved in more traditional areas of knowledge-building.

More generally, the very creation of one or more antipsychiatry scholarships is a game-changer. Obviously a university cannot have a scholarship in this area without at the same time “recognizing” the area. And insofar as universities “recognize” the area, so does the world at large. By the same token, while it goes without saying that we understandably all have different priorities, anything, however little, that any of us can do to make such scholarships a reality, irrespective of whether or not we are academics or even particularly value academia, is an effort well spent, for it announces to the world that antipsychiatry has legitimacy and it paves the way for ever greater forays into it. In the process, I would add, it helps put a stop to the ongoing harassment of antipsychiatry professors, thereby making it easier for antipsychiatry faculty and would-be faculty to do the job that we in the movement so desperately need them to.

Understanding all this, after a nine month stint of negotiating with University of Toronto officials, who began transparently uneasy with the subject matter, several years ago I arranged for the vast majority of my estate upon my death to go into setting up huge scholarships in this area. And it is with this understanding that likewise, with help from allies –institutional and otherwise—I proceeded to set up the far smaller Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry, outlined at the beginning of this article. My thought here was that besides that the time is ripe, this smaller scholarship could, as it were, prepare the ground for the far larger ones that will materialize later. And a very good thing it was too that I took this measure, for the current scholarship came close to not be approved, and without it,  the tentative agreement about the scholarships set up in my will would surely have been in jeopardy.

The resistance to this scholarship that inevitably materialized, I would add, is itself an indicator of its importance. Moreover, and what is not unrelated, the transparency of the resistance led several institutional players whose support, while real, had begun as relatively modest—including from within the university—to strongly come onside.  Whether this was mainly because the need to uphold academic freedom became increasingly obvious or because they noticed that—lo and behold—they were smack in the middle of a David-and-Goliath story, or because the very struggle itself led them to look at the substantive issues more closely, herein once again we see a “turning of the tables”. 

I would add here, I thank these fellow institutional warriors with all my heart—for you did no less than fight your hearts out—and you did so skillfully, with integrity, and with perseverance! What a force of nature you are!

To end where we began—by honing in on the current scholarship, already this scholarship initiative has a growing momentum. Besides that several donors have already contributed to it or made pledges, the scholarship has been endorsed by as formidable a figure as the member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament Reverend Cheri DiNovo. 

Moreover it has been endorsed by absolute giants in the field like Dr. Peter Breggin, Don Weitz, and Dr. Lauren Tenney, all of whom are very clear about its importance. In this regard, Peter writes:

I am Peter R. Breggin, MD and I am a psychiatrist. As a professional long heralded as the conscience of psychiatry, it is my pleasure to endorse the newly formed Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. Science is demonstrating that psychiatric diagnosis and drugs, electroshock, and involuntary treatment are doing much more harm than good.  We desperately need critical scholarship aimed at stopping this epidemic of demoralization, dehumanization, and brain damage.  –Dr. Peter Breggin

By the same token, survivor and activist Don Weitz writes:

As a psychiatric survivor, antipsychiatry and social justice activist for over 30 years, I strongly support the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at the University of Toronto.  Dr. Burstow’s recent book Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (2015) is a masterful work and brilliant breakthrough. I feel sure the Scholarship will attract and empower many survivors, students, and scholars. It's time antipsychiatry is officially and widely recognized as a legitimate and growing international movement. This Scholarship will help make it happen.  —Don Weitz.

Correspondingly, the indefatigable Lauren Tenney writes:

As a psychiatric survivor and a mad environmental social scientist/psychologist, I am honored to endorse the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry.  How radical!  How timely! We are so fortunate to have in Bonnie Burstow, a visionary with a commitment to exposing psychiatry, and assisting people making their way into the field, to not have to fight for a right to hold an antipsychiatry position. State-sponsored organized psychiatric industries target children, women, people of color, seniors, and people from oppressed groups. The opportunities such a scholarship program present are enormous for the growth of research that will hold psychiatry accountable.  The important feminist, anti-racist work that can be accomplished from an antipsychiatry framework is significant, not only for those awarded this new scholarship, but for those working with and near those in slated positions designed to allow people to honestly speak out about the damages psychiatry creates. This brilliant move by Burstow is a    game-changer that will further solidify the growing field of antipsychiatry in North America, and around the world. If you are able to support this effort, please do so, today.  –Lauren Tenney, PhD, MPhil, MPA, Psychiatric Survivor

The overly generous depiction of me aside, I am grateful for the words of these remarkable and steadfast allies. How reassuring that they instantly recognized the significance of this moment! And how wonderful that they have so enthusiastically become involved! 

In ending, I would invite readers who are able and so inclined to consider also becoming involved—in any way that feels right to you. Simply helping spread the word about the scholarship would be terrific.  Perhaps email people about it or post a description on your website. If you are able and wish to make a financial contribution (all donations, whatever the size, are welcome), the method is: Everyone other than Americans, write a cheque payable to University of Toronto and send it to Sim Kapoor at: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 252 Bloor St. West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 1V6. By contrast, Americans, make the cheque out to: The Associates of the University of Toronto, Inc., and send it to: Dr. Gary Kaufman, Treasurer, The Associates of the University of Toronto, Inc., 58 West 84th St., # 2F, New York, New York, USA, 10024. In all cases, insert on the memo line: For The Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. And yes, with Canadians and Americans the charitable receipt that will be duly issued can be used for tax purposes for they are recognized respectively by Revenue Canada and US Internal Revenue.

For more information on the scholarship, see http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/About_OISE/Bonnie_Burstow_Scholarship.html. See also https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/10/bonnie-burstow-scholarship-antipsychiatry-campaign-launched/To contribute online (an alternative route), write: https://donate.utoronto.ca/give/show/271. Correspondingly, for answers to other questions that you may have, write to: burstowscholarshipcommittee@gmail.com.

Finally, one parting invitation: For those of you who are likewise antipsychiatry, whether you do so in relationship to this scholarship or otherwise, whether via academia or the far larger world beyond, whether you operate in the streets, in the classroom, on the internet, or in the boardroom, before you go to bed tonight –and the next night, and the next—think of ways that you too can be involved in "turning the tables" –for, make no mistake about it: Such—and no less—is the nature of the challenge facing us.


Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the business of madness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (1963/1973). The birth of the clinic. London: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When It Comes to Being "Shrink-Resistant", Toronto Universities Lead the Way

Whatever you may think about it -- and different people have dramatically different assessments -- most Canadians are acutely aware that the University of Toronto is a central hub for institutional psychiatry, with CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) being one of its most famous research institutes as well as one of its mega teaching hospitals. Did you know, however, that Toronto universities are likewise famous for what is transparently the opposite -- that is, for cutting edge critiques of psychiatry? And in the latter, let me suggest, we seekers of social justice can truly take pride.

Some history: The very first course on working with traumatized people anywhere in the world that operates from an antipsychiatry perspective was introduced over 15 years ago in the ever radical Adult Education and Community Development program at Ontario Institute for Studies In Education (OISE), University of Toronto. Called "Working with Survivors of Trauma", it is still going strong, students scrambling every year to get into this highly popular course. What is especially exciting about this course, beyond that the type of engagement being upfronted is fully consensual -- an absolute must -- the course operates totally outside of psychiatric frames (e.g., no use of psychiatric diagnoses or language). Moreover, unlike every other trauma course in the world, instead of psychiatry being conceptualized as a "resource" for traumatized people, it is framed as a traumatizing institution which presents a danger to them precisely because it acts as it does, moreover, precisely because is widely accepted as the ultimate “resource”. By the same token, just as students gain cutting edge skills for helping traumatized peoples and communities "work through", "expand their coping repertoire", and on a more political level, resist, one of the skills acquired in this course is how to help traumatized folk and communities become adept at protecting themselves precisely from psychiatric and other intrusion by "professionals", irrespective of whether or not such intrusion is called "help".

Speaking of radical reframing!

A slightly later but related development was kickstarted at Ryerson University (located in central Toronto). At the instigation of mad history specialist Dr. Geoffrey Reaume (now a long term faculty member at York University), it introduced the world’s very first Mad History course. This development, I would add, occurred shortly after Reaume had proposed just such a course to University of Toronto, only to find it rejected offhand -- and in this, U of T's lack of foresight is evident.

The inclusion of this course in Ryerson was quickly followed by the introduction of a Mad History course in Disability Studies at York University (also located in Toronto), again courtesy of Dr. Geoffrey Reaume. Soon with the aid of scholars like Reaume (York University), David Reville (Ryerson), and Dr. Jennifer Poole (Ryerson), Mad Studies became a highly recognized academic area in Canada. And before long Mad History and Mad Studies courses more generally spread to Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands, and other parts of the world (see http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/mad-studies/). It remains at the same time a Canadian stronghold, as seen by the appearance of such stellar Mad Studies tomes as Brenda LeFrançois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume (2013).

What is exciting about such courses and areas is that the perspectives explored are not those of professionals but rather those of folk deemed mad. Herein we have what philosopher Michel Foucault (1980) so aptly calls “the insurrection of subjugated knowledge”. 

A further Toronto university breakthrough: In 2010 in cooperation with leading antipsychiatry group Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, Adult Education and Community Development at OISE/UT mounted the historic PsychOut Conference (see http://ocs.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/psychout/index/index). This was the first conference ever whose focus was strategic resistance to psychiatry. Widely attended, it culminated in printed proceedings (see http://individual.utoronto.ca/psychout/papers/lehmann.html).
It likewise inspired Bonnie Burstow's, Brenda LeFrançois's, and Shaindl Diamond's (2014) book on the subversive art of crafting resistance to psychiatry.

Yet a further development of note happened in 2014 -- again at University of Toronto. People came from far and wide to OISE/UT to take a series of workshops on how to use a radical approach to research called “Institutional Ethnography” to investigate aspects of psychiatry. The purpose of the workshops was nothing less than to help attendees learn how to trace seemingly individual personal problems to the workings of institutional psychiatry, together with the power conglomerates of which it is a part. The upshot of these workshops were the formation of research teams. Composed of psychiatric survivors, academics, and activists, the teams proceeded to employ this radical methodology to investigate hitherto relatively unexplored nooks and crannies of psychiatry. The product is the soon-to-be-released book “Psychiatry Interrogated” (see http://www.springer.com/fr/book/9783319411736). 

And then there is the pièce de la résistance -- which it has been my pleasure to be integral to.

But days ago -- so this news is “hot off the press” -- yet another important breakthrough materialized, once again at OISE, University of Toronto. For the first time anywhere in the world an antipsychiatry scholarship was set up. Known as the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry, it is a matching scholarship in which I am slated to match up to $50,000 dollars in donations from others. And it will be awarded annually in perpetuity to OISE students doing theses in the area of antipsychiatry.

To understand the significance of this scholarship, witness these words by leading psychiatrist/psychiatric critic Dr. Peter Breggin:

I am Peter R. Breggin, MD and I am a psychiatrist. As a professional long heralded as the conscience of psychiatry, it is my pleasure to endorse the newly formed Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. Science is demonstrating that psychiatric diagnosis and drugs, electroshock, and involuntary treatment are doing much more harm than good. We desperately need critical scholarship aimed at stopping this epidemic of demoralization, dehumanization, and brain damage. 

Likewise backing the scholarship, in her written endorsement, Ontario MPP Reverend Cheri DiNovo draws attention to the scholarship's long-run potential to help address inequities faced by psychiatric survivors.

Zeroing in more pointedly on the social movement dimension, Toronto activist extraordinaire Don Weitz explains the significance of the scholarship thusly, “It's time antipsychiatry is officially and widely recognized as a legitimate and growing international movement. This Scholarship will help make it happen.”

Correspondingly, survivor/activist/academic Dr. Lauren Tenney pinpoints with rigour multiple ways in which the scholarship is significant, bringing in intersectionality in the process, elegantly asserting:

How radical!  How timely! We are so fortunate to have [here], a visionary with a commitment to exposing psychiatry, and assisting people making their way into the field, to not have to fight for a right to hold an antipsychiatry position. State-sponsored organized psychiatric industries target children, women, people of color, seniors, and people from oppressed groups. The opportunities such a scholarship program presents are enormous for the growth of research that will hold psychiatry accountable. The important feminist, anti-racist work that can be accomplished from an antipsychiatry framework is significant, not only for those awarded this new scholarship, but for those working with and near those in slated positions designed to allow people to honestly speak out about the damages psychiatry creates. This brilliant move by Burstow is a game-changer that will further solidify the growing field of antipsychiatry in North America, and around the world. If you are able to support this effort, please do so, today.  -- Lauren Tenney, PhD, MPhil, MPA, Psychiatric Survivor.

As these endorsers are well aware, as the scholars involved in every one of the cutting edge endeavors outlined in this article too are aware, as the throng of students benefiting from such developments are likewise aware, it is precisely in breakthroughs such as these that we see universities at their best -- not acting as the regimes of ruling (which they unquestionably are) but daring to step away from vested interests to promote truly liberatory scholarship. Not that any of this happened without struggle. 

Insofar as we have such breakthroughs, it is because radical scholars itching for universities to be real sites of liberating education pushed and keep on pushing against the conservativism and the inherent intransigence in universities. May the struggle continue!

Hopefully, we will see many more such developments not only at Toronto universities -- but at sites of learning throughout this nation and beyond. My own personal wish list for the near future is; the public mounting of hard-hitting debates on the timely subject of psychiatry; the creation of departments of Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies, and last but hardly least, the integration of antipsychiatry into such currently (and woefully) psychiatry-dominated fields as psychology and social work (for a discussion of psychiatry's wholesale colonization of psychology and social work in North America, see Bonnie Burstow, 2015).

Correspondingly, I look to the day when every university will consider their mission of advancing social justice and radical scholarship at least somewhat incomplete without creating a space for demystifying psychiatry, for promoting mad voices and "mad literacy", and for the co-development of antipsychiatry strategies. Can you imagine how society might change if our universities truly prioritized pedagogies of the oppressed in such ways? By the same token, can you imagine what would happen if a good part of the populace got behind such a transition? -- a vital question that I put to the reader, for despite how impressive are the inroads made to date, without abundant and radical community involvement, universities will only change so far. Or to phrase this positively, we get what we make happen.

That said, to end by highlighting the scholarship at hand, for those wanting to learn more about this exciting new development and/or eager to become part of what Tenney has so aptly dubbed this game-changing" move, this history-in-the-making, go here (http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/About_OISE/Bonnie_Burstow_Scholarship.html). For queries that you might have, write: burstowscholarshipcommitee@gmail.com.


Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the business of madness. New York: Macmillan.
Burstow, B., LeFrançois, B, and Diamond, S. (Eds). (2014). Psychiatry disrupted. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.
LeFrançois, B., Menzies, R., and Reaume, G. (Eds.) (2013). Mad matters. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry

After a seven and a half year struggle to make something like this happen--terrific news--a scholarship in antipsychiatry has just been established at University of Toronto--a wonderful breakthrough for besides that this area is of monumental importance, there are no such scholarships anywhere else.  The scholarship is available to thesis students at Ontario Institute in Studies in Education at University of Toronto conducting antipsychiatry inquiry. For details on the award, including its significance and how to get involved, see http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/About_OISE/Bonnie_Burstow_Scholarship.html

Saturday, July 16, 2016

“Invisible” Resistance: Taking Charge in the Face of Difficulty and Institutional Rule

The context in which this article is penned is rule by institutions which are functions of the state, in particular those deemed services; the ways in which these interconnect to create a veritable trap; contrary to current hegemony, the ease with which they can substantially harm those that they “serve”. Pivotal in this article is the “mental health system” and the psychiatric dangers that it presents (for an extensive demonstration that psychiatry intrinsically harms and lacks validity, see Burstow, 2015). Likewise figuring prominently are the educational system and the social services—which, despite their comparative validity are themselves centralized sites of social control, and as such, also wreak havoc in people’s lives.

At the centre of the discussion are two stories, each involving individuals competently attending to their own needs and/or the needs of their loved ones precisely by keeping one or more of these institutions at bay. These particular stories were chosen because of my intricate knowledge of each, also because of the contrast between them (they take place in very different eras, and very different modes of resistance are involved). Questions explored with respect to them include: What problems do the stories bring to light? Would the complications encountered in the first story have been better or worse if some semblance of these events played out today? What attitude do they suggest that we should take to the various apparatuses of the state? What do they tell us about resistance? And insofar as the solutions arrived at by the central protagonists might be thought of as instructive, what do they alert us to, open up as possibilities, or prefigure?

Story One:  Ottawa, 1950s.

A younger me is the central protagonist of this story, age 12-13. My family had just moved from Winnipeg Manitoba to Ottawa Ontario, and both in Ottawa itself and in the new school that I attended I found myself encountering a level of anti-Semitism which I had not previously experienced. Badly thrown, for better or for worse, I did not share these conundrums with my folks for my dad had just suffered a major heart attack and parents were in such dire financial distress that it is all they could do to put food on the table. What I did is stop going to school. A truant officer was summarily dispatched to our flat to drag me to school. Eyeing this menacing looking figure approaching the door, I locked it, whereupon he yelled, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll unlock the door pronto.” As I did not respond, he eventually departed. This left the school in a tricky position for what was happening here blatantly broke the rules. What was their solution to this interference with standard operations? To insist that I must be “mentally ill” and force me to see a psychiatrist – a framing which “solved” their immediate problem.

For the next year and a half, I saw a psychiatrist thrice a week. He began by administering an ink blot test, then asking follow-up questions. Whence began an extended conversation, which in no way touched on any of my conundrums. Now one day I inquired what would happen to me when I was out of answers to his queries. He never responded, from which I surmised that my safest course of action was to keep the conversation going. Now I did indeed wonder whether or not I might be “mentally ill”, as almost everyone beset by psychiatry does—for we are primed to do so. However, he soon made a critical error that signaled to me that he had not a clue what he was doing.  He told my folks and the school authorities that it was okay that I had left school for I had not the intelligence to pass out of grade 7. Well aware that I had just heard something preposterous, I made my own assessment of the assessor and his tools, and I continued to bide my time. Meanwhile, knowing that I would be seriously disadvantaged in life with nothing but a grade 6 education, I took a part-time job at the National Art Gallery of Canada—and I stayed alert to whatever “possibilities” arose.

One day my family announced that we would be moving back to Manitoba, more particularly, to the small northern town of Churchill—for my dad had landed a job there. Here was my moment! I intuitively knew that whatever anti-Semitism awaited me there would be in a range that I could handle. I immediately told my parents that I wished to return to school. They nodded. Taking a deep breath, I continued, “but I don't want to go back to grade 7. How about if I go to the grade I would’ve been in at this juncture had none of this ever happened –y’know, grade 9.” Without soliciting any further explanation, again my parents nodded. The question, however, was how to pull off a coup of this proportion given that no school would knowingly permit such a major violation of their rules. Indeed, as we were all aware, such a request would not even “compute”. My father’s brow knit as if he were lost in thought. Then he responded, “I'll assure them that you passed out of grades 7 and 8 and that I have sent for the records and they simply have not yet arrived.” 

My parents looked at me, knowing that I was the weak link for I had (and yes, still have) a passion for truth. I also knew that we were up against an unbending power and this was a critical moment–for here was my opportunity to get my life back on track. So I took a deep breath, then returned their nod. And without a word from anyone, the die was cast.

We moved. I spent the summer hitting the books so that I could handle grade 9. Then the school year commenced.

For the next several months, my father stalled the principal, who kept calling to inquire about my records from Ottawa. Come the end of the first term, I took the interim exams and came in top of my class. Then circumstances landed us in Winnipeg, where I subsequently took the departmental exams. The successful completion of the departmental exams meant that I could now “officially” enter grade 10.

I continued on, completed high school, attended a number of different universities, where I acquired four different degrees, included a doctorate, and received numerous awards (e.g., the Russell Gold Medal in Philosophy). Then I resumed teaching in universities (which I had begun after my first masters). In the fullness of time, I became a world famous scholar who had published extensively. All this, by a person, note, “officially” without sufficient intelligence to pass out of grade 7.

Discussion of Story One

Students being forced to deal with pernicious racialization is a common plight in schools. As a 12 year old who was thrown by a level of it that I had not previously witnessed, I dealt with it as best as I could. Clearly, the solution itself was less than ideal. At the same time, getting distance from the daily assault on my dignity was a reasonable course of action given that there was nothing in the system which even allowed for the possibility of such difficulties existing. Hence the decision to absent myself (the first act of resistance). Once I acted on this decision, two of arms of the state—the educational system and psychiatry—entered in to rectify a breach of their rules that could only be conceptualized institutionally as something over which they needed to reassert control. I was now trapped at least seemingly between two unacceptable outcomes—being dragged back into an oppressive learning environment or falling prey to psychiatry. 

To the best of my ability I proceeded to keep both institutions at bay. I kept the school system at bay by going along with their insistence that I see a psychiatrist. And I kept psychiatry at bay in essence by engaging in a kind of mindless chatter that might best be characterized as stalling. Anguished though I was, the task which I set myself was competently performed, in other words, and the tactic was successful.

Likewise competently exercised and sensible was the decision to return to school once I had reason to believe that I would be entering a safer environment. By the same token the decision made by my entire family—for me to skip two grades and for us all to lie to the principal—also made sense. Lest it strike you otherwise, let me invite you for a moment to consider the alternative: Had we played by the rules, not only would I have been unnecessarily stuck in a class with students two years younger, having received the relevant documents from Ottawa, instead of approaching me as a bright and promising student, the school officials would have instantly turned to pathologizing. And indeed we were all of us acutely aware of this, and as such, our response constitutes “critically aware resistance”.

Herein, let me suggest, the fact that we were working class served the family well. The point here is that working class families, like most other oppressed groups, harbour an inherent distrust of the establishment, have a standpoint which, while hardly foolproof, uniquely positions us to see through the official line. What we understood, quite simply, is that the system is not our friend. And what is mere dishonesty in one situation is self-protection in another. Not that sheer luck did not likewise come to our aid.

That said, to return to the various institutions themselves, what was wrong with what each one did—beginning with the educational system? Besides that the educational system allowed an atmosphere of anti-Semitism to flourish in the first place, it activated institutional responses which were ill advised, insensitive, and punitive. And capturing even themselves up by their rules, they turned a situation which called for listening, respect, and creative problem-solving into one which allowed for only two possible interpretations and two possible courses of action—both of them injurious—EITHER the child was “derelict” and therefore should be manhandled into returning to school OR the child was “mentally ill” and therefore should be forced into the psychiatric system.

What did psychiatry in turn do wrong? It uncritically accepted its role as the correct handler of the situation. It failed to share information. It prioritized its own dubious tools over human relating. Correspondingly, as an agent of the state, the psychiatrist proceeded to come up with an assessment that not only made no sense but was transparently political. The point is if “the child” was both “mentally ill” and “intellectually incapable”, the broken rules became far less of a problem for the other arm of the state—the school. Moreover, psychiatry’s “owning” of the situation was guaranteed.

Now as it happens, only two arms of the state directly figure in this saga, and in both cases, significantly, contrary to their own sense of themselves, they were problem-creators, not problem-solvers. Nonetheless another arm of the state might easily have entered in, and had it done so, it too would have been a problem-creator. To wit: What if the family had been less skillful in pulling off this ruse and the deception and collusion became evident? In accordance with the boss texts which determine its operation, the school would have been obliged to call in Child and Family Services. Expertly applying their own texts, the Child and Family Services officials, in turn, would have “determined” that the welfare of the child was at stake, that the parents were badly negligent at the bare minimum, and that the removal of the child from the home was mandatory. At which point, “the child” would not only have lost her home, her foundation, and her one true ally but in all likelihood, would once again have been facing the danger of the psychiatric system (theorized as help). Moreover, the family as a whole would suffer.

Now it might be argued that this happened eons ago and things would have played out in a better way today. Let me suggest, however, that racialization in schools remains a fact.  Moreover, if we assume even a vaguely similar beginning and a vaguely similar set of circumstances, the outcome today would be every bit as bad and arguably considerably worse. How so?

There is now a far closer relationship between the educational system and the psychiatric system. Moreover, there has not only been a “drug revolution” but a specific honing in on the child market (see Whitaker, 2010 and Burstow 2015). Ergo, “the child” would almost certainly have ended up on psychiatric drugs, with all the brain-damage which this entails—a course of action that would have likely commenced the moment that she stopped attending class.

Nor would the escape route that opened up later exist. The point is, unlike in 1950s, subterfuge of that particular nature is impossible under the current circumstances for the problematic records would follow the child electronically wherever she went. Moreover, even were it possible, were the subterfuge ever discovered, not only would the social services still remove the child (see http://web2.gov.mb.ca/laws/statutes/ccsm/c080e.php), and not only would psychiatry similarly summarily be called in, the psychiatry called in would be modern psychiatry –that is, one duly armed with toxic drugs.
Story Two: Toronto, Current Times

The major protagonists in this story are: a woman whose husband had recently died (pseudonym: Nel), her children, and her mother-in-law (pseudonym: Lisa).

A year ago, as a well known antipsychiatry therapist whose opinion she respected, Lisa called me to solicit my advice about how to help her daughter-in-law. The backstory? Nel was overwhelmed, was having enormous trouble coping. And she would every so often start screaming at her children. The children in turn were frightened of their mother. What had Lisa already done with respect to her family? Something remarkable. She had supported both the children and their mother. She had also begun advocating on Lisa’s behalf, arranging for nonintrusive counseling and stopping psychiatry’s relentless attempt to push psychiatric drugs on Nel. Having been asked what she might do now, I naturally  applauded Lisa’s efforts to date and urged her to continue on in the same vein. I likewise suggested that she spend as much time as possible listening to Nel, helping her mourn, and brainstorming solutions with her (and I gave her ideas how to do this), that she support the children similarly, that she provide the children with a place to which to retreat, as needed, moreover, that she encourage the family to hold meetings where everyone discussed the problems in the family and explored ways to support one another.

What next I heard from Lisa, besides having enacted all my suggestions, she had also in effect taught her family all that I had taught her. Additionally, she had masterminded an agreement whereby when Nel was having a bad day, she would shut herself in her room to spare the children, and on the children’s side, they would let their mom know that they needed to take off now and would return when “the storm had blown over.” Which they all accomplished without involving authorities and without incident.

What happened in the fullness of time? The pain, needless to say, did not disappear. Nonetheless, Nel began getting control over her life. The family became good at handling its problems together. The children ceased being afraid, confident that they were loved, knowing, moreover, that everything could be discussed and everything handled together.  Correspondingly, the family unit stayed in tact.

Discussion of Story Two

The institutions involved here or which threatened to become so are two of the very ones that figured so prominently in the first story. However, a very different dynamic played out, with the institutions totally kept in line—with one, additionally, drawn on as needed—and by someone with a keen sense of how to advocate.

That psychiatry posed an imminent threat to Nel is transparently obvious. Lisa's calm and effective resistance, however, prevented anything untoward from happening. What Lisa did is gently but persistently block the intrusion at hand and successfully lobby instead for the provision of empathic psychological counseling while reassuring everyone by her steady ongoing involvement. By the same token, once again we have a situation in which Child and Family Services would normally have been called in, and had this happened, once again, in all likelihood the children would have been removed—and everyone thereby harmed. The persistent, skillful, and loving help which Lisa provided prevented this from happening, moreover turned the entire situation around, leaving all family members and the family as a whole in a far better place.

What particularly strikes me about this story, I would add, is how incredibly better Lisa responded than oh-so-many mothers-in-law would. The point is that a situation like this in a patriarchal culture is a setup for a mother-in-law in grieving and who is naturally worried about her grandchildren to fall into pathologizing and/or vilifying her daughter-in-law, perhaps even encouraging social services to remove the children, placing them in her custody instead. This might or might not be accompanied by her urging that the daughter-in-law be “afforded” psychiatric “care”. How wonderful that Lisa was so clear-sighted and giving that instead of sacrificing the daughter-in-law, she safeguarded her, while helping the entire family.

In so doing, I would add, she prefigured how families and community members might handle problems in the better type of society that I would like to see us build (for details, see Burstow, 2015, Chapter Nine).


This article has laid bare a number of the intricate, insidious, and profound ways that institutions which are arms of the state individually and collectively control people, in the process substantially injuring and/or endangering them. It likewise has made visible everyday acts of skilled resistance. Correspondingly, it has demonstrated the utter necessity of such resistance. Had I chosen stories involving other institutions, I would suggest, as long as psychiatry or the criminal justice system were one of them—and to an appreciable degree, even were they not—similar dynamics would have materialized.

The primary lessons to be gleaned from the forgoing are: While for sure there are times when certain institutions serve us, we can ill afford to simply place our faith in any institution, much less any institution embedded in the state, this, note, despite the fact that society “dictates” otherwise.  We need to be aware of the connections between all major social institutions, to see how they can work together to the enormous disadvantage of human beings caught up by them. We need to prioritize people over institutions. We need to keep our eyes peeled for instances when resistance is in order. And we need to know how to resist.

In ending, some concrete recommendations that readers might consider:   

·      Nurture a healthy skepticism about all the arms of the state, including, and perhaps especially, ones theorized as “help”.

·      Albeit it may well be that psychiatry (and I would personally add others) is the sole arm of the state totally lacking in validity, be aware that an analysis restricted to psychiatry is insufficient. Safety lies in having an analysis of all regimes of ruling, having a sense of how they interconnect, and acting accordingly.

·      Get into the practice of noticing how power operates.

·      Step back from the worldview created by regimes of ruling so that you are in a position to truly assess both what is happening and what the institution or the institutional network is likely to do. A good beginning is distancing yourself from their discourses (see Burstow, 2013).

·      Touch base with and respect your own knowledge and that of your community—for irrespective of how the institutions may frame things, you surely do have knowledge.

·      Take note of the institutions currently governing your actions or those of your loved ones and/or community, with an eye to determining what problems might arise, what steps you can predict, and how, if necessary, you might work around them.

·      Observe how seemingly separate institutions connect together in ways which entrap individuals.

·      Study not only the routine operation of institutions but the permutations that occur when they connect with racialized communities, with women, with the very young, with the very old, with the disabled, with the LGBTQ community.

·      Remember that “experts” and their “knowledge” are themselves institutional products.  

·      Be willing to reach out as helpful; be equally willing to keep your own counsel as necessary.

·      Negotiate and advocate where helpful.

·      When facing the power, contradictions, and circular reasoning of institutions, be prepared to sabotage and to do so skillfully.

·      Study resistance strategies, investigating what works and under what circumstances.

·      Try to navigate life in ways that maximize the likelihood that everyone’s welfare is safeguarded, community is supported, and a decentering of power occurs.

Finally, never forget that children are far more resourceful than adults realize, moreover, while they may be at a loss to explain themselves, they have unique insight into their own needs. Correspondingly, if you find yourself dismissing their behavior as misguided, as simply bad, or worse yet, as evidence of a fictitious disease like “oppositional defiance disorder”, reach back to the time when you were a kid—then think again!!


Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the Business of Madness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Burstow, B. (2013). A Rose by any Other Name. In Mad Matters. ed. Brenda Lefrançois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, pp. 79-93.

Whitaker, R. (2010). Anatomy of an epidemic. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.                              

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Liberals’ Assisted Dying Bill: Reflections on a Cop-Out

When it comes to the issue of assisted dying, there is fresh pain and understandable outrage in the country right now because, as most readers are aware, a bill was recently tabled in parliament that, as it were, pulls the proverbial rug out from under the feet of a huge constituency who have been counting on something better. "It’s mean," states Linda Jarrett. "There’s going to be a lot of unnecessary suffering," objects Rachel Phan (http://www.dyingwithdignity.ca/advocates_speak_out_against_new_legislation). Correspondingly, a huge anti-bill lobbying effort has mobilized.

What in a nutshell has happened? The prelude is—and a highly welcome prelude it was—after years of activist struggle—the Supreme Court declared Canada’s criminalization of assisted suicide unconstitutional and it unequivocally stipulated that legislation must be passed whereby people with severe and irreversible agony, should they competently so choose, could receive assistance from doctors to end their lives (Carter vs. Canada). Enter the Liberal government, who sounded like they would comply. Now to their credit, they indeed did introduce assisted dying legislation. However, what they have tabled -- Bill C-14 -- falls seriously short of the Supreme Court ruling. Ergo, the stunned outrage.

What is wrong with the bill? And what can we do about about it?

The problems largely arise from the restrictive nature of the conditions that have to be satisfied. The most worrisome of these is spelt out in section 241.2  (2d).  Earlier sections specify that the person must be capable, have requested the service, have given informed consent (all unproblematic), be at least 18 (please put a marker here), be eligible for Canadian health services, and have "a grievous and irremediable medical condition". [241. 2 (2c)] Then comes 241.2 (2d), which stipulates that the condition must be so advanced that "their natural death has become reasonably foreseeable."

Note the vagueness in the stipulation above. Just what is meant by "reasonably foreseeable"?  And exactly how advanced and close to "natural death" must a person be? Question: Would an ALS sufferer who is told that she probably has only 6 months to live qualify? Would the stalwart Sue Rodriguez qualify -- the woman, after all, most responsible for helping Canadians begin to seriously grapple with these issues? And if not, should that not worry us? And if no one knows for sure whether or not they would qualify, should not that likewise worry us?

Worse than the lack of clarity, much like American legislation in this area (for an overview of relevant American legislation, see Stefan, 2016), the bill is intrinsically connected to the concept of imminent death. To qualify for assisted suicide, according to this bill, the person must be close to death—this, despite a Supreme Court ruling that made no such stipulation.

Herein we find a blatant contravention of the Supreme Court ruling for the assistance available was not to be restricted to people whose death is imminent or even those whose malady is terminal -- no minor difference. In the very process of veering from the Supreme Court ruling, moreover, the bill disqualifies a huge number of people, leaving them without the assistance which they may desperately need. Note in this regard, not all horrid suffering is connected with imminent death or indeed with terminal conditions at all -- a reality which does not make the suffering in question an iota less severe or the person less in need of relief.  

On top of which, the bill in essence makes the relief unavailable at any time for people with certain conditions, given the double binds created by the combination of restrictions.

Take the person in early stage dementia. At this early juncture, they would not qualify (despite having a serious and grievously deteriorating condition) for they are not yet near death.  And so they must wait. Eventually they will indeed satisfy condition "d"—for death will be "foreseeable". However, by the time they satisfied that criterion, they would no longer be able to satisfy the competence criterion. Which in short means: People suffering from one of the most humiliatingly debilitating conditions with which anyone is ever afflicted -- a condition that may rob them fundamentally of who they are -- are in effect totally excluded from exercising even the highly limited rights which that statute makes available to other Canadians. Which makes the bill inherently discriminatory, and indeed, frighteningly so.

This is not equality. This is not adequate. This is not the compassion and the dignity that we owe Canadians in difficulty. Ergo, the Liberals should seriously amend the bill, which amendments should include but not be limited to removing both the "foreseeable death" and the terminal criteria and allowing for advanced directives.

My invitation to Canadians is to urgently push the Liberals to do just that. Sign petitions; contact your member of parliament; talk to senators; let them know that we expect more from them; and urge them to vote against the bill unless the necessary changes are made. And if all this fails, gear up for a Supreme Court challenge.

That noted, to date, I have focused on problems with this bill that have already received considerable attention. Well and good. However, I cannot in good conscience end this article without drawing attention to various other problematic features -- ones of special significance to people who are likewise being shortchanged by this bill yet who are but seldom mentioned by commentators. The point here is that there is a not-so-hidden dividing line between people that the average Canadian is comfortable seeing included in such legislation and ones that the average Canadian is not -- and unless we actively grapple with the latter, fairness is unlikely to prevail. 

To begin with psychiatric survivors, here we see yet another very clear violation, for the Supreme Court stipulated that mental anguish was to qualify. Moreover, the parliamentary committee established to advise on this bill specifically stated that "mental illness" should qualify. The recognition evident here is that this suffering too can be grievous and it too can prove to be irremediable.

Question: Why has this deviation not been taken up by the public with equal fervor that others have? Quite simply because the average citizen is uncomfortable with psychiatric survivors and their misery qualifying. Understandable, perhaps, but let us look at the issue more carefully.

Now it goes without saying that like everyone else, there are psychiatric survivors leading lives of meaning to them -- and thankfully, this is the vast majority. And like everyone else, there are survivors who do not.  Of the latter, some opt to kill themselves, and as with everyone else, in many of these instances, such a decision seems premature to most, and regardless, the condition in question fails to meets the threshold of irremediable. There are survivors, nonetheless, who have struggled for decades, who have tried one measure after another, and whose agony has only grown worse -- in some cases exponentially so -- survivors, moreover, who have made a clear and measured decision to die. Are they to remain either trapped or forced to die alone? Moreover, in response to readers who are certain that exclusion is in order, whether because they believe that a termination-of-life decision by a member of this population is likely to be a product of their "mental disorder" (a concept and a conviction, note, unsupported by the evidence) or for any other reason, I would ask this: Given that the identical safeguards would apply, given, for instance, that psychiatric survivors seeking physician-assisted dying would also have to be competent to make the decision in question, given they too would have to wait the requisite period of time to ensure that the decision is not in any way impulsive, and given that the condition would have to be seen as advanced and irremediable, is not denying this population what we allow other Canadians tantamount to discrimination? And is that truly what we want this country to stand for? 

Herein, let me suggest, our biases get in our way. Moreover, our sense of compassion and responsibility toward people we see as vulnerable badly skews our judgment. The point is that while vulnerability is a reason for making extra help available, it is not a reason to deprive people of their rights (albeit we habitually act as if it is). And robbing people of their rights is ultimately neither the compassionate nor the responsible thing to do.

Finally, to end with the age restriction, the Supreme Court was clear that "mature minors" should also have access to assisted dying services -- and yet this bill manifestly excludes them. Now I doubt that anyone would disagree that extra safeguards are in order here. For example, there may be reason to look into issues of neglect or of undue influence. That is different, however, than the across-the-board exclusion found in this bill. Once again, irrespective of intention, this smacks of discrimination. And here once again, paradoxically, our desire to protect the vulnerable gets in our way and in effect leads us to shortchange and to violate.

In ending, I invite readers to grapple with these issues. While without question, we need safeguards and criteria -- and most of the ones already stipulated make perfect sense -- and while without question, we must ensure that such measures are never used as an excuse for cutting back on services for people who in any way want help to live, cannot we not be less restrictive? More compassionate? More respectful? And what better time than now when legislation is on the table and the Supreme Court has provided the requisite signal?


Stefan, S. (2016). Rational suicide, irrational laws. New York: Oxford University Press.