Sunday, July 17, 2016

#6. Quackery and Torture Masquerading as Medicine

This is Day 6 of our 30-day blog on the Declaration of Principles adopted by the 10th Annual Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression held in Toronto, May 14-18, 1982.  (More info here.)  Today we are talking about Principle 6.

Principle 6 reads in full as follows:

We oppose forced psychiatric procedures because they are at best quackery and at worst tortures, which can and do cause severe and permanent harm lo the total being of people subjected to them.

Basic Rationale

History is replete with the wreckage of discredited outrages from the psychiatric industry:  knitting needle lobotomies, insulin coma, getting wrapped like a mummy in freezing cold wet blankets, getting water-boarded into freezing cold water, shock collars on school children, extracting sound teeth, extracting sound tissue, blood-letting, skin-cutting, terror (yes actually, terror), hanging from ceilings, coffin boxes, sensory deprivation, skin irritation, hemorrhaging, vomiting, spinning in circles, experimentation, sterilization...  The list goes on...

Equally disturbing, each new generation of psychiatry actually believes in the torture they promote.   They believe, emphatically, with the utmost certainty - that their particular brand, protocol, procedure is exactly the remedy in order for the day.  While scoffing at psychiatric lunacies past, the modern generation of medical students is out there touting the benefits today of drugging, shock, TMS (electrode implants in your brain).  Lobotomy has been recycled, rebranded psychosurgery.

The international community has called this stuff torture.  Countless critics have questioned the efficacy and safety. Head in the sands of Pharma and profits, psychiatry still insists that its quackery works.  Not only that, psychiatry actually claims, under oath, in courts, in ERs, in prisons, nursing homes, half-way houses, assisted living, and on the ward, that its quackery is necessary. Time and again, according to them, only these things will treat what the hostages of this industry have.

If you scratch the surface of the self-dealing and trade interests, its not that hard to grasp what is going on. For the torturer, torture tends to be self-reinforcing.  Put anyone in enough pain and you will either get the results you want or kill them trying.

Notably, a lot of us prefer.  Indeed, the dirty little secret of the psychiatric industry is suicide.  This includes the role they play in aggravating the risk and making it a truly attractive option.  A lot of us are literally dying to get out.

The biggest times for suicide on inpatient wards are a few days after admission, and shortly after discharge.   It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is.  A few days into admission, the light starts to dawn.  Your problems might have been big before, the distress seemingly intolerable.  But now, after experiencing the way you and others are treated in the system of ‘care’,  you know it can actually get worse. You connect the dots and realize, perhaps for the first time, how bad it can get and how truly alone in the universe you are.

The second time for suicide is in the period right after release.  You have faked it until you made it.  You were miserable before, but now you return to your decimated life.  Dead relationships, dead pets, dead career.  No job, no reputation, no leg left to stand on.  Huge obstacles, huge bills, huge social prejudice.  The system of ‘helping’ dismantled your life, ruined your future and billed you for the privilege.  Inside they might have tortured your body, but back on the outside the senselessness and loss adds a whole new dimension.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I am drawn to novel approaches, quackery in the making, at least as much as the average bear.  I have a healthy respect for the diversity, creativity - sometimes ingenious, often totally stupid ways that human beings innovate in response to perceived need.  Arguably, much of what gets people labeled mad in the first place is the natural diversity of humankind in response to challenge or threat.  We find ourselves in new or distressing situations, and presto! a brainstorm for how to get out.  This is the stuff Edisons and Einsteins are made of.  In the long run, makes for progress, invention and promotes our survival.

For this reason, I have a healthy respect for the quack and the quirky potential in us all.  It's not just a biological imperative.  It makes life interesting, exciting and rich.

The problem I have - one many of us have - is when power or privilege dumb-down the options.  In the ideal world, you would get to have your quackery, I would get to have mine.

The problem for me comes - as with psychiatry - when powerful others demand their own way.  A fairly sane, rational response is to resist this.  Probably most of us prefer to watch from a safe distance.

We also usually consider the outcomes more credible when others actually puts their own skin in. It tends to build trust when you try your stuff out on you.  That's especially true when the stakes or risks are seem obviously high.  Ergo, the rational skepticism that a lot of us have with the complicated, flashy, high tech the medical industry pushes.  We legitimately wonder:  Will this have untold effects?  Is it reversible?  Do they really know what will happen over time?

If physicians really had to self-test the stuff they make their living selling, my guess is that the industry would get a lot more honest - safe, effective, ethical - overnight.  Just imagine this:

  • The way you get certified to give shock is to get it.  Does that minimal impact on memory, intelligence, cognition, really stand up to the industry claim?  
  • And what about TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation)?   Safe, healthy, effective?  Fully reversible?  Awesome!  Should be no problem then:   How about we open your skull up, insert the magnets, try them out, pull them out...   Then you can give your personal report on how those nerve-endings fare.
  • You claim neuroleptics are well-tolerated, the concerns over-rated, the sum-total benefits well worth the cost?  Ok, you first.  Give it a whirl - seroquel, haldol, abilify, you name it.  Breath-baited, we're waiting for your user-rating -- and the outcomes from your own 2, 5, 10 or 20-year exposure plan.  

Until those results are in, I'd vastly prefer that you have your quackery and I'll have mine.  I'd vastly prefer to observe the results of your theories on you from a safe, respectful distance.  In the meantime, you keep your quackery off me, I'll keep mine off you.  Then, somewhere down the line, perhaps a few decades from now - and from far across a great divide  - we can both compare some notes. 

Questions for Reflection

We are building this work together.  Your lived experience is needed and valued.  It is essential to building our shared knowledge and expertise as a movement.  Please comment on any or all of these questions or in any way that speaks to you personally.

1. Have you ever had quackery forced on you in the name of treatment?   
2. Did it ever rise to the level of torture for you?  What contributed to that happening? 
3. What would you like others of conscience to know about your experience?
4. Has there ever been a time that you were willing to try something novel that someone else suggested?  What made you open to trying it?   
5. How is that different from the experience of being forced? 
6. If you had a novel idea that you thought would help someone, how might you approach them?
7. When others are trying to be helpful, what do you most want them to know or respect about your way of going about things?  
8.  If, as a culture, we were serious about improving outcomes, how could we safely, effectively maximize the learning from our different ways of doing things?   

Conference on Principle 6: Postponed


  1. Today stepping into international human rights lawyer role to share technical information and resources.

    The Special Rapporteur on Torture is a "Special Procedure" of the UN Human Rights Council. Different individuals have held that post over time.

    The first SR, P. Kooijmans (in 1986) ( listed administration of neuroleptics and other drugs as one of the forms of physical torture done in psychiatric institutions and detention. (The UN, motivated by reports of psychiatric abuse of "sane" political prisoners, started work on a declaration that in earliest forms was quite good and general in condemning forced drugging and similar practices. Then psychiatrists persuaded them that some force was necessary against ordinary mental patients, with the resulting horror show of the 1991 Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care. I won't link to it, look it up.)

    In 2002 drafting and negotiations started for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Having been in the right place at the time, I had just finished law school where I researched human rights issues related to psychiatric oppression and found the 1991 MI Principles, in a human rights law class, and also put together disability non-discrimination law with core human rights including torture to apply to psychiatric oppression. This was inspired a similar approach taken to making visible rape and other misogynist violence against women as torture and other hr violations, by feminist law professor Rhonda Copelon and others. I had ideas about how to anchor the abolition of forced psychiatric interventions to prohibition of torture, prohibition of arbitrary detention (which includes any detention that is discriminatory, as psychiatric commitment always is), and eventually the right to equality before and under the law as including legal capacity to make one's own decisions. You can read more about details of development in this paper, prepared for publication in a book on CRPD but withdrawn by me due to editors' attempted censorship: The prohibition of forced psychiatry as torture didn't make it into treaty text, but legal capacity + free and informed consent on an equal basis with others in health care took care of it. The arguments about torture per se persuaded human rights experts at the UN enough to convene an expert seminar at which I presented along with others, which led to the first post-CRPD report by a SR on Torture, Manfred Nowak, in 2008 ( see also (

    Nowak's report was a real breakthrough in that he adopted the language and concepts that I had proposed, centering the fact of discrimination as why forced psychiatric interventions were being legitimized against people labeled as "mentally ill". He also was one of the first UN officials to recognize that CRPD prohibited involuntary commitment and involuntary treatment, contrary to the MI principles which accepted it. His report didn't say that forced psychiatry was torture per se, but that it "may constitute" torture or ill-treatment. Much good in the report, worth reading in full. Note some standards have been improved by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but some issues Nowak dealt with in greater detail.

    continued below.

  2. continued from above.

    In 2013, after somewhat reluctantly being persuaded to advocate for the new SR to go further than Nowak, another expert meeting and report by SR Juan E. Méndez, which both advanced the positions and also was messier, getting a few points simply wrong (e.g. misstating what Nowak had said) and contradicting himself in succeeding paragraphs on psychiatric detention. He advanced the positions primarily by calling for an absolute ban on forced or non-consensual administration of psychosurgery, electroshock and mind-altering drugs such as neuroleptic, and implicitly including this in a general statement that all the practices discussed in the report were instances of torture or other ill-treatment, in respect of which states (countries) are obligated to make reparation. Here is the report ( and you can also see here ( links to his statement to the Human Rights Council (which removes offending contradictions and calls for an end to disability-based detention as well as forced interventions), and in contrast his dialogue with the World and American Psychiatric Associations in which he backtracks and maintains that even the absolute ban is qualified by language that to me is frankly incomprehensible. (My desired interpretation of his report, which Méndez himself apparently rejects, is included in a compilation published by Méndez and his colleagues at American University, also linked on that page).

    Méndez's call for an absolute ban provoked the outrage of psychiatrists and despite his disclaimers the plain language was circulated and understood well enough to inspire survivors everywhere and increase support for our human rights by well-intentioned allies and experts.

    Meanwhile the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had started their work in 2009, and developed a body of interpretive practice (jurisprudence) in Concluding Observations on the reports of states parties (countries that ratified the treaty, now up to around 160). They made it clear quickly that psychiatric commitment and forced treatment were prohibited, and two general documents issued in 2014 and 2015 cemented that jurisprudence firmly in international law. The CRPD is binding on all 160+ states parties, and the CRPD Committee is generally accepted as the ultimate authority on the interpretation of the treaty, as a universal instrument that should have the same meaning in all countries. These documents are the General Comment on Article 12, Equal recognition before the law ( (dealing with legal capacity - see especially paragraph 42 dealing with prohibition of forced psychiatric interventions as torture/ill-treatment/violence, but worth reading the entire thing, also see paragraphs 13-15 saying that actual or perceived decision-making skills cannot be used to limit a person's right to make decisions). The second is the Guidelines on Article 14, liberty and security of the person ( reaffirming absolute prohibition of disability-based detention including mental health commitment regimes based on "danger to self or others", and for the first time acknowledging without qualification that forced treatment, as well as restraint practices, constitute acts of torture or other ill-treatment in violation of Article 15 of the CRPD which says that states must protect persons with disabilities from torture and other ill-treatment on an equal basis with others. (See paragraph 12 for this.)

    continued again below.

  3. continued from above.

    Survivors should be aware that the CRPD Committee's jurisprudence is now the most authoritative statement as to the illegality of forced psychiatric interventions as a form of torture or other ill-treatment under international law. The CRPD is binding on the vast majority of countries in the world (see A number of countries have also ratified CRPD's Optional Protocol ( that allows individual to bring complaints of violations to the CRPD Committee - provided the violations happened after the CRPD and OP entered into force for that country and that you have used all available domestic procedures that reasonably might give effective relief. You do not need a lawyer but it is a good idea to get advice from someone who knows and understands well this aspect of the CRPD and is in sympathy with the absolute prohibition. CHRUSP (in which I am the principal individual carrying out pro bono work, as well as President) is interested in supporting this work and preparing amicus briefs to bring out complementary legal points in appropriate cases.

    For people in the United States and other countries that have not ratified CRPD, or in countries that haven't ratified the Optional Protocol, there are other UN mechanisms that can bring attention to individual cases and systemic violations, including the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The WGAD issued a set of Basic Principles and Guidelines also in 2015, see ( but be aware of this version with footnotes some problematic ( It is Principle 20 and Guideline 20 specifically. The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issued a joint statement with the SR on the Right to Health, calling for an to forced psychiatric treatment (see

    There are other UN bodies dealing with torture and ill-treatment that are still in the grip of psychiatric hegemony, in particular the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, which recently issued a position statement calling for forced psychiatric interventions as a positive measure to implement both the right to health and the right to freedom from torture (again I will not link to it but you can find it if you search). The Committee Against Torture, which monitors the Convention Against Torture, and the Human Rights Committee, which despite its arrogant-sounding name only monitors one treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have grappled with CRPD standards but still maintain only a "general" prohibition of forced treatment subject to exceptions (which is no prohibition at all). There is hope for those two treaty bodies as our sisters and brothers in several countries keep bringing them reports (US has ratified those two treaties, and folks in US can participate too, personally I am burned out on that part of the advocacy). (Talking here about general reports on the country situation, shadow reports as part of the regular review process also available in CRPD Committee for countries that have ratified that treaty. Too long to explain further now, but look at the Committees' websites for information if interested.)

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    1. Hi TIna, thank you for all this additional information. And THANK you Sarah, for your amazing blog! Pamela Spiro Wagner

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Sarah, it appears to be deleting my comments as I add more. I want to provide the information on hr law, maybe you can figure out a space to do that here.

  6. Published on my own site, see If there's a way to post here that is fine too.