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Activist strikes over psychiatrists' faith in drug therapy.

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

Since 1987, David Oaks of Eugene has been leading a quiet war against the psychiatric establishment and its reliance on pharmaceutical drugs to treat mental illness, sometimes against the will of patients.

Now, Oaks said, he and his organization, MindFreedom Support Coalition, are turning to direct action, in the form of a hunger strike, to turn up the heat on psychiatrists and drug companies.

"It's time for our social change movement to move to bolder actions, from patience to passion," he said Monday from Pasadena, Calif., where he and four other activists have gone without solid food since Aug. 16.

A sixth member of the group dropped out of the strike Sunday because she had lost too much weight and was starting to suffer health problems. But about 17 other people in other parts of the United States and Europe also began hunger strikes in solidarity, Oaks said.

At issue is the notion that mental illness is the result of a chemical imbalance in the body that can only be corrected with drugs, he said.

Oaks became an activist after his own experiences with the mental health system. When he was a student at Harvard, he became depressed and overwhelmed. He said he was locked into a cell in a psychiatric unit and forcibly injected with psychiatric drugs.

He describes MindFreedom as a coalition of 100 groups in a dozen countries "working for a nonviolent revolution in the mental health system."

Oaks said his group isn't opposed to the use of psychiatric drugs, but believes that they shouldn't be the only option for mentally ill people.

"We feel choice is being squeezed out by the psychiatric drug industry," he said. "When a family has a member in crisis ... there needs to be a range of options: jobs, housing, counseling, peer support."

Oaks contends that there is no scientific evidence to support the assertion that mental illness is the result of chemical imbalance.

The hunger strikers are demanding that the American Psychiatric Association produce scientifically valid evidence that mental illness is biologically based.

A spokeswoman for the the association, Laurie Oseran, declined comment, but pointed to a letter that the group's medical director wrote to Oaks before the hunger strike began.

In the letter, Dr. James Scully told Oaks the hunger strike was "ill-advised" and said that the answers to his questions are "widely available in the scientific literature and have been for years." He referred to several medical texts and journals, but made no specific citations.

A 14-member panel of medical doctors and psychologists assembled by MindFreedom to review the evidence checked Scully's sources and found the opposite: 10 different citations that indicate no scientific evidence exists that mental illness is biologically based.

The hunger strikers are assembled at the Pasadena Church of Religious Science - Oaks said it isn't connected to the Church of Scientology, a vociferous critic of the psychiatric establishment. They picked the church because it was available for a reasonable cost and in a major media center.

They have had only clear broth, fruit juice, vegetable juice and coffee or tea, Oaks said. That includes a concoction that Oaks has been making from kale, carrots, beets and garlic.

Oaks said he's starting to feel a little weak and tired, but doesn't know how long the strike will continue. The group is looking for an acknowledgement from the American Psychiatric Association that it has reasonable concerns, Oaks said.

"We feel there's some possible middle ground and we're feeling out what that means," he said.

Failing that, "People are prepared to go on," he said. "Several people are pretty strong and prepared to go quite a long distance."


For more information on the hunger strike by members of MindFreedom Support Coalition International:
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Title Annotation:David Oaks of Eugene and others with MindFreedom Support Coalition stage a hunger strike to protest forced drug treatment; Health
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 26, 2003
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