Bonnie Burstow launches the world’s first antipsychiatry scholarship at OISE
“I’m hoping this scholarship will spur alternative ways of arranging society so that we aren’t inventing diseases or brain-damaging people, and there is a greater acceptance of difference,” says Burstow.
By Kevin Ritchie
November 16, 2016
The University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute of Education has established a scholarship in the controversial field of antipsychiatry.
Billed as a world first, the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry is awarded with donations that its namesake instructor – a trauma specialist and critic of psychiatry – is matching with up to $50,000 out of her own pocket.
The author of Psychiatry And The Business Of Madness ($52, Palgrave Macmillan) and an associate professor in OISE’s department of leadership, higher and adult education believes that there is no proven biological basis for mental illness and that psychiatric methods – including drugs – and the institutions that support them are oppressive and violate human rights.
Burstow views the scholarship as a win for academic equity, given that the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine includes a psychiatry department.
Setting it up was not an easy feat.
“I was asked at different points if I would change the name and not use the word ‘antipsychiatry,'” she tells NOW. “I said no, I wouldn’t. It’s an area that makes people nervous.”
Burstow’s courses usually attract 20 to 25 students in a given year. None of her classes – which are social-justice-focused and address survivors of trauma – has “antipsychiatry” in its title, but the perspective is always incorporated.
The scholars who attend her antipsychiatry support group often hold anti-racist and feminist viewpoints, and she occasionally attracts med students interested in hearing from someone who doesn’t buy into the psychiatric paradigm.
“The long history of psychiatry is the long history of pathologizing women. The feminist community has been aware of that for decades,” she says. “It is also an institution that pathologizes Blacks, lesbians and gays. This intersectionality analysis is readily available through an antipsychiatry lens.”
Although antipsychiatry is niche in the world of academia, critiques of psychiatry have had an impact on methods and have shaped public opinion of the field.
Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and the Oscar-winning film adaptation 13 years later created distrust of psychiatry and specifically electroshock treatments.
Around the same time, the nascent gay rights movement pressured the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a disease, and it was dropped from the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders in 1973.
“I’m hoping this scholarship will spur alternative ways of arranging society so that we aren’t inventing diseases or brain-damaging people, and there is a greater acceptance of difference,” says Burstow. “We need to work out problems together rather than bring in experts. I’m looking for the creation of something far more egalitarian.”
Students receiving the scholarship can focus on any area of antipsychiatry. Burstow hopes it paves the way for bigger scholarships she can endow when she dies.
At OISE, several students focusing on antipsychiatry have had trouble getting in-house scholarships, Burstow adds. Her scholarship, which is endowed in perpetuity, was approved on the grounds of academic freedom, with support from the dean and his advisers.
If psychiatry school officials are unhappy, they are not saying so publicly.
U of T department of psychiatry chair Benoit H. Mulsant declined an interview but sent a statement via a school spokesperson.
“Universities are places where free inquiry is encouraged and supported,” he said. “The department of psychiatry will continue to prepare the next generation of psychiatrists. Doing so, we strive to uphold the highest standards of the profession, consistent with the latest research that ensures the well-being of individuals with mental disorders.”
Since Burstow announced the fund, it was swiftly criticized by a mental health advocate in the Huffington Post, who noted that the Canadian wing of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a non-profit founded by the Church of Scientology, has praised the scholarship.
That article is a one example of the flak Burstow has weathered over four decades as an antipsychiatry activist and radical therapist.
She dismisses criticisms aligning her research with anti-vaxers and Scientology as “bogus smear tactics.”
“In every university I’ve taught in, there’s always been some kind of push-back,” she says. When she taught at the University of Manitoba’s social work department, a psychiatry program official asked to speak in one of her classes.
“I wrote back and said that in the name of people having multiple perspectives, I would have no problem with having someone from the department of psychiatry giving their perspective in my class – as long as, in the interest of their students also having multiple perspectives, I be invited into their classes,” she recalls. “I never heard back from them.”