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I was a college student "mental patient" by David W. Oaks

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Reflections on youth, psychiatric labeling, and the catastrophe at Virginia Tech.

I'm 51 when I write this. Between between the ages of 19 and 21 I was locked up five times in psychiatric institutions while I was attending Harvard. The current tragedy on the campus of Virginia Tech connects with my heart in a personal way.

I was a working class kid on a scholarship experiencing severe and overwhelming mental and emotional problems that were variously labeled as schizophrenic, bipolar and schizophreniform. I entered into extreme and prolonged states such as believing the TV was talking to me personally, that the radio was the voice of God, that a neighbor was a member of the CIA, and more.

Some of my story is elsewhere on this site.

I just wonder now... If I were a "college mental patient" again on the campuses today...

  • What additional scrutiny would I face?
  • Would I have a higher chance of dismissal? Of institutionalization? Of being on psychiatric drugs for a lifetime?
  • Will even more young people be "screened" on campus for mental health problems, and directed to take powerful psychiatric drugs?
  • Will these students get the kind of advocacy, choices, supports, alternatives they deserve?
  • Will these students find the psychiatric survivors social change movement, as I did?

As with any overwhelming tragedy, I'm also worried about what is waiting in the wings. We here at MindFreedom are pro-choice about people's choice to take psychiatric drugs, and when I was in college at one point i begged for antidepressants. However, after any major catastrophe, people experiencing prolonged despair and trauma and overwhelm and extreme differences and passion within this highly-conformist society... can end up on drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, and more drugs, for years, decades and even life, all without adequate advocacy, information and alternatives.

The immensity, intensity and volume of the tsunami of psychiatric drugs hitting our young people -- both in and out of school -- is so outrageous, so potentially devastating, that it amounts to the Greenhouse effect of the mental health system. Currently the mental health system and our society are in denial. No "Al Gore" has emerged to go campus to campus, showing a slide show about how brain structures can be harmed from long-term high-dosage psychiatric drugging... and how there are better and more sustainable ways to help young people with mental and emotional distress and differences.

We need to break the silence. Let us not exploit this situation. Let us not jump in with inaccurate facts. But let us be part of the dialogue!

Let us insist that mental health consumers, psychiatric survivors, and dissident mental health professionals be heard during this national and even international. Let us especially encourage young people who have been psychiatrically labeled, or who are risk of such a label, to come forward in their diverse voices and tell it like it is... tell us what can help. Tell us now.

If Seung-Hui Cho the apparent shooter at Virginia Tech, was on psychiatric drugs, certainly that fact ought to be raised, and if these drugs played a role, then this must be investigated. That said, I would also caution activists in our field to be cautious of "reductionism" in activism, too.

The Kip Kinkel shooting on 21 May 1998 was in nearby Springfield, Oregon across the river from the MindFreedom office. To this day, we do not have the full facts, which is why we are calling for an investigation now.

With Kip Kinkel's tragedy, some activists to this day list him as proof that "psychiatric drugs are the main cause of many mass shootings."  It turns out there are many psychosocial, emotional, personal, and even political aspects of that tragedy. From the little we can tell Kip apparently had long been off of psychiatric drugs, perhaps because his parents were concerned about this approach. Even knowing that fact, some have then said, "Then withdrawal must have made him do it." But even that is far too simple. Again, from the little we know, Kip had only been on psychiatric drugs fairly briefly. Frontline did a piece that began to tease out some of the issues that had perhaps made Kip into a kind of "child soldier" that one hears about in poor and developing countries, shooting up their own village. In such tragedies is too simple to blame a "chemical imbalance," and it's too simple to blame a "chemical."

There is no easy answer to the human "soul sickness" of extreme violence. But we must communicate.

Let us try to speak out, now! If we do not speak out, I am afraid that in the coming years and decades, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of more young people, both in the USA and internationally, will end up on powerful psychiatric drugs for the rest of their lives without advocacy, without alternatives, and without the non-drug supports I was lucky to have.

Those of us on the "sharp end of the needle" of mental health care have tried silence.

It hasn't worked. Speak out now!

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Cookie Gant

Cookie (1949 - 2003) was a founder of MindFreedom International's coalition, and was a rolling coalition herself: African American lesbian disabled psychiatric survivor artist photographer! Cookie served on the MFI board for several years, and co-founded MindFreedom Michigan. (Photo by Tom Olin at an MFI international strategy conference.)
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