Review By: Anitra Freeman
This is a novel, about one woman's life being almost destroyed by the "help" of the psychiatric system. Unfortunately, it is based on fact.
I have already run across those who claim that the novel is "hysterical paranoia," a fanatical ax-attack on psychiatry. It did not seem like such to me. While I read it, Shirley Allen was being besieged in her own home by state troopers in Roby, Illinois because a family member had complained to the courts that she was "acting strangely." Shirley was finally taken into custody and spent over a month in a psychiatric hospital -- a month that she will be billed for, even though she was there against her will -- before a judge finally released her, saying that she had never been a danger to herself or to anyone else in the first place.
There is no report of Shirley Allen being abused in the hospital, but the fear by many across the country that she would be was not based on "hysterical paranoia." My own fear was based on family history. When my mother was in psychiatric hospitals, she was given Thorazine although it was directly contraindicated by the physician's reference materials due to a disease she was officially diagnosed with that was clearly indicated on her records. This "treatment" probably hastened her death.
I am not "out to get all psychiatrists." I know that there are responsible people who do a great deal of good, in psychiatry and psychotherapy and psychological counseling in all its forms. But the field is also extremely vulnerable to abuse, and has to be closely monitored. I don't want any other family to find out years after a loved one's death that their trusted doctor's treatment harmed, instead of helping.
I hope the facts woven through this novel -- about the effects of psychoactive medications and electroshock therapy, the procedures of involuntary commitment, the conditions in many nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals -- will make everyone take responsibility for their own treatment and that of their loved ones, and question all doctors and treatment centers closely.
Another thing the novel does is point up the alternatives to complex-sounding diagnoses and psychiatric terminology. Sometimes a person is "acting crazy" because they are in an insane situation. They don't need therapy or medication, they need to solve a physical problem. In a true story I read recently, a man went to therapy, unsuccessfully, for years. He finally had a marvelous turnaround in his mental health when he quit and changed jobs.
The book doesn't dwell on the other basic factor in many problems that appear to be "mental illness" -- undiagnosed medical problems. Years after my mother's death my sister was diagnosed with an inflammatory disease that occasionally affected the nervous system -- a disease whose symptoms closely resembled many things our mother complained of.
The book presents in the end what I described to my friends as "a Utopian hospital," one that seems too good to be true, where each patient's dignity and free will are nurtured to growth instead of suppressed, where the staff believe that no matter what traumas a person has suffered, with quiet and calm and care they can usually recover themselves. I hope there really are such places.
There are many people who need help, and I am glad that there are professionals willing to help them. I am also glad there are those who will harry the invasive, arrogant and irresponsible tactics of false "helpers" out of the field.
The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists have organized a Committee on Human Rights and Psychiatry, reporting -- among other things -- on "human rights of the mentally ill." The title is an ironic echo of the adamantly anti-psychiatric activist group founded by the Church of Scientology. The Citizens Committee on Human Rights campaigns against psychoactive medication of any kind and all intrusive psychiatric methods such as shock treatment, brain surgery, and the controversial "sleep therapy" in which patients are kept unconscious for extended periods of time. CCHR widely publicizes any abuses by psychiatrists or psychiatric hospitals.
While Scientology is among the highest-profile "anti-psychiatry" groups, they are not by any means the only ones. Psychiatry is has always been under attack, even from within, from those like Dr. Alice Miller who would see it reformed to those like Dr. Thomas Szasz who would see it all but abolished. A national-level activist group of "psychiatric survivors," called Dendrite, monitors psychiatric abuses and puts out frequent calls for political action. Their latest, at the time of this writing, is a demonstration on Saturday, February 14, at 4 PM, in front of Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk (Los Angeles, CA). A quote from one of their widely circulated emails says, "The _Los Angeles Times_ has reported that the hospital's own statistics show restraints are used hundreds of times a month on these children. Many of them are heavily drugged, so that their hands tremble, their bodies are bloated, and they fall asleep during the day. There is little recreation for these children, and they are locked up all day. The only outdoor space they have is prison-like concrete patios."
It was a psychiatrist who helped send Shirley Allen into confinement against her will; it was also a psychiatrist who signed the report that led to her release. I and many of my bipolar friends have been misdiagnosed and wrongly medicated at least once in our lives, with personally disastrous results -- and all of us that are still alive and functioning met at least one psychiatrist who was alert, sensitive and caring and judged our treatment correctly. On the whole, I am not personally in favor of outlawing all psychiatry and shooting all psychiatrists. But it is a field where, more than ever, the buyer must beware -- the individual must retain responsibility and control in treatment, and not turn all authority over to the doctor, who remains a fallible human being in spite of the medical degree.
This is the crux of the problem in the area of mental illness.
Ten years ago I had a doctor who became outraged when I asked for explanations of each medication prescribed. He had the medical degree, I had come to him for advice, I should take the advice without question. This attitude is found less and less among medical doctors, or it has been starved out of the field by a population increasingly taking responsibility for their own health. But it is much more difficult to erode this attitude in the field of mental health. It is difficult enough to ask analytical questions when you are in physical distress and you just want to ask the doctor to make the pain go away. It is even more difficult when you are in mental or emotional distress. Even when being in mental pain does not mean being mentally incompetent, it often means being treated as such.
Because of this massive balance of power that the doctor has over the patient in mental illness, the field has to be subject to closer scrutiny and tighter controls than in fields where the power balance is more equable, as between copier repairmen and customers. And in a society where even copier repairmen come under rude jokes and unfair attacks, psychiatrists are just going to have to adjust to harsh criticism and loud exposes of every mistake as realities of their existence.
There are other ways of equalizing this imbalance of power and guaranteeing the human rights of psychiatric patients, besides subjecting all psychiatrists to frequent public cross-examination and critique. One is for the family and friends of a person with mental illness to educate themselves, and not reflexively discount everything their loved one says when it contradicts the doctor.
Another is to expand on a concept expressed by a group called the National Empowerment Center. As their mission statement says, "The Mission of the National Empowerment Center is to carry a message of recovery, empowerment, hope, and healing to people who have been diagnosed with mental illness. We carry that message with authority because we are a consumer-run organization and each of us is living a personal journey of recovery and empowerment. We are convinced that recovery and empowerment are not the privilege of a few exceptional leaders, but rather are possible for each person who has been diagnosed with mental illness."
Any form of treatment for mental or emotional illness should
have as its objective to restore the individual to fuller control over
his or her own life. Every possible opportunity to exercise
self-direction should be built into the treatment, and anything that
undercuts self-direction should be adamantly avoided. In the end,
that subversion of self-direction is my main criticism of psychiatry
as some practice it In the Name of Help, and the increase of
self-awareness and freedom of choice is my purpose for reviewing and
recommending this book.
Anitra is currently a freelance writer and activist living in Seattle, Washington. She has been a computer programmer/analyst (20 years); her life, career and relationships were repeatedly disrupted by undiagnosed manic depression (which her mother also sufferred). In October 1995 she ended up homeless, and was finally diagnosed and treated. She made many of the closest relationships in her life in the homeless community, and although she now has a limited income and subsidized housing, that is still her community. She works with half-a-dozen grassroots empowerment groups -- programs to help the homeless that are run by the homeless and formerly homeless themselves. Some of the things she does: facilitate meetings and workshops, including a conflict resolution class, write and do public speaking, and create websites. She is also one of the editors of Real Change, Seattle's homeless street-newspaper.
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