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Drug-free treatment promoter

By Tom Davis

David Oaks has a simple philosophy about life: If the mind isn't free, there's no freedom.

Thirty years ago, he was "locked up" five times because of emotional episodes he had as a Harvard student. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Each time, he was forcibly drugged. Each time, he was told he'd feel "better." He says, however, he felt like a prisoner.

"For me, [the drugs were] torture," said Oaks, now [50]. The drugs were "a wrecking ball to my mind."

Oaks eventually got his degree from Harvard, in 1977. But he soon realized that his best education came not as a student but as a psychiatric patient.

And he knew what he had to do.

Oaks joined a growing movement against the use of psychiatric medicine as a first and last resort. Around 1990, he started an organization, Mind Freedom, that challenged what he calls "the medical model" for
dealing with people with mental illness.

"The drugs are really harming people," Oaks said. "We just believe in freedom of choice."

Mind Freedom believes that counseling -- even for people who may not be equipped to make the decision -- should be the first choice of treatment. The group doesn't rule out the use of medication but believes that it should be used in conjunction with counseling, pain management techniques and occupational therapy.

Through the years, Mind Freedom has developed an international coalition that unites 100 grassroots groups -- as well as thousands of its members -- who seek to protect the human rights of people diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities.

Some mental health advocates credit Mind Freedom -- which depends on donations for its operation -- for getting the medical profession to consider more holistic and therapeutic approaches to mental illness. They also note that Mind Freedom was one of the first organizations to bring sensitivity to mental health language.

"He is one of the great activists in the field," said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Mental Disability Rights International. "He has fostered communication among activists in other countries," adding that Mind Freedom's letter-writing campaigns have addressed decrepit conditions of psychiatric institutions in Turkey and elsewhere.

In the United States, Mind Freedom has made an impact by employing the same youthfulness and idealism that Oaks had as a Harvard student.

The members don't wear fancy suits and lobby the halls of Congress for legislation. Instead, Mind Freedom has recruited hundreds of its supporters to hold protests outside pharmaceutical companies and other groups that advocate the liberal use of psychiatric medicine.

"We felt we needed to keep the independent, activist-based movement alive," he said.

"Last year, we protested in front of PhRMA in Washington, D.C. That was fun."

A few years ago, the group held a hunger strike and challenged the American Psychiatric Association to "prove their claim" that medication was necessary for managing a chemical imbalance.

In a September 2003 statement released after the protest, the association expressed dismay that "a small number of individuals and groups persist in questioning the reality and clinical legitimacy of disorders that affect the mind, brain and behavior.

"While the membership of the American Psychiatric Association respects the right of individuals to express their impatience with the pace of science, we note that the human brain is the most complex and challenging object of study in the history of human science."

Mind Freedom also has clashed with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other organizations for developing "unholy" alliances with drug companies and accepting money for research.

To contact Mind Freedom, call (877) MAD-PRIDE or e-mail off-@mindfreedom.org.
[ Web: http://www.MindFreedom.org ]
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The Coping column appears [in _The Record_] every other Tuesday. To
suggest topics, write to Tom Davis, The Record, 150 River St.,
Hackensack, NJ 07601 [USA] or e-mail dav-@northjersey.com. Please
include your phone number with all correspondence.

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