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 Rabble.ca 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 That, of course, is laudable but the bill was so flawed and cumbersome that it was immediately repealed by the Conservative government that replaced them in power.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.