‘Psychiatry: We Need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Mental Health’ by Leah Harris

lharris‘Speech written for the protest of the American Psychiatric Association – May 4, 2014 

My name is Leah Harris and I’m a survivor. I am a survivor of psychiatric abuse and trauma. 

My parents died largely as a result of terrible psychiatric practice. Psychiatric practice that took them when they were young adults and struggling with experiences they didn’t understand. Experiences that were labeled as schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder.

My parents were turned from people into permanent patients. They suffered the indignities of forced treatment. Seclusion and restraint. Forced electroshock. Involuntary outpatient commitment. And a shocking amount of disabling heavy-duty psychiatric drugs. And they died young, from a combination of the toxic effects of overmedication, and broken spirits.

My father would have loved this protest. Before he died, he used to e-mail me links to MindFreedom and call me his “darling left-wing daughter.” MindFreedom gave him hope and made him smile, when he had been told he was nothing more than a mental patient. Be sure that your presence here today is giving a lot of people hope.

I am here because I too, was almost made into a permanent patient. I entered the mental health system as a girl, traumatized by the painful experiences my mother and I had faced in a hostile world.

I escaped the mental health system, thank God, at the age of 18, when I decided I would not be left to rot in a decrepit group home, eating food not fit for dogs, and surrounded by filth. As hopeless as I was, something inside me said I was deserving of a better future. And psychiatry and the mental health systems would not able to give it to me. I would have to find it on my own.

Yes, we protest at the APA today. But this is bigger than psychiatry. This is about the way we treat the most deeply suffering people in our society. I give psychiatry a failing grade. I give our broken mental health systems a failing grade. Not only are they not helping people, they are killing them, body and spirit.

We are here today to remember many people who have fallen due to abuse and neglect at the hands of systems that purport to help. Today we remember Esmin Green, who at Kings County Hospital was made so long to sit in a waiting room to get some support for her mental health struggles, that she died of a blood clot caused by prolonged sitting. In 2009 I wrote a spoken word piece about her, and here’s a little bit of that:

You might ask – how this could happen
in the good old US of A?
where oh where was the compassion
on that fateful july day?
If you’re a woman of color labeled mentally ill
Poor, powerless and vulnerable
Your life is apparently dispensable –
it’s criminal – reprehensible
perpetrators will be held responsible

Esmin Green – we’ll never forget you
Not gonna let your death be in vain
We the people gonna make sure
This never happens to anyone again
We the people gonna get up stand up
Stand up for our rights
Walk good, walk good, sister Esmin
And we’ll keep up the fight

We the people are here! Standing up for our rights. We survived. We must celebrate that, in the midst of our grief and rage for all who have lost their lives and their dreams.

You are the people who gave me a better future. You are the people I found when I thought I was all alone. The ex-patients, people with disabilities, the labeled, the discarded, the forgotten. Some of you made it out.

You shared your stories before me, and I saw the patterns so clearly. The patterns of oppression, but also, patterns of liberation. Of defying the prognoses. Of defying the negative stereotypes that society and the media put on us.

The psychiatrists said I would turn out like my parents. They were wrong. You told me to tell my story. And I have never stopped telling it. Now I fight so that no one need suffer my parents’ tragic fate. Esmin Green’s tragic fate. Justina’s tragic fate.

Anne Braden was a white woman who became active in the civil rights movement, and spent the rest of her life dedicated to anti-racist organizing. She said, “As long as people of color can be written off as expendable, and therefore acceptable victims of the most extreme inequities, none of the basic injustices of our society will be addressed; they will only get worse.”

I think Anne Braden’s comment gets to the reason that we are here today. We are here today to bear witness to the “expendable people.” The people who hear voices, who have visions, who live in realities we don’t understand.

The people who have been traumatized, abused, are then subjected to further indignity and abuse by the mental health systems that are presided over by their high priests, the psychiatrists. The harmful practices perpetrated by the mental health system are wrong. They’re just wrong. Force has no place in mental health care. It just doesn’t.

We are here today to say NO to federal legislation launched by Mr. Murphy of PA called the Helping American Families in Crisis Act of 2013. We are here to say you cannot continue to medicalize and pathologize our suffering.

You cannot continue to scapegoat us for the larger problems of violence in America. You cannot declare us too sick to deserve human dignity and self-determination over our bodies and our lives. You cannot roll back the rights we have fought so hard for.

You cannot reward states who promote an institutional paradigm of forced care at the expense of the real, voluntary, community-based services we want: affordable housing, opportunities for education, work, creativity, being a part of a supportive community.

Mr. Murphy, you say that we cannot recover our lives, and that our voices don’t matter. It’s only the voices of the MDs in that convention hall who matter to you.

And we are here to repeat and adapt the words of Anne Braden: as long as WE, the crazy people, can be written off as expendable, and therefore acceptable victims of the most extreme inequities, none of the basic injustices of our society will be addressed; they will only get worse.

And indeed, they are getting worse. Our country is fraying apart at the seams, and the DSM gets thicker every edition.

We are here to say NO to H.R. 3717. No to fear-based legislation, and yes to social policies based on hope, human rights, and good common sense.

Loren Mosher, for those of who didn’t know him, was a psychiatrist of conscience. There aren’t too many of those left. He is no longer with us, but he resigned from the APA in 1999 and he wrote a very powerful letter, which I encourage everyone to read. I want to share just one part of it, in the hopes that these words may somehow reach the people in that convention center. He had some recommendations, which I want to share:

  1. To begin with, let us be ourselves. Stop taking on unholy alliances without the members’ permission.
  2. Get real about science, politics and money. Label each for what it is — that is, be honest.
  3. APA should align itself, if one believes its rhetoric, with the true consumer groups, i.e., the ex-patients, and psychiatric survivors.

The revolution in mental health is happening; and we are at the forefront. And we will not stop. You need to get in line, or become irrelevant as a discipline.

The National Institute of Mental Health has already said that your approach is basically obsolete. Everyone sees the sham of what you are doing but you. We call on you to wake up, APA! We call on you to admit that you have been wrong on mental health, just like this country had to admit that it had been wrong on race in the 1960s.

We need a sort of “truth and reconciliation commission” like they have had in South Africa, Rwanda, and elsewhere where violence has been perpetrated upon vulnerable people.

It’s time for you, members of the APA to be honest about Pharma’s undue influence in what kind of medicine you practice. Be honest that practices such as seclusion and restraint, forced hospitalization, electroshock, and forced medication have NO place in health care.

These practices are merely a reflection of your inability or unwillingness to consider an approach beyond labeling, drugging, shocking, and locking people up.

Whatever you are up to in there is a farce, when such human rights violations are occurring on a regular basis under your “care.” Let’s come together as people who have all been victims of a barbaric and broken mental health system, and figure out how we can effect change together.

Until you join us as equals in the struggle for human rights and social justice in mental health, and to help create real community supports that address the real needs of real people, we will be here speaking out.

After the revolution, historians and anthropologists will study our time and say, “how barbaric, that these things used to happen in health care. The mental health system was so backwards. We’re so glad we’re more enlightened now.”

We will see this day. We are winning. And we will win.

Love to all of you who carry on this struggle for peace, justice, and community.’

Powerful words! It is time for change.