Thursday, 1 January 2015

Magna Carta and compulsory psychiatry. For the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. (15 June 1215 – 15 June 2015)

Sarah-Rees-Yew-3.jpg (730×410)
This more-than-2000-years-old Ankerwycke yew
in the beautiful meadows by the Thames at Runnymede
witnessed the sealing of Magna Carta on 15 June 1215
Magna Carta and compulsory psychiatry
For the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta
15 June 1215 – 15 June 2015

Anthony Stadlen


On 15 June 2015, King John met his barons in the meadow at Runnymede on the Thames where his Great Seal was affixed to Magna Carta, the document universally acclaimed as the foundation of British justice and freedom. Over subsequent centuries, certain practices and institutions, hitherto accepted as part of the natural or divine order, came to be seen as violations of the principles of which Magna Carta was the fount and symbol. One such practice was slavery.

I propose that another such practice which violates the principles deriving from Magna Carta is compulsory clinical psychiatry.

The Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, who is renowned as the founder or father of psychiatric existential analysis’, was, as Director of the Bellevue sanatorium’ at Kreuzlingen, an eminent psychiatric gaoler of the embarrassing relatives of the great and good, including such patients’ as Nijinsky, Aby Warburg, and Princess Alice, our present Queens mother-in-law. Binswanger claimed that his nineteenth-century precursor, the psychiatrist Wilhelm Griesinger, had written ‘the Magna Carta of clinical psychiatry’. This is an impertinent abuse of the name and prestige of Magna Carta in an attempt to legitimise practices alien to its spirit. Neither Griesinger nor Binswanger mentioned that the clinical psychiatry’ they practised routinely included psychiatric incarceration and compulsory treatment .

Thomas Szasz in 1963 denounced such practices as crimes against humanity and called for them to be legally abolished, just as slavery had been.

Aaron Esterson in 1972 wrote that, at the very least, even in the absence of outright abolition, whenever a psychiatrist orders that a designated patient’ be incarcerated or compulsorily treated’, a video-recording of the psychiatrists examination of the so-called patient’ should be evaluated by a panel of ordinary men and women, peers of the patient’, like the jury in a criminal trial. 

Esterson wrote that such a panel of lay persons should be guided by the principle that what they are examining is not the fact of mental illness but an attribution of mental illness to one person by one or more other persons, including the psychiatrist. Esterson proposed that the person alleged to be mentally ill’ should have, as an absolute minimum, the following rights: 

(1) the right to know exactly what he or she has done that the other persons, including the psychiatrist, regard as evidence of mental illness;
(2) the right to question or refute the psychiatrist;
(3) the right not to have his or her attempt to question or refute the psychiatrist taken as itself evidence of mental illness .  

Szasz and Esterson were both appealing to principles of accusatorial justice painfully developed through centuries of struggle starting with Magna Carta. These principles are utterly different from the primitive, persecutory, inquisitorial, police-state procedures of clinical psychiatry.

In our subseries of Inner Circle Seminars, Locked Up: ‘Patients and their Gaolers, we have seen, in every case, how people of moral integrity, creativity and originality have been incarcerated and tortured by being forcibly treated’ on the basis of arbitrary and unscrutinised psychiatric ‘diagnoses’ and decisions.

We shall continue to run the series Locked Up: ‘Patients and their Gaolers as a subseries of the Inner Circle Seminars as long as these seminars continue and as long as there exists a psychiatry which is expected and required to have arrogant disregard for the great principle enshrined in Chapter 39 of Magna Carta:

No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

The law has had to acknowledge more and more people, including women and slaves, as free, responsible citizens. Compulsory clinical psychiatry persists in seeing and treating those it designates as ‘patients as unfree, irresponsible non-citizens.

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