What COVID-19 Has to Teach Us About Psychiatric Oppression

Sera Davidow

Psychiatric oppression.
It is an airless void,
Rendering us voiceless
No matter how loud we scream.

Screaming. Yelling. Crying. Begging.
Straining to be heard.
Under the weight of a label
That instructs them not to listen.

Psychiatric oppression.
It is constriction, compression, containment.
Lock us in, hold us down, drug us up
Until we’re ready to listen…

To those who would never do as much for us.

On January 23, DJ Jaffe used his National Alliance on Serious Mental Illness Facebook page to pontificate about whether or not force has any real discernible impact for those against whom it is wielded. “I am trying to track down the study that allegedly shows people avoid care for fear of involuntary commitment. I think it is one of those mental health propagated myths that has no basis in fact,” he offered without any hint of absurdism whatsoever.

Jaffe is a well-known purveyor of the Treatment Advocacy Center’s force-laden “wisdom,” so it makes sense that he’d deny any of its downsides. He uses his apparently copious amounts of free time to relentlessly self-promote his book, appear for interviews disguised as someone far more informed than he will ever be, and sow seeds of fear against all folks diagnosed across the nation with his op-ed-writing scissor hands. (His favorite pastime? Why, slicing our rights and autonomy into bits, of course!) Jaffe’s gone so far as to recommend that a system that already speaks of us as if we were not there actually make us leave the room so as to reduce whatever tiny grains of guilt might be shouldered by the “professionals” when speaking poorly of us in our presence. He shows no signs of slowing down.

But what of the questions implicitly posed in his search: Does force in the name of treatment negatively impact those subjected to it? Does it make them avoidant of seeking help again? And underneath all that, just a bit further down: What is psychiatric oppression exactly, and how does it impact us? It’s less that these questions are difficult to answer, and more that the obviousness of the answers seems bafflingly difficult to convey to someone who’s so unable (unwilling?) to hear them.

Adults unfamiliar with confinement on any kind of locked unit generally seem unable to fathom the nearly bottomless pit of loss that is involved. This also includes—though to a lesser extent—folks who weren’t ever confined long enough to move through all the stages of grief and to the point of resignment (though that can happen awfully fast). But barely a month after Jaffe’s oblivious inquiry, COVID-19 had taken enough of a hold that pretty much the whole world was getting a taste of what it feels like to have the walls close in on you by someone else’s order. And no amount of “for your own goods” can fix how that can feel.

To be clear, psychiatric oppression is not strictly about mere confinement. No, the formula that makes it so hard to bear is made up of several other ingredients, including:

  • Loss of (at least perceived) value and function
  • Loss of social capital

Fortunately, COVID-19 has brought many people a taste of those ingredients, too.

Part 1: The Confinement

I’ve never been much of a fan of comparing the usual challenges of life in a capitalist nation as lived by often quite privileged people to the experiences of those who have been marginalized and contained against their will. I can recall a forensic training I once attended where the big “ha ha” was a comic of someone working in a cubicle comparing their life to imprisonment. Indeed, Ellen DeGeneres recently faced a pretty stern backlash for comparing her quarantine-a-la-mansion stint to jail.

Really, the comparisons to all types of incarceration abound at the moment, including institutionalization on an inpatient psychiatric unit. However, comparing a time when you’re (sort of) required to stay in your own home with all of your own belongings, readily accessible technology, all the caffeine you can drink and cigarettes (or whatever else) that you can smoke, and the ability to wear what you want, sleep when The space inside my apartment is starting to feel as heavy and dense as the space within a locked unit. Each time while locked up, it felt almost like being under water and being unable to breathe. Dense and stifling and solid and horribly grave. I can't bear having the space within my own home having this density and this gravity. - Kazimir DeWolfeyou want, eat when you want, and more to being locked in a psychiatric facility with a stranger for a roommate, a plastic-covered mattress, and jello for dessert only when they say…. is a stretch. Yet, while my inclination is likely still to want to pop someone in the mouth (in an only-in-my-imagination sort of way) if they dare assert that they know what forced incarceration is like because of the COVID quarantine, there’s something about that stretch that rings true for those of us who’ve now experienced both.

Consider the following quote:

We did a review of the psychological impact … Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Stressors included longer … duration, fears [related to potential or diagnosed illness], frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma. Some researchers have suggested long-lasting effects.”

Without further imposed definition, the quote could easily be assumed to be speaking of incarceration on a psychiatric ward. And yet, it is instead speaking of the observed impacts of quarantine as found in a review of 3,166 different papers on the topic. In fact, one So this is not the same as solitary confinement or an isolation room. I can feel the sun. I can walk more than 5 feet before having to turn around. I can see signs of life and hear cars go by. I have entertainment and kitchen privileges. AND, this "social distancing" still reminds of being locked away. - Cindy Marty Hadgeof the included studies found that being quarantined could predict post-traumatic stress responses and alcohol abuse even three years after the event. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the review found that people who’d been given psychiatric diagnoses were more prone to experience anger and/or anxiety months after the quarantine had ended. Of course, one has to wonder if the study was actually measuring those who’d just been diagnosed… or previously confined and thus found their initial experience of containment further compounded. And, to Jaffe’s point, the research also found that people who’d previously been quarantined (not sick, but quarantined!) showed an increase in avoidance of any setting that they associated with the cause of that experience.

Part 2: Loss of (At Least Perceived) Value and Function

Meanwhile, on April 29, Nancy Doyle published an article in Forbes magazine, “We Have Been Disabled: How the Pandemic Has Proven the Social Model of Disability.” In the article, Doyle explains:

“For those who have never heard of the social model of disability…It separates impairment from disability and focuses on the responsibility that society holds for the disablement of others. For example, if everyone was taught sign language at an early age a deaf person would no longer be [as] disadvantaged. … A few months ago, the world was suddenly plunged into a situation where physical proximity to others became a no go. In one swoop, a whole group of people were placed at an immediate disadvantage without having done anything to deserve it. If people skills and face-to-face interaction are your key skill, then your greatest professional asset is now useless to your employer. You have been devalued by forces beyond your control and the world changing in ways that don’t play to your strengths.

In other words, in a rapidly moving shift, many people who had formed their identities around their careers… who considered at least some of their value to be wrapped up in what they did for work, and in their ability to make a living and provide for their families in general… had much of that snatched at least temporarily away with no guarantee if and how it would be returned. Professional drivers. Childcare workers. Event planners. Public speakers. Salespeople. Personal trainers. Librarians. Actors in live theater. So many others. Huge numbers of them—including some who have grown accustomed to a fair amount of adoration and praise in their roles—simply aren’t needed with the world in its current state. It would be an understatement to suggest that some elements of this mirror the sorts of identity loss that occurs when someone is committed to an inpatient unit, or even simply diagnosed and told to can their dreams for family and a career. It’s just on a smaller, more individual scale.

Part 3: Social Capital

But let’s talk about the last ingredient of this three-part recipe: Loss of social capital. Social capital comes in many sizes and amounts, but many of us have at least a little bit of it. It is what sometimes helps earn us friends, and/or stay in the know. It gains us invitations to certain meetings and events. It gets us phone numbers not publicly available, and encourages some people to respond quicker, or at all to our inquiries. Perhaps, most importantly, it is what helps identify us a “credible source,” and “to be listened to” and “taken seriously” when we speak within our families, among our friends, in our neighborhoods, at our jobs, and beyond.

Unfortunately, it is that brand of social capital that also takes a dive when we move from “those in charge” to “those to be contained.” And while the dive is nowhere near as long and hard as when one is seen as having a “brain disease” (or for a host of other reasons rooted in racism, gender, disability, educational access, socioeconomic status, etc.), it’s happening right now, too. We don’t know when this will be over, and real details about what’s going to happen next are hard to come by. More of us than not are left to tune into vague updates from state officials, hoping we’ll glean something that will reveal a light at the end of the tunnel. Say-so about what comes next is well beyond most of our grasps. We feel lucky when they deign to give us a few extra scraps.

Some may be surprised to learn that this is small potatoes when compared with the loss of social capital that comes with being locked up in a psychiatric facility. There, nurses can choose to withhold information even about what psychiatric drugs someone is expected to swallow without much in the way of repercussions, and discharge dates can be a moving target left to the whims of hospital staff and subject to outside influences such as vacation schedules and weekend staffing ratios in community-based group homes. But the comparison is still apt.

I recall a presentation at a conference during which there was a dialogue about how we could get the concept of psychiatric oppression to be discussed and better understood among the general public. One person suggested that the X-Men films were the ticket. I challenged that idea because I have not found the general populace to be especially insightful when it comes to applying fictionalized (or even their own) experiences of one type of systemic oppression or hardship to another. I fear the same is true here. I don’t believe that people will easily extrapolate the emotional impact they experienced from quarantine life to the much deeper traumas and losses routinely incurred within the mental health system. But… maybe there’s hope.

Look to your disabled friends, Look to your trauma survivor friends, Look to your neurodivergent friends, Look to your suicidal friends, Look to your formerly (and currently) incarcerated friends, Look to your weird, unattractive, and unpopular friends, Not just because we might need your support, But because we've been living with isolation, loneliness, sickness, and lack of resources for much of our lives. We might have some important wisdom to share about how to handle the next few months. - Natan CohenThe answer to DJ Jaffe’s question as to whether or not forced incarceration in psychiatric facilities leads to fear of psychiatric facilities (or of reaching out for help in general) is an obvious one. It’s all the more obvious now that we’re witnessing many of the same components being forced on so many around us via quarantine. It is a large part of why so many of us who’ve previously been held against our will are feeling so uneasy right now. Yet, it is important that we find ways to use this opportunity to draw the connections in bold, impossible-to-miss lines, and turn this crisis into a learning opportunity that might actually help move psychiatric oppression out of the shadows of the unknown and into the light.

Let those of us who’ve “been there” be the teachers for now. We are perhaps some of the best equipped to show people the way through the current darkness. But once the light returns, I sincerely hope that the memories stick, and the gift of our wisdom can be repaid.


  1. “Parting with a loved one is never easy. I said goodbye to my mother recently when she went on holiday. So I know how they (Aboriginal parents having their children stolen by the State to be raised as white people) feel”.

    It’s for their own good of course. Not that the people doing the stealing were affected by any of their policies. In fact in some cases they have profited from it. And the “Sorry” had to be wrenched from their clutches? I guess empathy must be considered a ‘disease’ in some circles.

    Good article Sarah.

  2. Hi Sera and thank you.

    I might add, that some folks who are tired of work, perhaps see covid as a holiday. Yet if extended too long or it cuts into to many usual activities, or income, it becomes that burden.
    And that burden can becomes them, in need of aid possibly.

    Psych does not have a track record of being able to instill a feeling of pride, or empowerment in people, and those are mostly the root reasons of why people seek wisdom, yet turned out, the wrong source.
    That is however NOT what they “advertise”. They always advertise “HELP” is available. It is WHY people trust them. However, how is an abusive, demeaning, non authentic environment empowering?

    Covid-19 is more illuminating to the already marginalized.
    It is illuminating in the fact that the adverts continue. The adverts continue through making sure it is named something that describes it in a social manner, “social distancing”, when indeed it is “physical distancing”.
    Yes we all know that social connections are closely tied to “physically being near”, so of course the “social” will be affected.
    Yet the implications of naming it “social distancing” are that, no you cannot talk to people in proximity any longer.
    The second advert is “we are all in this together”, along with that “mental help” we can avail ourselves of.
    Those therapists we can pay for, when already strapped for cash and yet only see them on skype. Mail for bills is still going strong.

    I guess one thing is good. Perhaps there is less nearness in units. Perhaps the shrinks are scared and staying home. Perhaps there is less wrestling down victims for their useful “meds”.

    I think one thing we are learning is that in reality, these viruses have been on not such a grand scale, but there is nothing preventing a virus to threaten humanity as a species.
    Then we would all be in it together

    • What we are learning is that this is another virus that has been unleashed and thus represents a challenge to our immune systems, individually and collectively. But healthy immune systems are up to the challenge. If they could, viruses would laugh at the notion of themselves being wiped out or “contained.” Despite, or maybe because of this having taken a personal toll on me, I have concluded two main things: a) it is a killer virus for people in nursing homes and those in fragile health (even though they may not realize they are in fragile health), and b) for everyone else it’s like a bad flu, which sucks and can be dangerous, but has been considered par for the course all our lives.

      Rather than try to “contain” the spread via the familiar strategies, in retrospect the response should have been a) send the National Guard to guard and hermetically seal nursing homes; b) warn immune-compromised people to avoid crowds, public trans, and medical facilities; and c) carry on with life, and fund an army of holistic healers to help people learn how to build up their immunity. (Also maybe make it a capital offense to breed this shit in laboratories.)

      Incidentally, not that it’s been mentioned here, but I think EVERY WEEK as many Americans die from something as died in the Vietnam War. So we can lose that statistic, and others like it.

  3. I daresay Jaffe would not appreciate being locked up for days or weeks then released on a bunch of drugs that made him ill and a badge of shame that made everyone treat him like Jean Valjean at the opening of Les Miserables.

    His argument would probably be: “Of course not. But I’m not mentally ill. Pain hurts me.”

  4. “I am trying to track down the study that allegedly shows people avoid care for fear of involuntary commitment. I think it is one of those mental health propagated myths that has no basis in fact,”

    They won’t see us. Survival demands remaining invisible. A philosophical argument could be made that psychiatric survivors don’t truly exist in any meaningful way.

    Thank you, Sera. I appreciated the effort. You made some good points.

  5. Sera:

    Thank you for the great article! (I have not posted in over four years—I miss you! And Oldhead too. Oldhead, one of the clearest thinkers on MIA—not flattery, EARNED!)

    Even if your empathy is only one way (you are thinking about the suffering of others, and hoping for the same in return), I do believe this is the way to go.

    During the COVID- 19 outbreak, I immediately thought of those confined in psychiatric hospitals & group homes (I was in a group home for five years & in the psych hospitals six times—state, private & county—I am also a 2nd generation MK Ultra, or Monarch Program victim, fun!)

    but I also *immediately* thought about the prison population.

    (Kudos to Leah’s great coverage of COVID- 19 fatalities being ‘roughly double’ within psychiatric confinement vs. the prison population. Some MHS survivors with lived experience now know that psych drugs lower the immune system, and almost all on this site do!)

    I once posted that understanding issues of other communities was the way to go. It was my last post on this site over four and a half years ago, but it didn’t make it onto the board. The empathy will probably go in one direction for now, but it does not surprise me that you are the one to pave the way.

    For the last four and a half years I have been following the careers of the tech whistle blowers, journalistic whistle blowers (going back to Daniel Ellsworth),
    activist thinkers, leaders, & critics of the Deep State in every field I can keep up with.

    The trick to it has been (for me) to stick with it until I can find the relevant threads. They are there. And certainly empathy is the starting point!

    I do realize that our detractors post on here (in increasingly civil tones) to better understand our arguments in order to stay one step ahead of us.

    Yay to free speech and all that.

    However, this plays in their favor versus ours since they are better funded & have better connections than we do. They take advantage of this to run ahead of us and continue to dupe the public who are unaware of the debate.

    In other words, the APA and Big Pharma are completely aware that there is no proof that “mental illness” is a brain disorder, but they are still hoping to find a connection in the genome. Until then, they can dupe the public in thinking that the culprit organ is the brain since it “looks that way” to the observer.

    This is akin to saying the Earth is flat since it looks that way to the naked eye in the middle of the ocean with no land bearings.

    In the article “Muffled by Psychiatry,” I noticed that Steve Mc Crea defined his terms like a 5-star Philospher/General & then marched onto the bio-medical reductionist battlefield to delineate a set of behaviors as “jerkiness,” rather than as a “psychopath.”

    I can no longer use the term psychopath, not even for expediency, because that term, and others like it, have been coopted by the Guild to hog-tie anyone they dislike into forced treatment.

    And that is a slippery slope indeed. (Oldhead linked several of your articles to the above, btw)

    Let me connect the relevance of that article to yours with the quality of empathy, or lack thereof, among our detractors.

    Jerks (as opposed to psychopaths) will use the same arguments launched at them to attack their competitors! And as Oldhead pointed out, it was simply an in-house scramble for money & status. It is a common tactic of JERKS to use that type of circular thinking (although that was a circle within a circle, sigh. Are you getting dizzy yet? That is the goal)

    One psychiatrist uses the historical and well-documented abuses of psychiatry to silence another psychiatrist, or practitioner, and learned how to crystallize their arguments from posts on MIA!!!

    If psychiatry weren’t winning the battle so far, it would be funny: Jeffrey Lieberman standing onstage in a white lab coat to intimidate or impress his audience. A gem to satiric filmmaking!

    So if our detractors have no empathy, always finding new arguments and methods on how & why they have the right to drug us (I am barely staying ahead of AOT, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!, but I digress), we can reverse that to find new ways to be empathetic to other activist groups.

    We can take the time to understand their terminology; we can take the time to understand the current debate/s in their movements. I thought you did a great job in this article. You framed it in terms of how others may be responding to COVID- 19, & hoped for the same consideration in return.

    I have been checking in over the years, and I notice we have lost Matt, Steve Gilbert, Bonnie & Julie. I was devastated. Still am. Steve was kind enough to comfort me on that. We are a great family.

    Miss you. Love you, Sera.
    (btw, organic camu camu powder is the strongest source of plant-based vitamin C on the planet—great for improving the general immune system response on all fronts)

    (also please note Seth Farber’s essay on The Deep State and psychiatry—I first found it on MIA & Steve was helping me with that, thanks Steve! In other words, if you type in “Targeted Individual” in MIA’s search engine, the link to the essay will pop up in the old forum section)


    • Thanks for the shout-out and for invoking the memories of some of our martyrs; I had been working pretty closely with both Julie and Stephen up till their passing.

      Yes, I posted the links to a couple of Sera’s articles in which she correctly disparaged the attempt to attack Trump as “mentally ill,” rather than on moral or political grounds — one thing which I have always been in total agreement with.

      A lot of things are starting to happen movement-wise, so I hope you’ll stick around.

  6. Hi, Sera, Thank you for a great article.

    I have a story that I’d love to share with Dr. Jaffe, not that he would listen.

    Yesterday morning I looked out my bedroom window and saw a city fire department vehicle in the parking lot of my building. On the door of the vehicle it said “Community Risk Reduction”. I didn’t then and still don’t have any idea why this vehicle was in the parking lot. There was a woman in the driver’s seat talking on the phone.

    Because of my long history of being taken to the hospital in an ambulance, accompanied by the police, who show up first, and deposited in the crisis intervention unit against my will, my brain came up with a theory about why that vehicle was there. My brain said: The police are on their way, as well as the ambulance. The woman in the community risk reduction vehicle is on the phone with them planning how they’re going to get me out of my apartment and into the ambulance without exposing themselves in the event that I have covid-19.

    I tried to convince myself otherwise. I tried to tell myself that the reasons for this vehicle to be in the parking lot had nothing to do with me and that probably soon the woman would start the car and drive away. That didn’t keep me from going into a full body PTSD response, literally shaking, standing at the window and peering through the blinds, then getting back in bed and curling up in the fetal position and trying to forget what was happening, then back to the window, for an hour. Finally I went from bed to window and saw that the car was gone. I wasn’t so much relieved as spent. The relief came later.

    Like the book says, The Body Keeps the Score, and mine had no doubt that I should be very afraid in that situation. Yes, those hospitalizations/incarcerations have left a mark. I related this story to a compassionate friend of mine who happens not to have a psych history, and she suggested that if that happened again, I could go outside and politely ask the person in the vehicle why they were there. I thought, I couldn’t do that, not in the state I was in. Maybe it’s something you have to have experienced to understand. That’s what keeps me coming back to this website – the wisdom and validation of people who get it.