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Talking Back To E. Fuller Torrey

DJ Jaffe’s bigoted Huffington Post blog most recently included an post by fellow bigot and big shot shrink, E. Fuller Torrey. This guest entry blog post is entitled, What should we call people with mental illness? E. Fuller Torrey wants to censor the language of, as it has been put, “people with lived experience” in the mental health system. Dr. Torrey seems to think that about ½ the people receiving mental health treatment are in no condition to speak for themselves and, therefore, people like E. Fuller Torrey and DJ Jaffe must do their talking for them.

His argument concerns how people in and out of mental health treatment should refer to themselves. First, a word this psychiatrist is most friendly with is “client”. “Client” is the word that most conveniently kisses the ass of the mental health “professional”. It helps define a functional and therapeutic relationship. Dr. Torrey would keep this word. “Client” is a good word. “Survivor” is a bad word. Why is survivor a bad word? Frankly, he seems to object to the use of this word because psychiatrists and mental health professionals didn’t come up with it.

”Survivor” is… a term is used by psychiatric patients, not like ”cancer survivor” but in a more menacing sense like ”rape survivor” or ”Holocaust survivor.” It implies survival of a traumatic event, specifically in this case involuntary treatment for a psychiatric illness. A major goal of (people who use this term), is to abolish all involuntary treatment. Such a goal ignores the needs of those individuals with schizophrenia who are unaware of their illness and who, because they are not being treated, are regularly victimized and end up homeless and/or incarcerated. Thus, ”survivor,” like ”consumer,” applies to only some individuals and is not all-inclusive. To use such terms ignores the needs of those to whom it does not apply and is thus a form of discrimination.

Every expatient is a psychiatric survivor, regardless of whether they take to the term or not, by definition. What we mean by psychiatric survivor here is a psychiatric treatment survivor. An even more exact way to express the matter might be to refer to him or her as a psychiatric maltreatment survivor. I’m still waiting for a “treatment plan” that has a “ land of opportunity” feel to it. Most of these “treatment plans” fall way short, to say the least, of a step ladder onto “peak performance”. Some of the practices that pass for standard psychiatric care these days can do much more harm to an individual than good. Some of these treatments can, in fact, even result in death. Any person who has not survived their psychiatric treatment is a cadaver. No amount of jargon is going to change that very basic fact.

Dr. Torrey goes even further in his revision of Websters dictionary.

The latest term being used for people with schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders is ”people with lived experience,”…being increasingly used by groups funded by SAMHSA. …In reading the literature… it is apparent that most of the time the term is meant to imply that the delusions, hallucinations, and other symptoms experienced by individuals with schizophrenia are merely part of a spectrum of human experience. It is thus an implicit refutation of the medical model of disease. …

Most individuals with schizophrenia, including those promoting terms such as ”people with lived experience,” are receiving medical disability benefits such as Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, and veterans disability pensions. …Logically, if they do not believe that they really have a disease, they should not apply for, or accept, such benefits….

I imagine he is trying to say here that the schizophrenia label removes a people from their personhood, but I’ve got my own semantic problems articulating that one. Whatever happens in what we refer to as schizophrenia has ceased to be a “lived experience”, and this makes it a term of complete dismissal, if not disparagement. If it represents a human experience, why ignore it?

Dr. Torrey needs to wake up, and look around himself sometime. The results of the recent economic downswing, coupled with Reagonite trickle down economics, are all around us. We call these results homeless people. When you get 5 people applying for every 1 job opening that becomes available, that leaves 4 people out of work. You do not get people working by depriving them of basic necessities. You get people working by providing them with employment opportunities. Realism should tell him that there’s a relationship between chronic unemployment and chronic emotionally disturbance that is not going to be addressed through further deprivation and punishment.

We, people, excuse me, with lived experience in the mental health system have fought long and hard for every word that comes from our own lips and not from some self-appointed mouthpiece for us. Given a chance, some of us can think, act, and speak on our own behalf. Those of us who haven’t developed this knack yet, I suppose you can count many of them among the 50% who are content to let Dr. Torrey speak in their stead. Let me point out that this doesn’t speak highly of their chances for making a complete recovery.

Recovery, there you go! Although Dr. Torrey didn’t deal with the phenomenon of recovery in his article on language, perhaps he should have dealt with the notion of recovery. I’m sure he would have had something to say on the subject even if he thought it was another term whose usage should be discouraged, if not restricted. Myself, I’d like to see more of it.