Freeing Your Mind

| May / June 2006

Rights advocacy groups have helped minorities beat back discrimination, women gain the right to vote, and the handicapped win access to public spaces. Now a group called MindFreedom International is working to preserve perhaps one of the most fundamental human rights: the right to think for oneself.

A coalition of more than 100 groups in 14 countries, MindFreedom was formed in 1988 to speak out against human rights violations in the mental health system, such as restraints, involuntary electroshock therapy, and forced medication. Many of its founders and members call themselves survivors of the system, and their experiences show that, for some, 'treatment' isn't a road to recovery but a highway to hell. At one rally in Washington, D.C., a supporter toted a banner that read, 'Bet your ass we're paranoid.'

Now, as scientists refine ways to alter the human brain -- and, concomitantly, thoughts and behavior -- MindFreedom is poised to enter a new skirmish in the struggle to uphold personal freedom.

Lately, the group has been campaigning against drug implants that are surgically inserted under the skin to release antipsychotic medicine slowly, over weeks or months. It's still good old drug therapy, not an electronic implant, but the method takes control away from the patient and gives it to the doctors. In this way, MindFreedom contends, it's another step toward curtailing the rights of some of society's most marginal members, the mentally ill. And as far as MindFreedom director David Oaks is concerned, it will also result in more invasive and heavy-handed methods such as electronic implants controlled by doctors.

'We're opposed to all these techniques because they're inherently intrusive and irreversible, and they give doctors a lot of control,' says Oaks. 'It's like throwing gas on a fire.'

Apart from the rights implications of the new brain science, Oaks contends that many of the most touted treatment methods are based on what is still a crude understanding of the brain.