Mental Health Was Once Radical. What Happened?
Not too long ago, a movement fought against our inadequate and oppressive mental health system. We have a lot to learn from it.
By Beatrice Ferguson
Beatrice Ferguson is a writer based in Atlanta, GA.
In 1982, Berkeley, California briefly outlawed electroshock therapy (EST). For just over one month, city law declared that any doctor performing EST—a psychiatric procedure in which electrical currents are applied to the brain—faced up to six months in prison.
The ban came about, remarkably, through popular vote. A city-wide ballot referendum known as Proposition T asked voters to weigh in on EST’s legality. “For what is believed to be the first time,” an editorialist wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “citizens found a specific medical treatment on the ballot” (Goodman 1982). Proposition T passed with over 60 percent of the vote.
The 1982 EST ban is barely remembered today. It sounds, at first, like the kind of strange thing that could only happen in Berkeley. Yet the ban followed over a decade of left-wing theorizing and activism across the United States which targeted forced psychiatric treatment, abusive hospital conditions, and the existence of psychiatry itself.
Things are very different today. On the broader left, there is a reluctance to even acknowledge that some psychiatric procedures or medications could cause harm. Pointing out that some people experience negative side effects from taking antidepressants, for example, is likely to elicit fiery recriminations online. A common response is that such claims invalidate the experiences of those struggling with their mental health or, by perpetuating stigma, make it harder for people to access mental health treatment.
In other words, we currently lack the will to even question psychiatric treatment or the existing mental health system in a meaningful way, much less to challenge it. The notion that political and social circumstances are a hugely significant factor underlying the mental distress endemic in modern society is, remarkably, controversial. Demands to expand access to medications and therapy abound. But it’s incredibly hard to imagine a critical mass contesting what psychiatric treatment looks like. Yet it wasn’t always this way.