Anti-Psychiatry vs Psychiatric Abolition

Photo by: Talia Woodin (

Image Description: a photo of a person with purple hair holding a sign that says “Free the Mad” and a white lab coat with the “Fire to the Psych Wards” painted on the back.

By: Róisín

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.

Countless establishment articles have been written criticising anti-psychiatry. Those of us who believe in the inherent violence of psychiatry defend anti-psychiatrists against this onslaught, no matter how ambivalent we may
feel about them However, if we are to ever successfully take down psychiatry, ‘anti-psychiatry’ deserves a meaningful critique from the left, in favour of psychiatric abolition.

Image Description: A person with a black glove holding a lighter with the words Fire to the Psych Wards engraved on it.

The fatal flaw of anti-psychiatry is that it was led by people complicit in the institution they claimed to be fighting against — those calling for the boots to come off our necks were the ones fashioning their rubber soles. Even with the best intentions, how could they ever know what it’s like to be a psychiatric survivor, to be part of a community so alive with madness, yet so painfully full of death?

Books like The Myth of Mental Illness and Madness and Civilization are all so removed from our experiences: they are voyeuristic, sanitised versions of our lives presented to the authors’ beloved academy and psychiatric peers.
We don’t need to hear any more sanctimonious ramblings of psychiatrists don’t we hear enough of that whilst they lock us up against our will?

Anti-psychiatry will always lack the urgency of psychiatric abolition because its ideology is not driven by a survival instinct. Anti-psychiatry is a dinner table discussion, a dissertation topic or a university lecture. Whilst its proponents write footnotes on revolution, we are struggling for our lives. Forgive me for assuming that some will be a little slower in their desire to tear down the institution that pays their mortgage.

The starkest difference between anti-psychiatry and psychiatric abolition can be summarised in one word: solidarity. Anti-psychiatry removed itself from other radical struggles, like prison abolition and crip liberation, choosing instead to appeal to those in ‘respectable’ professional and intellectual circles. In contrast, psychiatric abolition is built on the deep and eternal ties of solidarity between mad and other oppressed people across the world. We never wanted the support of respectable society.

Whilst psychiatrists drew a dividing line between anti-psychiatry and other freedom fights — claiming mentally ill people didn’t deserve to be treated like ‘criminals’ — we felt only warmth from our ‘criminal’ friends who had been pushed into the margins beside us. We shouldn’t be treated like this, not because we’re ‘mentally ill’, but because no one — including people in prisons and detention centres — deserves this violence. A society that allows for lunatics to be locked up is the same society that incarcerates people as a result of race, class and borders. All of us deserve our freedom. Psychiatric abolitionists refuse to base our opposition to oppression on a technicality, or to throw our friends in prison under the bus for our own selfish gains.

Anti-psychiatry didn’t join up with police and prison abolition because ultimately, it was never an abolitionist project. It sought to tweak and protect psychiatry through reform. It is no wonder the psychiatric survivor groups set up in the 1970s that initially allowed the inclusion of mental health workers eventually kicked them out, because they blunted the spear of Mad Pride and watered down our demands.

It is also no coincidence that one of the anti- psychiatrists with a more radical and abolitionist outlook, Franco Basaglia, was a former prisoner. Incarcerated for anti-fascist activities, he took part in a prisoner rebellion that tore down the prison’s wall, and later in life went on to play an important role in closing down Italian asylums. However, even Basaglia couldn’t have done what he did without psychiatric survivors.

This history is always centred around the role of mental health professionals — we rarely hear of ex-patients’ perspectives and their own fight to shut down the asylums. Instead, we fall into the individualistic ‘great man of history’ trap, ignoring the roles of resistors, agitators and liberators who were far too radical, too mad, too marginalised, for history to ever uphold their memory. We are told of the legal frameworks that tweaked mental health law, not the countless insurrections in psychiatric wards that overturned the system.

We have all heard of RD Laing’s The Divided Self, but how many of us have heard of the rebellion in Springfield Hospital Centre in Maryland, Amerika, where incarcerated comrades seized the unit by pouring cooking oil on the floors to make it slippery so nurses couldn’t get past, and then trapped them in the office, throwing chairs and cabinets at staff? That’s our history! That is psychiatric abolition — taking our freedom by any means necessary. Anti-psychiatry may be the theory, but psychiatric abolition is the theory, praxis and revolution.

image Description: a photo of an issue of Madness Network News from Fall of 1985 that reads Madness Network News “All that Fits That’s News to Print.” then reads EL PUEBLO UNIDO, JAMAS SERA VENCIDO, Big Mountain, Smash U.S. Imperialism, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Smash Sexism, Abolish Prisons, Nambia, CO-OPTATION, and Liberation Struggles

Whilst ‘radical’ psychiatric professionals may be uncomfortably shifting in their seats reading this, psychiatric survivors are tired of being spoken over by the people who claim they know what’s best for us. Anti-psychiatry professionals trying to ‘change things from the inside’ have been around for decades — but what’s changed? The asylum still stands, and we are still being drugged up, beaten up and locked up. The only chance we have at psychiatric abolition lies in the hands of the people who cannot afford to live another second under psychiatry, with the names and faces of our friends lost to psychiatry emblazoned in our minds. Psychiatric abolition possesses the militancy that anti-psychiatry could only dream of.

Psychiatric abolition is solidarity and shared struggle. It is the Madness Network News cover art that says abolish prisons, solidarity with Palestine and end police violence. Psychiatric abolition is the 1993 Toronto Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day, organised by crip, queer, mad survivors of colour. It is the love and pain we feel for our friends locked up in prisons, detention centres and care homes. Psychiatric abolition is the Attica prison uprising, every burnt cop car, every escape attempt and every anti-colonial uprising.

Learning about psychiatric abolition did not come from textbooks or psychiatrists. It came from being threatened with being put in ‘care’ if we didn’t get better, being incarcerated in a psych ward, and having the cops
called on us. Do not tell me psychiatrists know more about anti-psychiatry than us, because they are the ones killing us whilst we are doing everything we can to keep each other alive.

Psychiatric abolition is offering your front room to someone you hardly know so they have somewhere safe to stay after they abscond from hospital. It’s setting fire to the Bethlem toilets. It’s running down the motorway
barefoot after your loved one to make sure you can get to them before the cops do. It’s sharing the little we have together. It’s friends reassuring you that no matter what you see, feel or hear, it is real, because you are experiencing
it. It’s naloxone in every room of the house, coaxing your best friend to say which public toilet they’ve overdosed in. It’s screaming outside prisons so people inside know we’re out here waiting for them. It’s the community and
the tears you share with people you’ve never met but who know the exact same feeling of loneliness and unfreedom that comes with the suffocating walls of the psych ward.

Anti-psychiatry may be consigned to dusty shelves, but psychiatric abolition is in each and every one of our lives. Whilst the academics continue to argue with each other about Foucault, right under their noses, the mad, the insane and the crazy will be setting fire to every asylum, prison and detention centre.

Anti-psychiatry is history, psychiatric abolition is the future.

If you liked this article, you might be interested in following and/or joining our comrades at the Campaign for Psychiatric Abolition. You can follow @CPAbolition on twitter and instagram.

Róisín is a psych survivor, lunatic, and abolitionist.

5 thoughts on “Anti-Psychiatry vs Psychiatric Abolition

  1. I like and agree with this article, but I think it is important that we talk about tactics and strategy to convince the public of what we think should be done. Tactics are very important if we want people to make the changes we want to see.

  2. ‘…if we are to ever successfully take down psychiatry, ‘anti-psychiatry’ deserves a meaningful critique from the left…’

    Why expect a meaningful critique of psychiatry from the political left-wing [of the bourgeoisie]? You are expecting a self-critique from a part of the political establishment. Once again I must stress: in order to be anti-psychiatry, one must also be anti-political.

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