Psychiatric Abolition: A Primer

Note: for an introductory article on what the “abolition” in psychiatric abolition refers to, read “Prison Abolition: A Primer” by Efrén Paredes, Jr. and “Illusions of Safety” by Mariame Kaba.

This series of readings discusses what psychiatric abolition is and why it's necessary as a part of a greater project of police and prison abolition. It goes beyond resistance through personal ethos like #madpunk and general #anti psych criticisms that tend to not go beyond generally criticizing psychiatry as an institution and discussing personal experiences of harm.

“When bringing up anti-psychiatry in conversation, if you’re lucky enough not to get called a conspiracy theorist, you’ll likely hear the names Szasz, Laing, Cooper, Basaglia — all of whom were psychiatrists. Why is anti-psychiatry dominated by people complicit in our abuse?

Whilst initially appearing to be radical, anti-psychiatry is largely a reformist movement from within the system, fronted by people who cannot live with the guilt of locking us up, but are still perfectly happy to dismiss our voices. People who, despite good intentions, still cannot remove the paternalistic mindset that medical school ingrained in them. Psychiatrists being the face of anti-psychiatry is consistent with the psychiatric tradition — seeing mad people in need of saviours like themselves.

All forms of psychiatric abolition are anti-psychiatry, but not all anti-psychiatry is abolitionist. Psychiatric abolition is about the destruction of the violent structures that provide all psychiatrists, including ‘anti-psychiatrists’ with a livelihood. Psychiatric abolition is mad people rising up from the fringes of society, forging a path to freedom and creating a world so full of care, joy, compassion and insanity that we could never conceive of psychiatry — or psychiatrists — existing. Resistance against psychiatry will always be strongest in the hands of psychiatric survivors.”

“Anti-psychiatry vs Psychiatric Abolition” by Róisín

“It is clear from the history that psychiatry is there to control, not care for, us. The birth of psychiatry cannot be separated from eugenics and colonialism — psychiatry was the soil from which eugenics was allowed to grow. It was created as a tool to justify the violent plundering and torture of colonised people around the world. By psychiatry diagnosing some people as inferior, deranged, deviant and delusional, western oppressors were able to legitimise their abuse of the people they colonised. Enslaved people escaping their bondage were labelled as having ‘drapetomania’, a supposed mental illness, because white society refused to accept the idea that Black people could revolt against their oppression. In the current day, psychiatry is also wielded against Muslim communities, working in tandem with PREVENT to heighten surveillance and policing efforts, labelling mentally ill Muslims as an automatic terrorism risk.

The long history of queerphobia at the hands of psychiatry is also well-documented, with conversion therapy and electro-shock therapy their ‘cure’ of homosexuality, deemed a mental illness up until 1973, whilst our transness continues to be medicalised and pathologized. Women too were and are to this day brandished as hysterical and locked in asylums, often as a result of their natural trauma responses to patriarchal violence. We also know too well, as seen with Nazi Germany, Mussolini and the US sterilization of Puerto Rican, Black and Indigenous women, that psychiatry has been a tool of the far-right — any institution so easily incorporated into fascism should have its legitimacy questioned.

Very little has changed — psychiatry continues to be wielded against oppressed communities, the lunatic asylums of the 1800s still standing (for now) with the haunting echoes of past patients drowned out only by the desperate screams of current ones. We are all screaming for the same thing: abolition. Psychiatry may have learned to portray a more respectable veneer, but the lunatic asylum, electroshock therapy and tranquilisation lay just below the surface.

We formed CPA to fight back against this violence and death that permeates the lives of every psych survivor. Our organising encompasses a wide variety of community work – one aspect of this is the workshops we give about psychiatric abolition across britain to both the public, comrades and radical organisations, because we see education about mad liberation, crisis care and peer support as essential life and organising skills. This is not about ‘awareness’, but about survival. It is about knowing how to be there for our comrades and loved ones without calling the cops or the docs.”

"'There is no abolition without anti-psychiatry'" by Campaign for Psychiatric Abolition

“Cross-movement solidarity isn’t simply a good organizing strategy, it’s a necessity for survival. Mad and disabled communities are being incarcerated and murdered by the same institutions that target Black, trans and nonbinary, poor, Indigenous, undocumented, youth of color, Latinx communities, and everyone else deemed expendable under racial capitalism. Police and prison abolitionist should engage with mad and disabled communities because we share common enemies, and interconnected goals – and in truth, individuals targeted by racial capitalism often hold multiple identities, blurring the distinctions between one fight and the next.”

“Madness, Disability, and Abolition” by Mad Liberation Front

"We’re not going to radically transform the world by caring for one another, but we might be better equipped to do so, or at least to get through the day — which, given that communism is thus far eternally a vision of tomorrow, is arguably step one.

I remain unconvinced by most things: antipsychiatry, Ketamine, and most revolutionary promise. I’m given to skepticism more often than not. But I’m fairly certain that whatever 'treatment' means, it requires an approach that operates on as many terrains of experience as those on which despair emerges: chemical, social, structural, and otherwise. The fundamental critical question must be one addressed not to the subject, but rather to subjectivity itself — that is, it is not concerned with individual actions and reactions but what it means to be a person with the capacity for action and reaction, and how we adapt that experience to a world that seeks to crush it. On the level of psychological autonomy, there are no wrong answers except the allegation of a wrong answer."

“Communism Won’t Save Us From Ourselves” by Leijia Hanrahan