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Day 1: Bonnie Burstow on feminist psychotherapy and language

The future of mental health interview series, day 1

eric maisel
Source: eric maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Bonnie Burstow

The power over language is a profound power that can be—and is—used to subjugate people, whether those people are women or individuals suffering from emotional and mental distress. Those who own the language rule their domains. Bonnie Burstow is a leading feminist therapist, philosophy and antipsychiatry activist and has written eloquently and extensively on these very issues.

EM: You are the author of Psychiatry and the Business of Madness. Can you tell us its major headlines and findings?

BB: Certainly! Examples of some of the major findings of Psychiatry and the Business of Madness include:

A. No physical foundation has been established for a single “mental illness" despite over a decade of looking for one. What we are dealing with is not medical, not diseases, and as such, not the proper province of doctors.

B. Despite claims to the contrary, none of the psychiatric treatments correct imbalances but in fact create them.

C. Treatment is not being determined by what is in the interests of the people “served,” but what is in the interests of industry.

D. Mechanisms allegedly to protect people’s rights are one of the principal ways in which people’s rights are curtailed.

Examples of major recommendations are:

+ The relationship between psychiatry and the state should be gradually phased out.

+ Non-professionalized pluralistic approaches should be promoted and should be core, with services consensual, mutually negotiated, decentralized, participatory, arising from, controlled by, and fully vested within small communities.

+ Insofar as none of what is called psychiatric medication is in fact medical, over time, these substances should be eliminated from what medical doctors are allowed to prescribe.

EM: You are a feminist therapist and have written a book called Radical Feminist Therapy. Can you tell us a little bit about “feminist therapy”?

BB: Feminist therapy is predicated on the reality of sexism and the foundational role that it plays in the emotional difficulties that women face. Unlike a mainstream therapist, a feminist therapist locates the major problems with which women struggle not so much inside them but in-the-world. Therapeutic tasks particularly emphasized by such therapists include: helping clients deal with the oppression against them (e.g., sexism, racism, homophobia, classism), in particular helping clients heal from violence; as needed, helping clients recognize the internalization of their oppression, and find a different place in themselves; reaching beyond individual empathy to political empathy; and helping women and other oppressed human beings resist.

EM: You are interested in how language operates, especially at it relates to the current, dominant paradigm of the “diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.” Can you tell us a little bit about why you see language as so important?

BB: We exist in and through language; it is via language that we construct the world; correspondingly, our vocation as human beings is precisely to name the world in order to change the world. Now an egalitarian and comparatively benign world is one in which we all of us equally get to name the world in order to change the world. A dehumanizing world and a state of oppression is one in which some people get to name and others have those names and the “realities” created by elite others foisted upon them.

The significance of this for psychiatry as a regime of ruling is obvious. Like every other regime of ruling, psychiatry rules by words. What is particularly problematic, moreover, is that through the consistent use of medical terms it defines as medical what in point of fact is not medical. What follows are medical solutions like drugs—which, in the final analysis, harm. What adds to this power and to the destructiveness is that the state buys into the definitions and renders them legal facts. Something is a “mental illness” because a doctor deems it so. Correspondingly, people are pressured to accept drugs because that is the “named" remedy for their "named problem.” Insofar as psychiatric words continue to be accepted, psychiatry continues to rule. Foundational to combatting psychiatry, correspondingly, is precisely problematizing and bringing others to see through psychiatric discourse.

EM: You talk about “book activism.” What do you mean by that?

BB: Book activism is a term that I coined about a year ago to talk about a particular problem that those of us who are antipsychiatry theorists face and to create room for a solution. A problem that those who critique psychiatry have is that we individually and collectively have written many formidable books that could become forces in the world and culminate in much needed social change, but only insofar as the average person picks them up and reads them. Now one of the main ways books catch the attention of the public is via the regular media—e.g., reading about them in the daily newspapers and hearing them discussed on television. The problem here is that for decades the mainstream media has frozen out books that substantially critique psychiatry; hence the need for “book activism.”

Book activism is the strategic activism involved in collectively promoting exceptional antipsychiatry and critical psychiatry books that are currently being frozen out. Examples of book activism strategies that I have suggested are: focusing in on three or four core books; inundating the social media with our commentary on them; writing reviews on Amazon; and bombarding the mainstream media with recommendations that they interview one or more of these authors.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

BB: It would depend on the loved one. I cannot provide a formula here, for what works for one person will often not work for another. That said, I would want to help my loved one explore a number of different options so that they can get a sense of what feels right to them. Insofar as they desire to work with a therapist or counselor, I would encourage them to try to find someone who will not pathologize their problems, someone with an understanding of trauma and of its relationship to oppression, someone who is empathic and open, someone with whom they experience a rapport. At the same time, I would hope that they would not automatically turn to professionals. Examples of other options that I might recommend that a loved one consider are confiding in at least a couple of trusted others and asking for their support as needed; getting together in discussion and support groups with people experiencing similar problems; and co-exploring their conundrums with individuals whom they trust.


Dr. Bonnie Burstow is a faculty member at University of Toronto, a feminist therapist, a philosopher, a leading antipsychiatry activist and theorist, and a prolific author. Major works of Dr. Burstow’s include: Psychiatry and the Business of Madness, Psychiatry Disrupted, Radical Feminist Therapy, and the soon-to-be-released Psychiatry Interrogated.

Learn more at:


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

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