Copyright 2000 Jon Ossoff

October 11, 2000


 The view that ‘mental patients’ should now be called "consumers" is only the most recent (not the first and certainly not the last) attempt by the mental health complex to divert attention from and obscure the truth behind its shackles and abhorrence for personal freedom.

It is even more ludicrous that inpatients in state hospitals now carry the label "consumer."

To call mental patients consumers is not merely deceptive and patronizing, it borders on the absurd - an egregious, disingenuous unimaginable falsehood.

A consumer is a person who freely and without force or threat directed against him or her purchases a product or receives a service. He or she is under no duress to buy and can refuse to enter into a contract without penalty or assessment.

A mental patient on the other hand is someone incarcerated against his will by the State through the available vehicle of institutional psychiatry. His essential right to liberty, his right to privacy, his right to assemble with whomever he prefers are eliminated the moment he walks through those bulky grotesque asylum doors and hears them slam shut. For that sound is not merely an exhortation to keep him in, it is a warning to keep his dignity out. And of course, let’s not forget the enduring threats and intimidation to take psychiatric drugs or risk being delivered to court and compelled to do so.

Thus, to assert that the ‘consumer’ is now emancipated because the ‘philanthropy’ of psychiatry ‘allows’ him to pick the green pill over the red pill or wear his sneakers instead of his shoes (both probably don’t fit anyway!) is entirely hubris. The institutional model rests on one obvious fact. And that is institutional psychiatry is state prerogative to incarcerate people masquerading as medical treatment.

And psychiatry is in no rush to give this up. It is in no rush to afford mental patients the rights of ‘true consumers.’ Such as? How about the right to dismiss a bungling psychiatrist or a disparaging therapy aide. The right to sue for ruin done by toxic psychiatric drugs, or compensatory damages for being wrongly deprived of one’s liberty. What about the tainting of reputation rendered by an arbitrary diagnosis? Who pays for that?

So let’s call the involuntarily committed mental patient what he, in fact, is - a mental inmate. He may appreciate the candor and pardon our condescension and conceit. Only when he is as free to leave the institution as you are free to walk out of Macys will he be a true consumer. Only when the civil commitment laws are overturned will the mental inmate become a ‘consumer’ and then only if he chooses. And that is how it should be.

To call a mental patient a consumer is like calling a slave on a plantation a junior partner in a work employment program. There were, in fact slaves who were given the ‘choice’ of splitting rails or picking cotton. However, this does not alter the simple fact that they were slaves, under the subjugation of an oppressive and unscrupulous system.

Only when a slave gains his liberty will he cease to be a slave. And only when a mental inmate gains his liberty will he cease to be a mental inmate.

The control of language has always rested with the ruling class and with those whose sole purpose has been the suppression and tyranny of others. It is wielded with a kind of proprietary zeal as the role of the defined is merely an afterthought to the political motives of the powerful.

And those who feel that language will usher in a new awareness are unfortunately deeply mistaken.

For language is not an anterior indicator of social change. Language reflects and mirrors the existing underlying social consciousness of the time. Thus, to suggest that altering the label from "patient" to "consumer" will somehow ring in a new age for a more liberated mental inmate is so much smoke and glitter.

We have seen this situation repeated over and over again in these politically correct times. For example, speech codes on college campuses may have created a halo of fear and anxiety of weighing each word before uttering a sound, but there is little evidence that they have brought about some newfound awareness or social evolution. Professors may measure their words more carefully, yet it is doubtful that the social transformations hoped for have resulted.

Mental health bureaucrats delude themselves if they belief that by creating euphemisms they will remove the existing stigmatization that is the role of the present mental patient.

In a second game of wordplay, many states now have "assisted outpatient treatment" programs. This means that if a mental patient refuses (or forgets) to take his psychiatric drugs, the system can haul him back to the institution. Forgetting for a moment the constitutional issues involved, the AOT program should more honestly be named "Authoritarian Outpatient Treatment" insofar as dragging someone tooth and nail back to a mental ward hardly strikes me as an act of ‘assistance’. It does however, conjure up visions of search parties, barking bloodhounds, and the requisite plastic handcuffs.

In a democratic society the prism of language must resonate candidly for all constituents and that language must parallel the social reality genuinely. That includes the mental health establishment. But instead, the bureaucrats pretend that the life of the incarcerated mental inmate is wonderful by sugar-coating his experience with bland description and inoffensive jargon. This only furthers the schism between inmate and autocrat, for the former is quite cognizant of the incongruity between lip service and real service.

Mental patients need the same rights as the rest of us. The first step on that road is for the self serving rhetoric to cease.