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Lauren Tenney on Mad Activism

On the future of mental health

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 Lauren Tenney

EM: You call yourself a "mad activist." What do you mean by that and what sorts of activism do you engage in?

LT: Thanks for asking about my use of the term mad. I do not use mad in a Foucauldian or traditional mad pride type of way. When I use the term mad I mean it to say, I am angry—I am mad. I possess a righteous rage kind of madness.

The first time I remember using the term mad to identify myself, it was at a meeting with the associate commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health when I was working there in the late 1990s. She asked me how I was, and I said, "I am mad." In a more general way, I think I started using the term mad as a descriptor while I was in grad school. … I used the righteous rage toward psychiatry to offset the new identity I was gaining in academia by positioning myself as a mad social scientist.

Like many who identify as psychiatric survivors, I had a real issue about the realities I was participating in through the Ph.D. program. Then I started with a long list of A's—Mad Activist, Author, Artist, Adjunct Assistant Professor/Mad Environmental Psychologist/Social Scientist.

Mad Activism—the activism that comes from that righteous rage—is powerful and focuses on ending the institutional, structural human rights violations, oppression, and other forms of discrimination to which people who are psychiatrically assigned are subjected.

My own activism ranges from my daily acts—like waking up and continuing to reject psychiatry—to taking it to the streets, organizing protests, vigils, and other direct actions. On a daily basis, my activism happens in the realms of social media. I think it is important to be a constant reminder to psychiatric power—and to people who are in the clutches of psychiatry—that people can and do get out of a lifetime assignment of a mental patient.

Every day I stay out of the grasp of psychiatry is a day I have acted against psychiatry. Any day where through mutual support with my sisters and brothers in our fights and struggles against psychiatry we successfully sustain each other in our freedoms, both through listening to each other and through speaking out, is a good day of mad activism.

EM: You are a member of MindFreedom International. Can you tell us about that organization and also about the Opal Project?

Visitors to will find a wealth of information about work of the human rights movement over the last 30 or more years.

The Opal Project is based on The Opal (1851–1860)—an inmate-edited monthly journal that was printed at the Utica Press, on the grounds of the Utica State Lunatic Asylum, in New York State. The Commission on Lunacy (American Psychiatric Association) was basically using the inmates as slave labor, in printing the American Journal of Insanity (today’s American Journal of Psychiatry).

The inmates convinced the chief printer and the institution's administration to allow them to produce, print, and distribute a monthly they called The Opal, which reflected all of the unique differences of each of the inmates. The sales of The Opal were so significant, that they actually were accounted for in the Asylum manager's logs in the 1850s.

I first learned about the journals when tagging along with an initial visit Darby Penney and others took to the New York State Archives, to first see the suitcases that turned into an incredible project. Years later, while fasting on the lawn of the New York State Capitol for eight days in a mad activist protest against the use of shock treatment on children, I would go each day, across the street to the state archives, to view The Opal (which anyone can do with an appointment).

In reading the ten volumes, I learned a tremendous amount, but most significantly, that there was a "lunatics' liberation movement" in the 19th Century. This made me mad—that righteous rage type of mad, addressed above. The fact that my own tenure and supposed unique experience as an editor of an inmate newsletter in the 1980s was not indeed new or a first was infuriating to me. I felt as if The State and those in psychiatric power had intentionally withheld my history from me—and from all people psychiatrically assigned.

In reading The Opal, I found my own language--my own aspirations for freedom--for people who like me, a century and a half before, had been institutionalized. I wanted to confirm with others who identified as survivors of psychiatry that I was not having a unique experience about the implications of The Opal existing for the work we had been doing to abolish psychiatry.

The Opal Project, then, is the result of a community-based participatory action research I coordinated as part of my field research at the Graduate Center, CUNY. One of the most powerful things that I think came out of it (based heavily on Gail Hornstein’s First Person Accounts of Madness, Third Edition, and the input of dozens of people who identify as users or survivors of psychiatry) is a timeline: Ourstory of Commitment: A Living Document, which Pat Risser has really expanded significantly.

I think there are two other great accomplishments of The Opal Project. The first, was our actions with WE THE PEOPLE holding Kings County Hospital Psychiatric Emergency Room responsible for the murder-by-neglect of Esmin Elizabeth Green and the subsequent efforts to call attention to the ways in which people are murdered by psychiatry, which are renewed annually on the anniversary of her death, June 19, 2008.

The second great accomplishment was our effort in 2011 to respond to the FDA's attempts at down-classifying the shock device from a Class III device to a Class II device, putting it in the same category of risk as eyeglasses. We collected comments online and delivered a compilation of the testimonies of over 80 people, nearly all of whom had been subjected to and survived shock treatment, as well as the testimonies of their allies. I had the honor, as an ally, to testify at the 2011 shock hearings. This issue of shock treatment is, of course, a contemporary issue; as we speak, the FDA is attempting again to down-classify the shock device, and again, I am working with others, including MindFreedom International to try to defeat its shady attempts.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders” and the use of so-called “psychiatric medication” to treat mental disorders in children, teens, and adults?

LT: This question really gets to the heart of the matter. Overall, it is my position that psychiatry is a fraud. State-Sponsored Organized Psychiatric Industries (SSOPI)—those state agencies, nonprofit organizations relying largely on tax-payer resources—are perpetrators of human rights violations against people of all ages— including slavery, murder, and torture—and are criminal. Prison psychiatry and for-profit psychiatry in my mind are a deeper level of criminality because of people already being captive and, of course, profit at the cost of human destruction.

The ways in which psychiatry and psychology ignore environmental factors ought to culminate in crimes against humanity. Freud’s abandonment of seduction theory and subsequent creation of the Oedipus Complex led to the idea that people who report sexual assault are simply experiencing fantasy—a twisted blame-the-victim course of action institutionalized into the profession’s mindset.

In modernity, sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and other sexual traumas are generally discounted by both psychology and more often psychiatry. The continued dismissal of trauma must be addressed. For many years, conservative estimates are that 90% of people who are confined to state institutions have childhood histories of sexual, physical, and/or psychological abuse or neglect. Those working on trauma-informed approaches have in the last 25 years made great strides at combating biological models—but many of that work gets “biotrized,” as well, as part of the new neuropsychiatries.

An environmental model addresses the failures of an individual's meeting the requirements of the system whose priority is operating at optimal performance, not the individual. Institutional, structural racism, classism, and gendered thinking are not only generally ignored in the current paradigm, but enacted and re-enacted on people who become involved with psychiatry. Another level of oppression is added to the mix via psychiatric assignment, which further limits options for people to thrive. By psychiatry’s standard, from birth, a witch-hunt ensues. Babies, toddlers, children, and adolescents assigned—or in danger of becoming assigned—are made to take powerful neuroleptics and other drugs in the name of "help" or "prevention" without their informed consent.

Concerning adults, I believe that people ought to be able to make whatever choices they want about what they ingest. People sometimes think I am antidrug. I am not antidrug. I think people ought to be able to take whatever drugs they want.

Of course, a major issue of concern with choice is feeling confident in saying that people have been given all of the information about what they are participating in. I extend Whitaker and Cosgrove’s (2015) premise that informed consent is not informed. If people have not been given all of the information about what they are participating in—including the lack of validity of the actual psychiatric label that the corresponding psychiatric response is being aimed at—then they are subjected to fraud. It is my belief that they are being forced into psychiatry because society makes its decision to support forced psychiatry based on the disinformation campaign of psychiatry, that is found, for example, in informed-consent processes.

I am entirely opposed to The State compelling—by court order or coercion—someone to take a drug, be subjected to shock treatment, have a lobotomy (no matter how modernized it is re-framed as), have chips implanted in them, or participate in any way with psychiatry. I am entirely opposed to institutionalization in any form, including involuntary outpatient commitment, which in its application can be racist and classist. I support the absolute prohibition of commitment and forced treatment.

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

LT: It’s important to note that it’s not if I had a loved one who is experiencing an extreme emotional state or altered reality, but when I have and have had these experiences that I will address.

If someone confides in me that they are struggling, I do my best to be genuine with the person. I react and act with them in an honest manner. I routinely tell people I care about—as well as anyone else who would confide in me to share her or his or their experiences—to stay away from psychiatry.

I encourage people to avoid telling general practitioners any number of things that could prompt the doctor to suggest a psychiatric assessment, or worse, anything that might cause a GP to take the common action of making a psychiatric assignment themselves and prescribing drugs. If someone is experiencing voices or visions or extreme states, I defer to the hearing voices model and work with them toward creating opportunities for human connections and support.

I mostly listen, sit with, and walk through what someone is going through with him or her. I offer my end of mutual support; I share my own experiences. I share my own death wish, my own experiences of my own desires to take my own life. I share my own experiences of voices and visions. I listen more and talk less. I ask if they have an idea of what I could do to support them, and if they do have specific requests, I then make a decision as to my willingness/ability to do what they have asked of me.

In terms of concrete actions someone can take, any suggestions I might have would depend on what is at the root of the distress, which will be individual. So isolating the sources of the distress is something I would try to help a loved one do. Once one is aware of the source of distress, creating plans to combat it becomes easier—when the source is economic, social, religious/spiritual, political, etc., a person has something concrete to address.

We are human creatures. Psychiatry’s tactics have seeped into our culture and as a result, we medicalize otherwise human experiences. Demedicalizing human experiences is part of what I try to help people do. I attempt to create opportunities for people to negotiate their own realities, on their own terms, with all of the opportunities one can have to risk, to fail, to succeed. Encouraging people to find their personal power, tap into their righteous rage, overcome obstacles within the environment. Paint, write, scream, cry, sleep, stay awake, run, hide, be seen, get involved in activism . . . Whatever I do, I try to act in a way where one’s humanity is respected and human rights are protected. I try to remind people that they are not alone in this world.

I think social media has done a tremendous service to connect those of us who identify as survivors of psychiatric atrocities. There are all types of online support groups and activism groups—video and teleconferencing—are emerging for free as a means to create alternatives to psychiatry. We are out here—connect with us and get involved. There are more of us than you think.


Lauren Tenney, Ph.D., M.Phi.l, MPA, is a psychiatric survivor and environmental psychologist. First institutionalized at 15 years old, her activist work uses video research and alternative media to shine a light on the institutional corruption that is a source of profit for organized psychiatry. She works to abolish state-sponsored human rights violations, such as murder, torture, and slavery—violations that are carried out via state-sponsored organized psychiatric industries.

Twitter: @Lauren10e


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 the mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here.

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