The Enforcer:
Mental Health System Oppression as a STOP Sign on
Liberation from Other Societal Oppressions

by John Breeding, Ph.D.
Originally published in the Austin Peace & Justice News Jan/Feb 1995.

I was recently introduced to an extremely useful metaphor by Janet Foner, an international leader in the psychiatric survivor movement as well as co-chair of Support Coalition International, the broader coalition whose purpose it is to eliminate what many of us call "Mental Health System Oppression" (MHSO). The metaphor is that MHSO acts as a STOP sign on the road to liberation from other oppressions (e.g. racism, sexism, adultism, ...). I am writing here to share my thinking about three of the mechanisms by which MHSO acts to reinforce other societal oppressions.

I am speaking from four basic assumptions. My first assumption is that all human beings share a natural disposition toward compassion and interconnectedness. Basic principles of social justice make sense to us, in every way. My second assumption is that oppressive systems and mechanisms, while serving the perceived short-term interests of the economically, politically, or socially privileged, isolate, injure, and degrade all of us, inevitably fostering fear, violence, and insecurity in all our relations. Hence, oppression is irrational. My third assumption is that, in addition to institutional and systemic forces, there exists, in most individuals, an internalized psychological process which serves to hold oppression in place. This process involves the suppression of emotional expressions associated with oppressive, hurtful experiences. It is my belief that this process thwarts the natural human behavior of resolving our emotional distress by expressing ourselves through rage, fear, or grief.

With these assumptions in mind, I want to share now the mechanisms by which MHSO enforces or holds other oppressions in place. The first mechanism is in fact a meta-mechanism since it suppresses the natural process, referred to above, by which people resolve emotionally charged experiences. The core of MHSO, and its agency of institutional psychiatry, is suppression of emotional expression. Mainstream (meaning the agencies of the economically, politically, and socially powerful in society) mental health practices center around systematic inhibition of emotional expression. The heart of current practice is psychopharmacology. Other control patterns range from seemingly benevolent attempts to soothe away "too much crying" to cruel and severely damaging practices such as electric shock. Of course, all coercive (involuntary) treatment must be seen in this light.

The second mechanism by which MHSC acts to hold oppression in place involves a trick of magic. A basic principle of magic involves illusion, one piece of which is called sleight-of-hand. Political versions involve so-called red herrings or straw men. The mechanism is indirection and illusion: "Now you see it, now you don't." .Before you get a glimpse of social injustice, let me show you mental illness." "Before you think about racism and economic injustice, let me show you genetic predisposition to violence in young black males."

Institutional psychiatry has been so successful in their magic show that few people realize that "mental illness" is, at best, merely a metaphor. To quote Peter Breggin, foremost writer and outspoken challenger of the tenets of biopsychiatry: "It is scientifically incontrovertible that there is no convincing evidence that any condition routinely seen by psychiatrists has a genetic or biological origin." The concept of mental illness was originally created as a metaphor in order to establish medical/scientific credibility to the accepted practices of responding to people in distress or in deviance from social norms. The agency of biopsychiatry is performing the greatest magic show on earth. The incredible illusion of biologically caused mental illness serves as a powerful enforcer of oppression, consistently distracting our attention from the reality of social injustice and the devastating results on individuals and on society. I'll give you a hint now on one key to see through this illusion. Keep your eye on where the money goes.

The third way that MHSO acts as a stop sign to enforce other oppressions has a much more elastic quality, adapting to specific groups and individuals. It really doesn't function as a clear universal symbol; I think it's more like law enforcement. It is hard to get hold of because the laws, though well-known, are unwritten. They are the laws of oppression, the laws of adultism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, etc. The mechanism is simple. If a person steps outside the bounds of the oppressive conditioning, (i.e. fails to act in the way that a child, woman, man, person of color, etc., is supposed to act), then the agents of institutional psychiatry are available to punish her for her transgression, enforcing her proscribed role.

I want to briefly highlight just a few examples. One of the core oppressors is called adultism, the systematic mistreatment of children and young people simply because they are young. The pattern is one of massive disrespect; one key to knowing whether you are acting as an agent of this oppression is to query any action toward a young person with the question of whether you would treat another adult the same way. The overall conditioning against emotional expression, the "meta-mechanism" of MHSO, is initially laid down through adultism.

A specific, and especially shameful oppression that demonstrates both the "magic" misdirection of biopsychiatry and specifically targets young people, especially boys, is the ubiquitous prescription of Ritalin for so-called Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Our National Institute of Mental Health suggests that 1 of 10 young boys suffers from this dread disease. Estimates are that over 4,000,000 young people are on this seriously addictive drug. Viola! Stop our thinking about the failures of society and schools to meet the needs of our developing young people; and the money goes in massive amounts to the unholy alliance of medicine, insurance and drug companies. Another example demonstrates MHSO enforcing the parameters of sexism and ageism. One of the most offensive events in modern day psychiatry is the persistence, indeed resurgence, of the hideous practice of electrically shocking the brains of our fellow human beings. Probably more than 100,000 persons each year are given this "treatment." Statistics show that women, and particularly elderly women, receive the brunt of these "treatments." This year, an 80-year-old nursing home resident named Lucille Austwick sparked a national grassroots protest campaign on her behalf. It all began when she said "No!" to psychiatrists' requests to give her electric shock The precise quote of Lucille's was "Bull! Ridiculous! If they want to do that let them go shock themselves!" The psychiatrists then took her to court for a hearing to see if they could forcibly electroshock Ms. Austwick.

Even a brief exposition of Mental Health System Oppression must make mention of the so-called Federal Violence Initiative. This incredible program, more aptly known as the "Racist Violence Initiative," was put forth by Frederick Goodwin, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NINH). This initiative includes ongoing research "into the supposed biological basis of inner-city violence and includes proposals for biomedical social control. Our U.S. government asks "Are Black People Genetically Violent?" and plans a psychiatric screening program which would lead to mass drugging of innocent inner-city children, the vast majority of whom are young people of color. The National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Justice Department are all involved. Elaborate pseudoscientific language, and much of the federal government's effort, goes into obfuscating and/or directly denying this initiative's clearly racist intent. Meanwhile, "research" has begun in Chicago.

The anti-Semitic evil of the Third Reich stands out as modern history's most infamous example of racism with a pseudoscientific justification based on the need for genetic (i.e., racial) purification, (although the nature of oppression is to make us forget, the Jewish community has been most effective in insisting that we remember). Institutional psychiatry (the American Psychiatric Association) has Benjamin Rush's image on its official seal, thereby glorifying a man whose practices can most appropriately be described as cruel and barbaric.

The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) celebrated the growth of "psychiatric genetics" in a 1990 newsletter, honoring psychiatrist Emst Rudin as the founder. Emst Rudin was given a medal by Hitler in 1939 for his work in racial hygiene. He was a the top Nazi ideologist and chief architect of the Nazi's racial hygiene program. Thomas Szasz (in The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement) thoroughly documents the transition from a religious/theological to a medical/psychiatric basis of social control. Just as Jews were the primary victims of the Inquisition, they were the victims of the Holocaust; same sociopolitical agenda, only a shift with the times from a pseudoreligious to a pseudoscientific justification. Racism is alive and strong in our society; MHSO is a key enforcer. The "mentally ill" defective were the first victims of large scale genocide in Nazi Germany. The "mentally ill" continue to be victims of coerced modern mental health "treatments." The magical enchantment of the modern mental health system and biopsychiatry casts such a potent spell that huge numbers of our brothers and sisters operate in the illusion that these victims are patients whose treatment is most assuredly "for their own good."