David W. Oaks, former Executive Director of MindFreedom International, has been a psychiatric survivor human rights activist since 1976. David is also on the Board of Directors of the United States International Council on Disability.
“My recruitment room…”
David was born on 16 September 1955 in Chicago, Illinois, USA. All of his grandparents were immigrants from Lithuania. Both of his grandfathers were coal miners in rural Illinois before moving to Chicago.
David’s parents were working class, loving parents who both worked in offices. David had a brief encounter with mental health care after his high school graduation from St. Ignatius College Prep in 1973.
In the Fall of 1973 David attended Harvard University on scholarships, including one from his father’s Teamster’s Union.
In David’s sophomore, junior and senior year he experienced the psychiatric system. David was placed in psychiatric institutions five times. He was diagnosed both “schizophrenic” and “manic depressive” (now known as “bipolar”) and underwent forced psychiatric drugging and solitary confinement. David has been given neuroleptics (including Thorazine, Stelazine, Haldol, Mellaril, Navane), lithium, anti-depressants, etc.
It was while in a psychiatric solitary confinement cell in Bowditch Hall in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, that David decided he wanted, once freed, to take action to improve the mental health system.
A psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, a Harvard teaching institution, told David that because he had a genetically-caused chemical imbalance he would have to remain on powerful neuroleptic psychiatric drugs the rest of his life. That psychiatrist turned out to be incorrect.
Community Organizer Since 1976
In 1976, Harvard’s student volunteer agency Phillips Brooks House placed David as an intern with one of the early psychiatric survivor human rights organizations, Mental Patients Liberation Front, which met at Vocations for Social Change near Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. David wrote his senior paper about this experience of community organizing with psychiatric survivors, and graduated with honors in 1977.
With support from peers and his family, David used exercise, nutrition, counseling, wilderness trips, protest, and employment to recover mental and emotional well being. He has been off all psychiatric drugs since 1977.
David helped form one of the first user-run psychiatric survivor activist drop-in centers with MPLF at the Stone Soup Art and Poetry Gallery, and later at an MPLF office across from the Boston Garden.
In addition to his activist work in the field of human rights in the mental health system, David has also worked in the environmental, peace and social justice movements.
In 1986, David helped found what was to become MindFreedom International, which an independent activist coalition united to win human rights and alternatives in mental health. MFI is now one of the main organizations winning campaigns for the vision of a peaceful revolution in the mental health system. While a majority of the members identify as individuals who have experienced human rights violations in the mental health system, MFI also includes family members, attorneys, mental health professionals and supportive members of the general public.
In December 2012 David experience an accident, he fell and broke his neck and became a quadriplegic using a powerchair. Because of a pre-existing condition his voice and hands also became disabled. He said, “Because of my decades working with great leaders in the disability community, my new identity of extreme disability is a new chapter for my activism.” While David has had to retire, he has continued his activism mainly by blogging as PsychoQuad, focusing on the intersections of mental health justice, disability, and global warming.
David lives with his wife Debra in Oregon and loves his garden. David helped found and is a member of a men’s support group which has met since 1989.
David was named by Utne Reader in 2009 as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” David has received several other awards and honors…scroll to the bottom of this page to read more.
David is available for speaking engagements and workshops. He has presented on topics such as “community organizing for independent systems change in the mental health system” and working with the cross-disability movement, to a diverse range of participants including in Chile, Norway, Ireland, Turkey, Italy, Germany, Canada, Ghana, Mexico and throughout the USA.
Psychiatrist and author the late Loren Mosher, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health Schizophrenia section, said in an LA Times Sunday Magazine article featuring David: “The fact that the movement has survived is due in large part to David’s ability to work like a dog for almost no money and his ability to mollify those people who are outraged. He has managed to keep a lot of disparate opinions under the tent.”
David’s response to that quote: “While I don’t agree with my late friend Loren about that, I appreciate his humorous and loving support. And it’s the mutual support between thousands in our movement that has kept the activism going. I’ve been privileged to witness in our movement the human spirit never giving up.”
Here are a few of the honors given to the director of MindFreedom International for his work as a mental health advocacy, human rights activist, community organizer and promoter of humane mental health alternatives:
- Lane Independent Living Alliance award in 2011 for mental health and disability advocacy in Lane County.
- Utne Reader named him one of “50 Visionaries of The World” for 2009
- Barrier Awareness Day 2003 Leadership Award in recognition to commitment to advocating for people with psychiatric disabilities, City of Eugene
- International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology presents the 2002 Distinguished Achievement Award for, “a brilliant and caring and man who has selflessly dedicated his life to the international fight for human rights and justice”
- Project Censored award of certificate of appreciate to David Oaks in acknowledgment of exemplary journalism for writing one of the Top Ten Censored Stories of 2000
- Office of Consumer Technical Assistance Recognizes Significant Contributions for work in the area of political activism for Oregon consumer/survivors, May 28, 1999
- David J. Vail National Advocacy Award by National Mental Health Association of Minnesota, presented by National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy in 1994