Bonnie Burstow

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 the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) 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 University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies In Education (OISE).

The program called “Working with Survivors of Trauma” is still going strong, students scramble 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 intrusions 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 Toronto’s Ryerson University. 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 such a course to the University of Toronto, only to find it rejected offhand. 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 Toronto’s York University — again, courtesy of Reaume. Soon with the aid of scholars like Reaume, David Reville, and Dr. Jennifer Poole, Mad Studies became a highly recognized academic area in Canada.

Mad History and Mad Studies courses generally spread to Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands and other parts of the world. 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 Reaume. 

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 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. It was the first conference ever to focus on strategic resistance to psychiatry. Widely attended, it culminated in printed proceedings. It likewise inspired Bonnie Burstow, Brenda LeFrançois 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 to take part in 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 was 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.

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

Days ago — this news is “hot off the press” — yet another important breakthrough materialized, once again at OISE. 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.

The significance of this scholarship could be understood with the words of psychiatrist and psychiatric critic Dr. Peter Breggin.

“As a professional long heralded as the conscience of psychiatry, it is my pleasure to endorse the newly formed Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry,” said Breggin, “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.

In regards to 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.”

Survivor, activist and academic, Dr. Lauren Tenney pinpoints with rigour multiple ways in which the scholarship is significant, bringing in intersectionality in the process. 

“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,” she said, “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.”

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 also at sites of learning throughout this nation and beyond. My own personal wish list for the near future is for the public mounting of hard-hitting debates on the timely subject of psychiatry, the creation of Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies departments and the integration of antipsychiatry into the current psychiatry-dominated fields, such 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? 

Despite how impressive the inroads made to date are, 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, click here

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