Rae Unzicker had been a member of the National Council on Disability since 1995, until her untimely death March 22, 2001. She is largely responsible for the groundbreaking NCD report From Priveleges to Rights: Psychiatric Survivors Speak for Themselves.



Society is confusing crazy with dangerous.

Photo of Rae Unzicker with Justin Dart.
A photo of Rae and her dear friend Justin Dart. Rae Unzicker died March 22, 2001, losing her long fight to cancer.


an interview with Rae Unzicker
by Lucy Gwin

This interview first appeared in Mouth magazine #30 in March 1995

Rae Unzicker, former coordinator of the National Association of Psychiatric Survivors, says that we are all fighting for the same things: for personal choice, autonomy, dignity, respect. Rae is a long-term advocate against the use of force and coercion of any kind. She says she sees that as the single framing issue in our struggle. In the summer of 1994, Rae was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the National Council on Disability. That appointment awaits Senate confirmation.[That appointment was confirmed and she went on to serve with distinction.] She is the first person with a psychiatric label to be named to serve on that Council.


Since that appointment last summer, I have spent I can't tell you how many hours with the FBI, going through security clearance. I asked the agent who interviews me, "How much does it cost to do one of these?" He said, "The average cost is $10,000 to $15,000. Yours will be more." On this 37-page form there's the question, "Have you ever received help for psychiatric or psychological problems?" I just wrote Yes. The FBI computer must have kicked out the message: DANGER! JOHN HINKLEY... DANGER! JOHN HINKLEY...

I've had to remind them that my psychiatric history was why I had been appointed in the first place.

Hinckley had already been seeing shrinks and his parents wanted him locked up. That was the story. But you know we can't predict violence. Period. We certainly can't lock people up based on somebody's prediction of violence.


On Psychiatry.  

It's the Thought Police.

I could drive by the local 7-11 and think, Gee, I'm short on Christmas money. I should run in there and rob them. If I think that, the cops can't pull me over and take me in on suspicion of planned robbery. Only in psychiatry can you do that. It's the Thought Police.

This standard of"danger to self or others" is not about protecting people or stopping people from hurting themselves or others, it's about medical liability. If a psychiatrist doesn't do something to intervene, and that patient does something, the psychiatrist is going to get his ass sued. Therefore, he is going to protect himself. And the way to protect himself, or herself, is to lock people up against their will.

The new criteria for commitment that's being promoted in many states is Possibility of Deterioration which really means you've chosen not to take, or you're thinking about not taking, your medications. So they're committing people based on the fact that their mother thinks they might quit taking their drugs. I'm not exaggerating here. This is a very real thing.

In the worst case scenario, Possibility of Deterioration can also mean that you're not keeping your house to the standards that your family or psychiatrist would like. That can land you in the loony bin. And that gives psychiatrists another round of power which they shouldn't have in the first place. Again, you cannot predict violence.

The principle of prediction and prevention taints the therapeutic relationship of course. It becomes a game of what you can and cannot say. You cannot tell the truth. Especially if your truth is scary to your psychiatrist.


Confiding in professionals about your feelings, then, is the real danger.  

Exactly. As Thomas Szasz says, "Mental illness is telling your fantasy to the wrong person."

I hope no one goes to a psychiatrist seeking therapy. Psychiatrists no longer do therapy. They get no training in how to talk to people, much less listen to people. So if you want to go to therapy, that's one thing. But you don't go for therapy to a psychiatrist because psychiatrists only do medication management and hospitalization and shock. If you want to go to therapy to a person who's not a psychiatrist, it's still best to be careful about what you say.


So whats the point of going to a therapist?

Right. Exactly. In the end you're your own best therapist anyway.

On the insanity defense.


If you do the crime, you do the time. Period..

I don't believe in putting criminals in mental hospitals. It's bad for everybody. Our movement does not support the insanity defense. That defense doesn't hold people accountable for their behavior. It also puts dangerous people in mental hospitals with a lot of people who are vulnerable. And it adds to the mythology that all mental patients are dangerous.

If you're in prison and you want psychological help, then you ought to get it. But not in a mental hospital.



What about dangers posed by people who are crazy?  

Statistics do not bear out the mythology of danger. People who have been labeled are less likely, across the board, to commit crimes than your average Joe Schmo on the street. That statistic has increased slightly in the last twenty years. Many more people are labeled today. And we live in a much more violent society. People who have been labeled have been brutalized -which tends to make them angry. And they are much more poverty stricken than the general populace, which tends to make them desperate.

Even people in a manic state are not known for being dangerous. Pains in the ass, yeah. They spend a lot of money getting on the phone and calling everybody in the world ...But dangerous? Not in my experience. Except perhaps to credit card issuers.


On combatting the insanity defense.


We as a society have to be willing to accept the reality of evil.


The Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, the Charles Mansons of the world are not insane. They are evil. Evil is alien to our deeply-held belief that we live in a wonderful, happy world of television sitcoms.

Because we cannot accept evil, because we all like to have a pretty world, we have to find a reason for horrible things that happen. We displace the evil and say, "They must be crazy."

This poor, stupid woman in South Carolina who drowned her kids. I haven't heard one person say anything about that woman except she must have been crazy. In fact, what she did is an evil act. To hear people excuse behavior which is abhorrent to all of us by saying "She must have been crazy..." They are giving craziness a bad name.

The truth is that most people I have encountered who are labeled "mentally ill" are the opposite of dangerous. They are passive, they are compliant, they have given up. They will allow anything to be done to them. They live on the outskirts of hope.


On brain sciences.


No way will I accept that all I am is a brain and chemistry and neuroscience.


Psychiatrists have always been seen as the stepchild of medical science. They're disdained and marginalized in their own profession -for what I think are good reasons. The way they could be perceived as real doctors was to practice what they saw as real medicine. Real medicine in this country is drugs, allopathic treatment having to do with chemistry.

So they invented illnesses and began renaming human behavior in terms of biochemistry. Now it's not even called mental illness any more. It's "neurobiological brain disorders." Now that's crazy.

How can you reduce something as complex and marvelous and interesting and complicated and incomprehensible as a human being to a set of biological constructs?

There is the mystery about human beings that you can never hold onto or name or label or quantify or predict. That's what makes us different from rabbits and lobsters.

If I go to my doctor and she says, "Gee, Rae, you've had all this stuff happen to you in your life. You must have a chemical imbalance. Let's put you on Prozac." And I would say to her -I am the massive exception to the rule today -"All right. You do the blood test, you do the CAT scan, you do the X-ray, you do any medical diagnostic test to show that I am whatever you think I am."

Because there are no tests like that. They don't exist. '

I mean, what are we doing? Drugging people who are going through pain in their lives is crazy. It masks the problem and takes the responsibility away from the person to reclaim power over his or her own life. Which is really what it's all about for all of us. '

The only psychiatric rehab is life. Meaning LIFE, not sitting in an apartment, alone, taking your drugs, smoking all day and drooling because of the side effects of medication.

Real life.


On the secret truth of what is called insanity.


The highest risk factor for what psychiatrists call serious, persistent mental illness is being between the ages of 18 and 24.


Think about this: you grew up in a family, in a closed system. That system lived by its own particular set of rules. There's a culture that is absolutely specific to that system. Its rules are very different from what exists out in the "real world."

What's going to happen to you when you turn 18 or 19 and you leave home? You're going to go into culture shock. Which is what I did. Which is what drove me crazy. I thought I was nuts because the world didn't operate the way my family did.

People go crazy for all kinds of good reasons.

Then what's really dangerous?

What's dangerous is that, particularly in the last 20 years, mental illness -particularly in-patient hospitalization -has been taken over by the businessmen. The Michael Milkens.

What's dangerous are psychiatrists and all the other people who purport to help people, but are really only forcing them to be compliant -to take their medication, go to their day programs, go to phony jobs, live in segregated housing. In order to get the basics of life a place to live, for example -they have to give up so much of their real lives.

People die of psychiatric interventions all the time. People die in mental hospitals not of overdoses but of regular doses of drugs prescribed for them. Here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a woman hung herself in a private, expensive mental hospital where she was being treated for depression. So where were the experts?

They say they can't be at the bedside night and day.

For a thousand bucks a day, they can. Isn't that why they put her in there in the first place? These psychiatrists get you coming and going. First they say, "We're going to prevent you from killing yourself by locking you up in the hospital. And then they don't prevent it at all. In fact, the rate of suicide in mental hospitals is much higher than in any other place in society.

Rae would like to recommend a book on the history of this system, Bedlam: Greed, Profiteering and the Mental Health System, by Joe Sharkey. She says that the best opposition to the medical model is in Kate Millett's book, The Loony Bin Trip


On drugging and mental hygiene.   Some drugs do work. But so does suicide and so do a lot of other stupid things.



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