On October 7, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) announced the creation of a radically new scholarship — the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. This scholarship is for OISE students conducting theses in the area of antipsychiatry, with the author matching up to $50,000 of donations by others. Following the announcement came an article in The Varsity on the scholarship, which, let me suggest, was sadly amiss.

What is wrong with the article? It makes Scientology ‘the issue.’ Who cares whether Scientology praises  — or for that matter, disparages — the emergence of this scholarship? In such framing, it prioritizes sensationalism over significance. Moreover, it creates serious misimpressions about antipsychiatry.

A question in the interest of remedying that: exactly what is antipsychiatry? It is a field of study and a movement. As a field of study, it advances foundational critiques of psychiatry. As a movement, it is dedicated to abolition and the creation of more respectful, helpful ways of approaching societal differences and human distress. Below are some myths and facts intended to shed light on the subject.

Myth: Antipsychiatry theorists deny that people can become seriously disoriented and troubled.

Fact: Antipsychiatry theorists are extremely clear that such difficulties exist. What we contend, rather, is that what are labelled ‘mental diseases’ are not in fact medical disorders. That is, we have different explanations for what is happening — ones that include, but are not limited to, issues of social control.

Myth: Antipsychiatry theorists are ‘anti-science.’

Fact: Antipsychiatry theorists are pro-science and as such, oppose the ‘facade’ of science. Indeed, one of our central objections is precisely that the claims of psychiatry lack scientific and medical validity.

Myth: Major antipsychiatry positions such as ending forced treatment are extreme and something that no reputable body would ever support.

Fact: Besides the fact that ‘reputable’ and ‘extreme’ are judgement calls and that we are talking about fundamental human rights here, an organization no less ‘reputable’ than the United Nations (UN) has issued a prohibition against forced psychiatric ‘treatment,’ as per the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If the UN takes this position, how can it be extreme?

Myth: Antipsychiatry people are overwhelmingly involved with Scientology.

Fact: Almost none are — claiming or insinuating otherwise is a discrediting tactic. Surely instead, as academics, we should be dealing with facts, evidence, and logic.

Myth: Antipsychiatry is based on ignorance.

Fact: Pursued by folk who are leading scholars, antipsychiatry is a highly recognized field of inquiry, with courses offered in sociology, disability studies, adult education, and numerous other areas. Correspondingly, as researchers, antipsychiatry scholars knowledgeably draw on highly credible research methodologies, such as scientific meta-analysis, ethnography, critical discourse analysis, and institutional ethnography.

This brings us to the scholarship itself. What makes this scholarship significant is that it constitutes a historical breakthrough; it represents a triumph for academic freedom. With vested interests, such as the multinational pharmaceutics significantly dictating what is studied and rewarded at universities, the successful launching of this scholarship is a veritable coup.

This scholarship is likewise important from the more limited vantage point of student equity. The sad reality is that without it, students pursuing studies in this area have far less of a chance of receiving a scholarship than their peers.

On a different level, it helps realize the university’s commitment to anti-oppression. In this regard, psychiatric survivors are oppressed not just by the world at large, but precisely by groups theorized as helpers. The particularly targeted include women, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and the poor — and as such, antipsychiatry yields an exciting opportunity for intersectional anti-oppression analysis.

On a more substantive level, the scholarship is positioned to advance research sorely needed by the world. Some significant facts here: not a single bona fide illness or indicator thereof — for example, no edema — has been shown to underlie any ‘mental illness.’ Ultimately, only biology can determine what is a disease.

Contrary to standard depictions, psychiatric drugs do not correct but rather cause chemical imbalances; by the same token, they do not redress but create disorders. This is according to the research of multiple scholars, including Breggin (1991), Colbert (2001), Burstow (2015), and Whitaker (2010). Moreover, with the rampant spread of psychiatric ‘treatment,’ the world is now facing a virtual epidemic of ‘iatrogenic’ or doctor-caused disease — hence, the emergence of this scholarship could not be more timely.

That being said, let me ask the reader: are you in favour of honest science and discovery? Do you want to go where the evidence points? Do you prioritize the search for truth over moneyed interests? Do you believe in academic freedom? Are basic human rights a concern for you? Would you like to see inquiry which stands squarely on the side of the oppressed? Would you like to help ensure that future generations are not brain-damaged in the name of help?

If most of your answers are ‘yes’, consider joining us in popularizing this scholarship and helping it grow.

Finally, in ending, I leave you with this instructive quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — then you win.”


Dr. Bonnie Burstow is an Associate Professor at OISE, an activist, a feminist therapist, and the author of the book Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (2015).