The Legacy of Bonnie Burstow (1945-2020)

Bonnie Burstow

Dr. Bonnie Burstow (Ph. D.) was a professor of education at OISE at the Unviersity of Toronto, who recently died of kidney failure at 75 as of 4 January, 2020.

I have been at OISE a few times, but I have never met Dr. Burstow, but her radical feminist approach to anti-psychistry as part of a patriarchical system I am sure helped many, but I wonder if feminist issues were the entire problem with psychiatry. I have always questioned its very scientific basis, a point made early on by the late Thomas Szasz (1920-2012). The only problem with Szasz was that he founded CCHR, which is aligned with the Church of Scientology. It had been the reason I lost interest in the anti-psychiatry movement over the past 30 or so years. Both sides seemed to be locked in a power struggle over who controls an individual’s mind, and both sides are politically tainted in the most unhelpful of ways.

Thomas Szasz

Szasz’s main criticisms, the most basic of which is that “mental illness” occurs in “the mind”, is a myth because “the mind” is an abstraction. He has now been upstaged by findings in “biological psychiatry”, and many are now coining the phrase “psychiatric illness”, which personally I find unhelpful in that “psychiatric” sounds like just another abstraction (maybe a more precise one?). A psychiatric illness diagnosis is still a death sentence to most people’s careers (unless it is being a standup comic or something), making it difficult to understand on what planet is what psychiatrists do considered “helpful” when it involves incarceration?

Szasz wrote a journal article (The Psychiatrist) a year before his death in 2011, which criticized the professional and legal support for modern psychiatry as raising the idea of mental illess from the level of a “myth” to the level of a “lying fact”. In response, Dr. Edward Shorter (Ph. D.) wrote in the same journal that there have been many advances along with the emergence of “biological psychiatry” which has made much of psychiatry more rigorous and scientific, although he admits that the DSM is a largely politicized document, and agrees with Szasz there.

Edward Shorter

Burstow also attacked the scientific basis of psychiatry. She herself did not have any counselling credentials academically, but acted as counsellor and had maintained that psychiatry is a patriarchal structure. I am of the thinking that the “patriarchal” structure is probably due to the lack of science, and that if you addressed the lack of science then the rest of the injustices would be resolved by and large by default. So, unless you are among those that support the notion of “feminist science” and “patriarchal science”, I am not sure what basis in reality this has. Even then, the idea that there are multiple “sciences” in the same field which depend on the views of the scientist is absurd on the face of it. The entire point of science is that the findings of an investigation should not depend on the scientist. That’s why we require reproducibility in scientific investigations. I have read Burstow, but not enough of her to know for sure if that was her take on science generally. From what I did read, I saw nothing I could construe as being part of this philosophy.

It is heartening to hear that psychiatry has come around to insisting on an evidence-based, biological approach. I also like the humanistic ideal of “freedom from labels” that appeal to those in the anti-psychiatry movement, of which Burstow was vocal. The problem is, you can’t have a science (or anything else of intellectual import) without labels. Whatever the “thing” is I need to talk about, needs to have a name, otherwise, the reader will be given a verbal diarrhea of mumbo-jumbo, making discussion difficult. So, in reality, labelling humans is difficult, but if we need to talk about someone who thinks the world is out to get them, it clarifies discussion if we give the thought obsession a name, and are nuanced enough in our discussion that we are labelling what humans do and not labelling humans themselves.

So what if happiness is a mental illness?

It is rather amazing that through all I have experienced, that these truths were the deepest and most enduring. They are also the most comforting. Simply keeping a balanced life, and looking on the positive side of things. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Perhaps happiness and satisfaction with one’s life, however humble is a form of denial.

Maybe someone someday might point out that all forms of happiness are mental illnesses. After all, happiness is statistically rare, and thus it is not normal. Due to its relative rarity, it may well be characterized by an abnormal functioning of the central nervous system, requiring repeated “positive thinking”. In turn, “positive thinking” requires that we only focus on the bright side of life. Clearly, anyone who thinks positive is only looking at part of the picture, and is thus out of touch with reality. Bentall (1992) had this as an abstract for his article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (widely quoted):

“It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.”

According to Bentall, happy people are off their chumps. Lost their marbles. One clown short of a circus. I would suppose, however, that making happiness an illness will rob most shrinks of a treatment goal.

So for now, while psychiatrists are working away at their objections to happiness, and until it is proven to me that I am better off heeding these objections, I shall forever commit my life to these seemingly shallow, but more enduring truths, that focusing on the bright side of life is the better way, and it should be something that is taught to every child and adult, for their own good, and for the good of society.

Crappy Album Covers #14 – I need help

Freddie Gage has with this album cover, achieved a level of morbidity reserved only for folks like Nietzsche or August Strindberg. He has made a name for himself as an evangelical preacher who has won favour with the likes of Jerry Fallwell.

As a casual passerby who may not have heard of Freddie Gage, I would see that much of the design is taken up by the title.

Obviously, the death of all of his buddies weigh very heavily on his mind. He is from the southern USA and not some war-torn country. I am sure he didn’t lose anyone at Gitmo.

I think in reality, the voices inside his head told him to kill all his friends. Now he lives in regret, and in fulfillment of his persecution comlpex, he is now in actual pursuit by law enforcement.

So, what to do? Well, he could plead insanity when they arrive to apprehend him. However, he still has to live with all that guilt, on top of his illness. How does he do that?

Well, Dr. Murray Banks has the answer. He will be a fountain of advice and wisdom for our poor friend Freddie, telling him how he can live with himself, up until his first psychiatric appointment.

What about the artwork here? Late 50s to mid-60s low-budget cartoon-style artwork. For this, I would like to invent a new word to describe the effect: it’s chugly (cheesy + ugly). I think chugly was a popular style back then. It was during and after the McCarthy era that this artwork seemed to have its heyday. It didn’t offend, it could not be called “sexy” or “political” or anything else that was a virtual McCarthy-era cuss word. It was the artistic drek that could only come from the era and sociopolitical climate in which it existed. Lately, I have noticed that Starbucks and Chapters Bookstores have veered dangerously close to this kind of aesthetic.

For the record, “All My Friends Are Dead” is also the title of a song released around 2003 by the Norwegian punk rock group Turbonegro.

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New ways of going insane

“Excessive text messaging and email” is now proposed to be included as new mental illnesses in an update to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). These are not the only silly classifications they have.

One proposed mental illness that I have heard from that seminal magazine, the Journal of Polymorphic Perversity, is “Consensual Validation Disorder”. That is, if someone doesn’t like you, then you’re one card short of a full deck. The rest of what I have here sound just as silly, except that they are for real.

Suck at math? Well, not only is math “not for you”, but you’re 8 pawns short of a gambit. You may have “Mathematics Disorder”, or dyscalculia (315.1). This includes the inability to copy things down as you see them, forgetting to carry, forgetting signs, and so on.

Like the taste of coffee? You could win a trip to the funny farm. You could fall into one of the classifications for the “Caffeine-Related Disorders“. They had to give it its own classification, because the disorder they have in mind does not constitute substance abuse. But you’re still one drop short of an empty bladder.

Can’t sleep after too much coffee? It’s not a natural tramadol 50 mg buy online outcome of drinking too much coffee. According to DSM, you are a crouton short of a salad. You have caffeine intoxication disorder (305.90).

Like to have a cigarette after a good dinner? Then you are a few fries short of a happy meal. Nicotine dependance (305.1) is a mental illness.

Trying to quit smoking? Then you’re one sultana short of a fruitcake. Nicotine withdrawal is also a mental illness (292.0).

Can’t write legibly or can’t express yourself in writing? It’s not that you have lost your muse. You’re one weenie short of a roast. You have a disorder of written expression (315.2).

Do you snore when you sleep? It’s not just a minor irritation spouses have to put up with anymore. If you saw logs, then you may be a chocolate chip short of a cookie. You probably have Breathing-Related Sleep Disorder (780.57).

If your son or daughter is rebellious, then it is not because the world is unfair to them and most certainly not because they are expressing their independence from their parents. Your teenage son or daughter is actually a doughnut short of a cop. He or she has Oppositional Defiant Disorder (313.81).