David Oaks and MindFreedom International

April 21, 2010

David W. Oaks, director of MindFreedom International, has been a psychiatric survivor human rights activist since 1976.

Photo of David W. Oaks

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.

Harvard's student volunteer agency Phillips Brooks House placed David 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 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, 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.

As well as 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.

David is on the board of directors for the United States International Council on Disability.

David lives with his wife Debra in Oregon and loves camping and gardening. David helped found and is a member of a men's support group which has met since 1989.

Photo of David W. Oaks with his partner Debra in one his his favorite things about Oregon, its wilderness.

David W. Oaks with his partner Debra in one his his favorite things about Oregon, its wilderness.

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" to a diverse range of participants including in Chile, Norway, Ireland, Turkey, Germany and throughout the USA.

Psychiatrist and author Loren Mosher, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health Scizophrenia section, said in the LA Times, "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." To read the LA Times Sunday Magazine article about David Oaks, click here.

E-mail address: oaks (at) mindfreedom.org

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. 

      • Utne Reader named one of "50 Visionaries" 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