Her own way

Judi Chamberlin’s book On Our Own was held up as a rallying cry for the mental health service-user movement when it was published in 1977. British activist and author Louise Pembroke remembers the American activist who died on January 16.

I first met Judi Chamberlin in 1988 at the start of my own activism at the annual Mind conference when her seminal text ‘ On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System’ [first published in the USA in 1977] was published by Mind and won the Mind Book of the Year Award, then at a landmark conference in Brighton entitled ‘Common Concerns’.

Mind also supported this three-day event with international survivor speakers from the USA and Canada. Practically everyone who was active in the 80s either attended or knew what happened by word of mouth from that conference. It was a pivotal moment in time, just as when our Dutch peers came over to assist British survivors in the formation of patient councils.

Judi was inspirational to me as there were few women leaders in the British survivor movement at that time, and here was a worldleader talking about user-run, not user-led services which for some of us was a dream we thought not possible and Judi had made it real in her country.

What was so striking to me about Judi was her total lack of ego and ‘stardom’. Frankly, even if she had been I certainly would have forgiven it because she had the intellect, hard work and unconditional compassion to back everything she did, and at a time when there were not the financial rewards there can be now. Judi wasn’t interested in kudos and personal status, all she was interested in was furthering the greater good of survivors, for us all to be met with love, compassion and with patient controlled alternatives to psychiatry.

Face to face, one to one, she was no different, she was interested to share experiences with us, would give us her full attention and was kind and generous. She always made you feel like whatever you had to say mattered. Judi was dignified, I never saw her raise her voice or rant at anyone, yet she could calmly and effectively argue the most seasoned opponents under the table. She was also a fine academic but a good one in that she could make a well-read argument accessible to anyone.

The year after I spoke alongside Judi at a conference in Montreal for Canadian survivors. We also shared a hotel room and unsurprisingly Judi was a gracious room mate. To sit beside someone who was living legend to me was very special indeed.

Even when I know she disagreed with her peers she would do so quietly and with respect, never putting down another’s thinking. She made people think not only by the sheer strength of her words, but also how she imparted them, measured, powerful. She was deadly serious in her work, driven and dedicated. Judi was a role model to me because she embodied how I felt activism should be, how we could best conduct ourselves as activists. She was also aware of how difficult it could be too and how survivors were also capable of cannibalising each other and to my mind she led by example by keeping her focus on the work in hand.

Whenever Judi visited the UK she would take me and Peter Campbell, co-founder of campaigning group Survivors Speak Out, for a meal and we treasured our time with her and valued what we learnt and shared with her.

To understand what Judi gave us all over 30 years of her life you can listen to her speak at the 2007 World Psychiatric Association conference on ‘coercive treatment in psychiatry’. Even if you never knew her or her work, listen to this 30-minute talk which is a bright shinning beacon to survivors across the world. Her last sentence ‘nothing about us without us’ will live in my heart forever.

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