Mental Illness and the Political Spectrum

By Marvin Ross

I have always been on the left of the political spectrum – more so in my student days – but I still consider myself left and vote for progressive ideas and progressive candidates. Progressive, of course, is a value laden term but what has baffled me has been the lack of progressive ideas by the left on mental illness.

I’ve just done a Huffington Post piece attacking the establishment of a scholarship in anti-psychiatry at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. After it was penned but before it was published, I was sent a link to an article in written by the founder of that scholarship, Bonnie Burstow, extolling the supremacy of Toronto academia in anti-psychiatry “scholarship”. She equates this anti attitude for the search for social justice and as diametrically opposed to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Aside from caring for patients, CAMH has a research budget of $38 million a year, is a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre and home to the only brain imaging centre in Canada devoted entirely to the study of mental illness. Among the supporters and activists of anti-psychiatry, Burstow cites David Reville and Cheri DiNovo. Reville was a politician in the disastrous NDP government in Ontario headed by Bob Rae (1990-1995). DiNovo is also an NDP member of the Ontario Legislature.

For non-Canadian readers, the NDP is the Canadian version of a Labour Party.

That disastrous government in Ontario brought in legislation to establish an Advocacy Commission to protect vulnerable people and to promote respect for their rights. That, of course, is laudable but the bill was so flawed and cumbersome that it was immediately repealed by the Conservative government that replaced them in power.

The Ontario Friends of Schizophrenics (now the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario), told the committee that:

Ontario Friends of Schizophrenics has had dialogue with officials because we have been persistent and because we have done our homework in making some solid proposals for improvements in the legislation. We have been unable to meet with a single minister of the three ministries concerned, despite repeated requests and despite the fact that people with schizophrenia are one of the largest groups in the vulnerable population that will be affected by these bills.”

They then pointed out that the bill excluded families; that it gave more power to the commission to enter someone’s home than the police have; that the test of capacity was ability to perform personal care rather than understanding; the low standard of capacity; no provisions for emergency treatment; and too much power to the Consent and Capacity Board.

The Alzheimer’s Society of Metropolitan Toronto was equally critical arguing that the new act penalized the family. Their presenter told the committee that:

“I have serious concerns about the prevailing use of unknown professional advocates with sweeping powers, heavy demands on their time, unclear qualifications and little accountability.”

In Ontario, the only improvement to the Mental Health Act was brought in by the extreme right wing at the time Conservative government under Mike Harris. They have not always been that extreme and the word Progressive precedes Conservative in the name of the party. That improvement to the Mental Health Act was Brian’s Law which enabled those with serious mental illness to be hospitalized if they posed a danger (not imminent as previously) and to be discharged from hospital under a community treatment order. They could live in the community provided that they were treated.

Only 10 members voted against the bill, 6 of whom were members of the NDP. The Health Minister after this was passed was Tony Clement who showed his support for those afflicted with schizophrenia by attending the banquet at the Schizophrenia Society of Canada annual conference when it was held in Toronto. As mentioned above, the schizophrenia group complained that no elected official would meet with them to discuss the flawed bill they were implementing. I have always had respect for Tony while detesting his ultra right policies further honed in the Federal Harper government.

The one member of the legislature who has done the most, in my opinion, to improve services for the mentally ill and the disabled was Conservative Christine Elliott. It was her pressure that resulted in the Liberal Government establishing an all party select committee to look at possible reforms. Despite an excellent report agreed to by members of all three political parties, nothing has been done. Sadly, she left politics after not winning the party leadership but she is the first ever patient ombudsman in Ontario.

And this regressive attitude on mental illness by the left is not unique to Canada. My advocacy friend, DJ Jaffe of the Mental Illness Policy organization in New York often comments that even though he is a Democrat, the most progressive people advocating for improvements in the US are Republicans. He is referring to a bill by Republican Congressman, Dr Tim Murphy called the Helping Families in a Mental Health Crisis Act. I suggested that Canada could use help in mental illness reform from a Republican back in 2013. In 2014 I wrote about how little we could hope for reform in Ontario.

To demonstrate further the left attitude to mental illness, you just have to look at the critical comments that my most recent blog on the anti-psychiatry scholarship garnered. One woman who is doing her PhD in Disability Studies at OISE claimed that I could not criticize because I am a white male member of the bourgeoisie. My proletarian father who worked in a garment factory on piece work and was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, would cringe in his grave located in the Independent Friendly Workers’ section of the cemetary.

That criticism goes on, quoting Barstow, that all that is needed to cure mental illness is that those with the illness know “we are cared for and that we are in control of our own lives.” Another critic said people “get better because they get free from psychiatry, find peers, get in touch with their inner experience, connect with and rely on others.” That same person also said “Psychiatry was invented by the privileged to dehumanise (sic) women, the neurodiverse, gay and lesbian and transgendered people, the poor, the Indigenous, and never-to-be-heard survivors of child abuse.”

I wonder how the scientists in the Faculty of Medicine or at the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health with their budget of $38 million a year feel about being told they are oppressors?

I haven’t heard such rhetoric since the days of Trotskyites on university campuses in the 1960’s but would love to see these critics spend some time in a psychiatric hospital ward with unmedicated schizophrenics, those experiencing the mania of bipolar disorder, or in a severe depressed state. I’m sure they would find some way to rationalize why their attempts to free them from “dehumanizing” psychiatry did not work.

14 thoughts on “Mental Illness and the Political Spectrum

  1. I think the problem with the left is a distorted idea of civil liberties resulting in people fluidly psychotic being burdened with the responsibility to make life changing decisions while in such a state. When I was in such condition, I needed a good deal more than to know that I was cared for and in control of my own life. I will tell anyone interested in listening that involuntary treatment freed me from the tyranny of psychosis.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes Psychosis is a tyranny which traps and tricks a person . Having sat on the Advocacy Bill Implementation Committee I can vouch that there was a great deal of ignorance and nonsense around the table about serious mental illness with a refusal to acknowledge what an untreated serious mental illness could inflict on a person. The head of of the committee had just won notoriety in a court case regarding a patient who was held appropriately in a psych hospital. her agenda was suspect to say the least . I had letter in the Globe and mail challenging her dangerous assumptions. More on that later. Thanks Bowgoetrul. I know many people with serious mental illness who feel as you do.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “Everyone needs to learn to play together well in the sandbox”. I have enjoyed learning from your columns which challenge my thinking. My experience has been unfortunately those in the mental health field play nicely together in their silo but not so well with community. We have so many inaccessible programs. Individuals don’t need psychiatric services in isolation of those in their circle of supports. Coordination amongst services is desperately required, not more programs. Continuity of care is critical.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1st Rule of Effective Advocacy: No matter what your personal political preferences, do NOT align your cause with any particular political party. E.g., Schizophrenia is an “equal opportunity” disease, striking one in 100. Thus support will come from politicians of all stripes – often family members who truly understand the devastating nature of the illness.
    2nd Rule: Be careful of being co-opted. Politicians are very good at agreeing with us and then doing nothing. Judge elected officials by what they do, not by what they say. (Good advice from Fuller Torrey!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jane, I couldn’t have said it any better! I agree one hundred percent that partisan politics is not useful in this area! What IS useful is bringing together people with COMMON SENSE who realize that serious mental illness is in fact brain disease.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whatever Schizophrenia is, it is certainly not a brain disease. Common sense is not science. Common sense is not a useful way to diagnose or formulate – that kind of thinking led to mad people being burned or drowned as witches and tortured to get the devils out of them – all very common sense back in the day.


  4. Marvin, this is an excellent article and should be required reading for people on all sides of the political spectrum. As Jane Duval noted, it is not what people and governments SAY that matters, it is what they DO. I am flabbergasted to hear about that scholarship! If I lived in Ontario I would be livid if I knew that one cent of my hard earned tax money was going to fund an anti-psychiatrist scholarship. What a bunch of nonsense. Where is the common sense? Do OISE people not read scholarly journals outlining the amazing scientific progress that is being made on schizophrenia? Do they also fund flat earthers? The new genetic discoveries and the results of brain imaging are so encouraging and will hopefully enable new treatments. There is absolutely no doubt that what we are dealing with is nothing less than an extremely complex set of brain disorders.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I went to a lecture this Saturday at Queen’s University given at a Royal Society meeting. There were three other topics which were from very different fields of knowledge. Note the date of my entry on this blog April 2019!

      The lecture was on stigma which has been flogged to death. The speaker staked out various types of stigma, most of which I affirm and in my view are obvious. SELF stigma , discrimination and a long list of other types.

      But the speaker was bemoaning the fact that medicalizing mental illness was making stigma worse! Various words were mentioned … disorders, genes and maybe using such words created more stigma! In other words they were to be expunged ,sanitized thus avoided at all costs.

      The speaker who should know better since she has been in important places of influence. She was in my view inadvertently doing a disservice to those who suffer and benefit from medical treatment. In other words to those who suffer from complex biological impairment, and who need medical treatment to sustain some quality of life. It was obviously an attack on the medical model. To be fair to her, she mentioned that drugs can be useful, also that ECT is a valid treatment and effective treatment for depression. She also trotted out the one-in-four stat, but did not prioritize the 3 to 5% who have very serious forms of illness and absolutely need medication on an ongoing basis.

      They depend on medicine and good care from physicians. Clearly if one is needing medicine one must be ill. The lecturer was painting with a very broad and messy brush. There were some other things to take issue with in her talk, But It is too much to go into here.

      Recovery and hope was put out as though people like myself are opposed to those notions . I felt as though i was being blamed for taking a medical view of schizophrenia and allied disorders. Much to delve into here.


  5. Ms.Burstow’s new book was published on October 16, 2016, on Sunday October 23 a psychiatric nurse was repeatedly kicked in the face … a psychiatric institution !


  6. I have been on medication since my late diagnosis at age 47. The strange thing I have noticed is that there are both left and right opponents to psychiatry. Alan Jones of infowars is very loud in his denunciations of the profession. There is a fear, I think, that medication is going to change us. I found that this was not so except i was less radical and less puritopian. I stayed a Democrat.

    Note as for Jaffe, I find him highly suspect because he has said in the past that stigma is not a problem for people living with mental illness. It is my experience that he freely uses it to spread his agenda and this makes him an untrustworthy associate in my book. There are better allies for you to have.


  7. Great! I´m from Brasil and here de left view of Partido dos Trabalhadores- PT (work party) causes several problems of non-attendence.


  8. I am deeply troubled by this article. It starts from the premise that family and doctors act for the best interest, which is precisely a point of contention. This bias is rampant in the way that such affects impacts the presentation of evidence. I’d rather have scientific antipsychiatry, shedding light on controversial topics (Whittaker does a good job of that) than “social justice warrior”-type antipsychiatry, but we’ll have to settle for that given the way odds are stacked up against the voice of patients. I therefore unfirtunately have more trouble with the present article than I have with Burstow’s views, which speaks volumes as to why the current state of affairs is unacceptable. It’s also disingenuous and misleading to claim influence from scientology, but we’re grownups and we know that the guilty by association meme still has a long life ahead. That’s miserable.


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