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Psychology

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.