08 May 2010

A Response to the National Post on PsychOUT

The National Post did what could be conservatively called a hatchet job in its report on this weekend's PsychOUT Conference. Here is the letter I submitted to NP's editor in response:
To the Editor:

In one lopsided article, filled with falsehoods, misconceptions, and outright lies, opinion columnist Joseph Brean did OISE’s PsychOUT conference a tremendous service. Better than the nearly 200 participants who attended the weekend conference at the University of Toronto, his “Mad Pride” story clearly demonstrated the profound importance of the conference’s message.

The conference participants were far more than the “motley crew” characterized in the article. They included PhD researchers, professors, health care professionals (nurses, psychologists, social workers and outreach workers), lawyers, delegates to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Person, among others from around the world. Research findings funded by multiple government agencies, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada, were presented together with testimony of both those who advocate for psychiatry’s abolition, and those who currently praise the care they receive. Unlike the bigoted opinions of “Mr.” Edward Shorter, who did not bother to lift himself out of his Hannah Chair, and “Mr.” Rohan Ganguli of CAMH, whose staff were apparently waiting for a special invitation (only the keynotes were specifically invited), all perspectives, views, and opinions were sought, welcomed, and given space throughout this inaugural event. That the obvious paranoia of the psychiatric establishment self-precluded their attendance may be a matter for their own diagnosis via the latest DSM (the so-called psychiatric bible whose main editor admits is problematic elsewhere in the newspaper). Throughout the conference, specific note was taken of the multiple, differing opinions relative to psychiatry that were represented; mutual respect and working in coalition for the improvement of the lives of those who have been marginalized by vested interests of power, control, and corporate profit were the primary outcomes sought by all attendees.

Brean – whose journalist contribution cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered objective reporting – made a point to denigrate and minimize Dr. Bonnie Burstow’s professional credentials, and her decades-long professorship at the University of Toronto, while emphasizing the credentials of those upon whom he wanted to bestow credibility. I take especial note that among the key critics quoted in the article, Edward Shorter’s role as a professor of psychiatry was conspicuous by its absence, hiding his obvious, but undisclosed, conflict of interest in the matter. But through his ridicule and fiction, Brean did the work of the conference in conveying its powerful message: Those who exercise power and control will seek any means possible to suppress the voices of those they oppress and marginalize, first by derision and humiliation, next through legislation – especially in the name of “helping” – and finally by employing the coercive force of the state—the police, judiciary, and (in the case of the academy) deans and provosts. The profound importance of PsychOUT’s message of coalition, inclusion, respect, agency, autonomy, and most of all, the primacy of human rights and dignity, can be made no clearer than through the whimpering complaints of the vested interests who decided to absent themselves, preferring ignorance to scholarly academic inquiry, and ridicule to engaged conversation.

Mark Federman
Ph.D. Candidate, Adult Education and Counselling Psychology
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto

Update (11 May 2010): An excerpt of my letter was published, along with those of David Oaks, Geoffrey Reaume, and Don Weitz.
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Stephen Downes said...

I agree generally with your comments.

But your attack on a "Mr" because he is not a "Dr" is a needless slur and undermines the very point you try to make in your post.

"Mr." Stephen Downes

Mark Federman said...

The references to "Mr." were specifically meant to reflect the article's reference to "Ms. Bonnie Burstow" in contrast to the ways in which both Shorter and Ganguli were called Dr. and Prof.

All three - Shorter, Ganguli, and Burstow are PhD's and all should have been referred to appropriately in the original article. Only two of the three were so designated in the original, a deliberate attempt to cast Bonnie in with the supposedly delusional, non-credible crowd. My usage in this case is menippean in nature.

Joseph Brean said...

Mr. Federman,
Your outrage is at least partly misplaced. The honorifics "Ms." and "Mr." are not denigrating, nor an effort to belittle anyone. They are standard Post style. Professors take "Prof." and medical doctors take "Dr." There's nothing more to it than that.
Joseph Brean
National Post

Mark Federman said...

Mr. Brean,
I find your response at least partly disingenuous. Although (perhaps) technically adhering to the National Post style guide, Bonnie Burstow is, de facto, a professor (irrespective of the nuances of which academic teaching/research stream a person chooses, the subtleties of which are lost on the average NP reader), and has earned the title of "Dr." which is the English language designation for someone with an earned Ph.D. When juxtaposed with those whose credibility and expertise is portrayed as unassailable (through the use of academic honorifics), the effect is indeed denigrating and belittling.

Being unaware of the effects of the things we do is to be willingly blind to the dynamics of a complex world.

Mark Federman said...

A response to this post via Facebook, and my response to Kathy's response.

Kathy Toth: A good friend of mine, a lawyer who suffers from a mental illness himself said he was interested initially in the conference but was put off my how extreme it was presented as, and far too left wing for him to attend. I felt the same way and was interested in going if it had more diversity. They should have specifically invited pro medical model academics I believe, even if they wouldn't have attended. The problem with a group of anti psychiatry people is they don't want to hear anything different themselves from their own perspective. And if there was any indication to me of how exclusive of a group they really are (especially when they question a person's opinion as valid and true only if they have been hospitalized) they certainly fall short on claims of being respectful. I used to manage an on campus, mental illness and addiction group several years ago and have had first hand experience with how negative, demeaning and disrespectful part of this movement can be with people who chose to identify with another model.

Kathy, with respect, your preconception of the attitudes and perspectives of conference attendees was misplaced. Your claim of "questioning a person's opinion as valid and true only if they have been hospitalized" is false on its face relative to the conversations at the conference. All views - including those of psychiatry abolitionists and those who freely admit they are benefiting from psychiatric treatment - were expressed, heard, and welcomed.

In the opening session, Bonnie made a point of explicitly naming the spectrum of difference represented at the conference. She called for respect above all else, in our collective endeavour to understand the complexity of the issues raised.

Here's one of the key points of commonality that was made eminently clear: The psychiatric system established by the medical model and exercised primarily by those with credentialed, legitimated authority has been designed in a way that enables systemic abuse and marginalization analogous to that historically enacted against many other "Others" (e.g., women, people of colour, those who identify with being LGBTQ, the physically disabled, etc.). Much of what has been done and continues to be done violates constitutional rights, international law, domestic law, and simple human morality.

Although originally created as a radical movement (as most revolutionary movements have been), the coalition represented by the PsychOUT conference is a credible threat to established power and money, being bolstered by the reputations of those with power and privilege who have allied themselves the with plights of the marginalized, those whose voices have been systematically silenced.

When a counsellor from an American state mental hospital describes the pervasive attitude in her institution that "rape is the prerogative of the third shift," (and that was among the more mild of examples), when an otherwise normal person experienced induced psychosis through forced medication (and recovers once they are rescued and taken off), [I could continue with other examples] supposedly radical conferences like this one are vital, and must be heard by those who fund and form public policy.