FOR SOCIETY TO OPERATE, we need trust. Whether it’s in traffic, banking, relationships, health care, or countless other areas of life, mutual understanding allows individuals and systems to intersect (relatively) smoothly and safely. That includes communication, as language is based on a shared agreement of what words mean. But what happens when people’s experiences or behaviours provoke differing interpretations? What happens when we lose consensus around life-directing terms like “appropriate,” “dangerous,” “effective,” or “normal”?
In his new book Your Consent is Not Required: The Rise in Psychiatric Detentions, Forced Treatment, and Abusive Guardianships (BenBella Books), investigative journalist Rob Wipond looks at how an increasing number of people from all walks of life are losing their rights, their voices, their trust, and sometimes their lives through contact with an area of the mental health system that’s grounded in slippery terminology and often hidden from public view. He examines the current practice of civil commitment across North America, the varying standards of institutional care, multiple modes of medical and emotional coercion, inconsistent—sometimes non-existent—data, inconclusive evidence of positive outcomes, outright fraud, and the importance of grassroots advocacy. In this thorough look at an underreported and understudied topic, he also invites dialogue around issues of power and prejudice in forced psychiatric treatment; the laws and economic levers that allow it; the lived experience of people who go through it; and the possibility—and importance—of alternative approaches.
WIPOND’S NAME will likely be familiar to many local readers. With a decade of writing for Focus, he began his award-winning journalism career at Monday Magazine in the late ‘90s. Inspired, he tells me, by the work of writers like James MacKinnon and Sid Tafler, Wipond—who until then had been working in theatre performance—realized he wanted to try it for himself.
Rob Wipond (photo by Karen Wipond)
He’d also long been interested in the inner world, reading works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which gave him a sense of how important it was to explore oneself, as well as indicating that there were larger systems around mental health that maybe needed critique. Also shaping his investigative direction was, as Wipond recounts in the book’s introduction, what he saw happen to his own father.
It’s a surreal story that knocks at the heart, telling of post-cancer transition, anxiety around aging and its attendant issues, emotional upset, concerned family, and surprisingly quick commitment under mental health law. Then comes the ever-changing psychiatrists prescribing ever-changing medications, the unwanted electroshock treatment, release, return, handcuffs and police, more ECT, and a man reduced to missing memory and speaking in slurs, who became lost between four and five when asked to count to ten.
The family helplessness simmers quietly as Wipond writes: “‘Your father is doing much better,’ a psychiatrist said. This man had never seen my father in anything close to a normal state—portaging a canoe over his head with sleeping bags and gear packed into both ends, training computer programmers for the country’s biggest companies, or shouting passionately about smaller government and individual freedoms.”
By the end, Wipond’s father was a mess, as was the family’s faith in mental healthcare. Eventually, his father recovered most of his memories and himself, except around the ECT. What he does have from that period is anger at what was done to him without his consent.
“I think probably the third article I wrote for Monday was on people’s experience of forced treatment,” Wipond recalls via video chat. And despite how painful it was to cover, it’s a topic that he ultimately couldn’t stay away from. “To be honest, I quit it for a while,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it. Then it just kept appearing everywhere. No matter what article I did in Victoria—I’d do something on policing, I’d do something on poverty—there's this issue again: people being forcibly treated in some way. And it was, ‘Okay, how many people is this happening to?’ You’d talk to people at the shelter, you’d talk to the police, you’d talk to any of them and they knew it was a big issue. Yet it wasn't really hitting the mainstream media in any way. That’s when I really became interested. Here’s a voiceless group of people, and I want to lift up their voices. They deserve to have a voice in this public dialogue.”
Underneath it all is the issue of understanding. For the emotional scars Wipond and his family were left with are rooted in questions that speak to wider societal consent around what we’re okay with happening within this system. “Was this normal?” he writes. “Were law-abiding, intelligent people normally getting incarcerated are treated against their will by mental health practitioners? Was modern involuntary psychiatric treatment frequently so aggressive, invasive, ineffective, and harmful?” During the book’s almost 300 pages, readers delve into those questions with Wipond as he diligently uncovers that, quite shockingly, the answer is often yes.
WHILE MOST OF US like to think that forced psychiatric interventions are only applied in the rarest, most extreme cases, Wipond’s research reveals that it’s happening more often to more kinds of people and in more settings across both Canada and the United States than we may realize. From children to the elderly and everyone in between, Wipond expands our view of who is being forcibly treated, where and how and, perhaps most elusively, why.
The book’s 28 chapters are grouped in five thematic sections: the expansive reach of psychiatric power; core drivers of civil commitment; mass funnels into psychiatric incarceration; institutional management, profiteering, and political oppression; and science, lies, and other possibilities.
Throughout, Wipond digs up hard data and goes deep with research, consulting court records, patient medical records (voluntarily provided), news reports, oversight organization reports, freedom of information request results. He talks to psychiatric survivors and their families, social workers, nurses, hospital administrators, lawyers, rights organizations, crisis line operators, fellow journalists and researchers, professors, psychiatrists, representatives at organizations like the Department of Justice, the FDA, the Office of Inspector General, and many, many more.
It’s an incredible amount of hard-won information that is then synthesized, analyzed, questioned, and pieced together to help us, the public, see the larger picture. “What I said to the publisher,” Wipond tells me, “is I’m trying to show people how it all fits into a very powerful narrative about the expansion of forced treatment in our society and the harm that it’s doing to so many.”
Perhaps most importantly, alongside the often alarming facts and figures are detailed personal stories. Ultimately, we can’t have informed dialogue on the topic or give our own societal consent to what’s happening in the name of the greater good—though Wipond shows there’s scant data on the effectiveness of these extreme treatments—if we don’t see what it actually looks like and what it does to and means for real people. “Collectively,” Wipond writes, “we’ll only be able to work together toward truly constructive change if we have, at the very least, some basic, shared understanding.”
Through story after story in chapter after chapter, Wipond takes us inside the process of contact with involuntary treatment: the victims of well-intentioned wellness checks, individuals taken from their homes or work after calling supposedly confidential suicide crisis lines (which, in fact, can initiate covert call tracing and police apprehension), people sent to military or university or workplace mental health programs who risk losing their rank or their courses or their jobs if they don’t comply with treatment.
A story the book also unfolds for us is how difficult shared understanding can be when psychiatrists, with an enormous power imbalance over their patients, get to choose the terms of detention and freedom. While it’s comforting to see science as objective and trustworthy, Wipond reminds us that it’s not a set of conclusions but a live process frequently shaped by cultural bias. From 19th century “illnesses” like drapetomania used to explain why Black slaves ran away from their masters, to homosexuality (dropped from the DSM in the years following the Stonewall riots), to the former USSR’s routine diagnosis of political dissenters, the labels of mental illness have long been used for social control and upholding accepted social standards.
Misunderstandings, interpretations, the pathologizing of certain emotions, actions, looks, or words can leave already suffering patients exhausted and helpless—and detained and drugged. Many former patients speak of how asking questions, requesting a lawyer, expressing dislike for or, worse, actually disagreeing with or objecting to recommended treatment got them labelled as lacking insight into their condition and unable to make reasonable decisions. As one former patient recalls, “It was traumatizing trying to plead to be understood.”
TO BE CLEAR, Your Consent is Not Required is an important but disturbing read. What comes through, however, is the huge amount of care that knits it together. Wipond hopes the book is an educational tool for people who know very little about this mostly invisible part of our mental healthcare system, but equally important is his hope that it helps those with lived experience of forced treatment to feel seen and heard and less alone.
“What I hope the book does,” he says near the end of our talk, “is show the immense diversity of people this is happening to. They’re part of a vast spectrum right across our society, from the wealthiest to the poorest, from white to Black to Indigenous—everything. I want those people to see that. It’s something, I’m realizing, that I’m uniquely placed to provide as a journalist. They’re in hiding, a lot of these people. They’re actively running. In the last day somebody literally said, ‘You know, I’ve been in hiding from my own family for 40 years. I’m a victim of childhood abuse. I’ve been hiding because they got me involuntarily treated. I’m afraid to this day.’ I said, ‘I’ve heard your story before. You’re not the only one.’ And she said, ‘I’m literally crying right now to hear that. I thought I was alone.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not alone.’ That’s something that, to me, is enormously valuable and important that I want to bring back to those people: ‘You’re not alone.’”
Wipond’s feel for human stories and his ability to make connections has earned him a wide audience. His journalism has appeared in over a hundred outlets, from the BMJ to Chatelaine to Adbusters, and he’s won multiple awards, including two Websters. His reputation as a journalist in the community is, in fact, central to how this, his first book, came about. And it brings us back to the issue of trust.
“The community journalism part was absolutely crucial to this work,” Wipond says, seemingly surprised himself at how it all came together. “I just don’t think it could have been done any other way. It started where people saw my face in Focus magazine. People would recognize me on the street and go, ‘I read your article,’ and they’d start talking about it. And then often people would say, ‘You don’t know the half of it,’ and they would put me on to something new, and so this cycle got going.”
The same happened, he says, around his writing for Mad in America, the US web magazine of science, psychiatry, and social justice—readers would reach out and relate their stories or answer surveys or point him to others who might be valuable resources because they knew where he was coming from and felt he could be trusted with the most painful, private experiences. “That's why I think it’s taken this long for a book of this kind to emerge,” Wipond says, with obvious gratitude to the people who shared their stories. “It really was a grassroots thing that grew and grew and grew from there.”
Building that rapport and creating a safe space isn’t just about a journalist getting good information; it’s an issue of being the kind of patient, compassionate person who listens and gets it enough that someone who has been deeply hurt can say, as Wipond puts it, “Yeah, okay. Here, have a little bit of my heart and carry it forward.” Is this an emotionally tough book to read? Yes. But it is also touching in its underlying tenderness and in the tentative but tensile bridges of trust, community, and hope for change that readers see built page by page.
Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor living on SḴŦAḴ/ Mayne Island. Your Consent is Not Required should be available at Munro’s and other local bookstores. Check here for more information.
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