Psychiatry as Enforcer of Social Oppression

Robert Kemp (
Mon, 11 Oct 1999 16:11:46 EDT

----Original Message Follows----
From: (Rich Winkel)
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: Psychiatry as Enforcer of Social Oppression
Date: Sat, 9 Oct 1999 08:41:05 -0500 (CDT)

  Oppression is irrational.
  --John Breeding

The Enforcer:

Mental Health System Oppression as a STOP Sign on Liberation from Other
Societal Oppressions

by John Breeding, Ph.D.  Originally published in the Austin Peace &
Justice News Jan/Feb 1995.

I was recently introduced to an extremely useful metaphor by Janet
Foner, an international leader in the psychiatric survivor movement as
well as co-chair of Support Coalition International, the broader
coalition whose purpose it is to eliminate what many of us call "Mental
Health System Oppression" (MHSO). The metaphor is that MHSO acts as a
STOP sign on the road to liberation from other oppressions (e.g.
racism, sexism, adultism, ...). I am writing here to share my thinking
about three of the mechanisms by which MHSO acts to reinforce other
societal oppressions.

I am speaking from four basic assumptions. My first assumption is that
all human beings share a natural disposition toward compassion and
interconnectedness.  Basic principles of social justice make sense to
us, in every way. My second assumption is that oppressive systems and
mechanisms, while serving the perceived short-term interests of the
economically, politically, or socially privileged, isolate, injure, and
degrade all of us, inevitably fostering fear, violence, and insecurity
in all our relations.  Hence, oppression is irrational. My third
assumption is that, in addition to institutional and systemic forces,
there exists, in most individuals, an internalized psychological
process which serves to hold oppression in place.  This process
involves the suppression of emotional expressions associated with
oppressive, hurtful experiences. It is my belief that this process
thwarts the natural human behavior of resolving our emotional distress
by expressing ourselves through rage, fear, or grief.

With these assumptions in mind, I want to share now the mechanisms by
which MHSO enforces or holds other oppressions in place. The first
mechanism is in fact a meta-mechanism since it suppresses the natural
process, referred to above, by which people resolve emotionally charged
experiences. The core of MHSO, and its agency of institutional
psychiatry, is suppression of emotional expression. Mainstream (meaning
the agencies of the economically, politically, and socially powerful in
society) mental health practices center around systematic inhibition of
emotional expression.  The heart of current practice is
psychopharmacology.  Other control patterns range from seemingly
benevolent attempts to soothe away "too much crying" to cruel and
severely damaging practices such as electric shock. Of course, all
coercive (involuntary) treatment must be seen in this light.

The second mechanism by which MHSC acts to hold oppression in place
involves a trick of magic. A basic principle of magic involves
illusion, one piece of which is called sleight-of-hand.  Political
versions involve so-called red herrings or straw men.  The mechanism is
indirection and illusion: "Now you see it, now you don't.".  Before you
get a glimpse of social injustice, let me show you mental illness."
"Before you think about racism and economic injustice, let me show you
genetic predisposition to violence in young black males."

Institutional psychiatry has been so successful in their magic show
that few people realize that "mental illness" is, at best, merely a
metaphor.  To quote Peter Breggin, foremost writer and outspoken
challenger of the tenets of biopsychiatry: "It is scientifically
incontrovertible that there is no convincing evidence that any
condition routinely seen by psychiatrists has a genetic or biological
origin." The concept of mental illness was originally created as a
metaphor in order to establish medical/scientific credibility to the
accepted practices of responding to people in distress or in deviance
from social norms. The agency of biopsychiatry is performing the
greatest magic show on earth. The incredible illusion of biologically
caused mental illness serves as a powerful enforcer of oppression,
consistently distracting our attention from the reality of social
injustice and the devastating results on individuals and on society.
I'll give you a hint now on one key to see through this illusion. Keep
your eye on where the money goes.

The third way that MHSO acts as a stop sign to enforce other
oppressions has a much more elastic quality, adapting to specific
groups and individuals.  It really doesn't function as a clear
universal symbol; I think it's more like law enforcement. It is hard to
get hold of because the laws, though well-known, are unwritten. They
are the laws of oppression, the laws of adultism, racism, sexism,
heterosexism, anti-Semitism, etc. The mechanism is simple. If a person
steps outside the bounds of the oppressive conditioning, (i.e. fails to
act in the way that a child, woman, man, person of color, etc., is
supposed to act), then the agents of institutional psychiatry are
available to punish her for her transgression, enforcing her proscribed

I want to briefly highlight just a few examples. One of the core
oppressors is called adultism, the systematic mistreatment of children
and young people simply because they are young. The pattern is one of
massive disrespect; one key to knowing whether you are acting as an
agent of this oppression is to query any action toward a young person
with the question of whether you would treat another adult the same
way. The overall conditioning against emotional expression, the
"meta-mechanism" of MHSO, is initially laid down through adultism.

A specific, and especially shameful oppression that demonstrates both
the "magic" misdirection of biopsychiatry and specifically targets
young people, especially boys, is the ubiquitous prescription of
Ritalin for so-called Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Our National Institute of Mental Health suggests that 1 of 10 young
boys suffers from this dread disease. Estimates are that over 1,000,000
young people are on this seriously addictive drug. Viola! Stop our
thinking about the failures of society and schools to meet the needs of
our developing young people; and the money goes in massive amounts to
the unholy alliance of medicine, insurance and drug companies. Another
example demonstrates MHSO enforcing the parameters of sexism and
ageism. One of the most offensive events in modern day psychiatry is
the persistence, indeed resurgence, of the hideous practice of
electrically shocking the brains of our fellow human beings. Probably
more than 100,000 persons each year are given this "treatment."
Statistics show that women, and particularly elderly women, receive the
brunt of these "treatments." This year, an 80-year-old nursing home
resident named Lucille Austwick sparked a national grassroots protest
campaign on her behalf. It all began when she said "No!" to
psychiatrists' requests to give her electric shock The precise quote of
Lucille's was "Bull!  Ridiculous! If they want to do that let them go
shock themselves!" The psychiatrists then took her to court for a
hearing to see if they could forcibly electroshock Ms.  Austwick.

Even a brief exposition of Mental Health System Oppression must make
mention of the so-called Federal Violence Initiative. This incredible
program, more aptly known as the "Racist Violence Initiative," was put
forth by Frederick Goodwin, director of the National Institute of
Mental Health (NINH).  This initiative includes ongoing research "into
the supposed biological basis of inner-city violence and includes
proposals for biomedical social control. Our U.S.  government asks "Are
Black People Genetically Violent?" and plans a psychiatric screening
program which would lead to mass drugging of innocent inner-city
children, the vast majority of whom are young people of color.  The
National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, and the
Justice Department are all involved.  Elaborate pseudoscientific
language, and much of the federal government's effort, goes into
obfuscating and/or directly denying this initiative's clearly racist
intent.  Meanwhile, "research" has begun in Chicago.

The anti-Semitic evil of the Third Reich stands out as modern history's
most infamous example of racism with a pseudoscientific justification
based on the need for genetic (i.e., racial) purification, (although
the nature of oppression is to make us forget, the Jewish community has
been most effective in insisting that we remember). Institutional
psychiatry (the American Psychiatric Association) has Benjamin Rush's
image on its official seal, thereby glorifying a man whose practices
can most appropriately be described as cruel and barbaric.

The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression
(NARSAD) celebrated the growth of "psychiatric genetics" in a 1990
newsletter, honoring psychiatrist Emst Rudin as the founder. Emst Rudin
was given a medal by Hitler in 1939 for his work in racial hygiene. He
was a the top Nazi ideologist and chief architect of the Nazi's racial
hygiene program. Thomas Szasz (in The Manufacture of Madness:  A
Comparative study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement)
thoroughly documents the transition from a religious/theological to a
medical/psychiatric basis of social control.  Just as Jews were the
primary victims of the Inquisition, they were the victims of the
Holocaust; same sociopolitical agenda, only a shift with the times from
a pseudoreligious to a pseudoscientific justification. Racism is alive
and strong in our society; MHSO is a key enforcer. The "mentally ill"
defective were the first victims of large scale genocide in Nazi
Germany. The "mentally ill" continue to be victims of coerced modern
mental health "treatments." The magical enchantment of the modern
mental health system and biopsychiatry casts such a potent spell that
huge numbers of our brothers and sisters operate in the illusion that
these victims are patients whose treatment is most assuredly "for their
own good."

John Breeding 
2503 Douglas St. 
Austin, TX 78741

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"To be truly radical, one must make hope
possible, rather than despair convincing."
- Raymond Williams

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