Bonnie Burstow, Psychotherapist Who Rejected Psychiatry, Dies at 74
A self-described “feminist therapist,” she was a prominent voice in the anti-psychiatry movement, contending that the field is patriarchal.
By Julia Carmel
Bonnie Burstow, a feminist professor and psychotherapist who became a prominent voice in a movement that opposes psychiatry, in the belief that it is often more damaging than helpful to patients, died on Jan. 4 in Toronto. She was 74.
Simon Adam, a friend and former student, said the cause was kidney failure. She had spent much of her career at the University of Toronto, at its Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Professor Burstow became a forceful proponent of the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s, a decade or so after it was founded by David Cooper, a South African-born psychiatrist and theorist.
The movement, driven by academic researchers and current and former mental health patients, rejects many psychiatric diagnoses and practices, including electroconvulsive therapy, seclusion therapy and the prescribing of medication
Professor Burstow contended that many states of mind conventionally described as mental illnesses are in fact rational reactions to social, economic and political conditions.
“I always saw the world as having two negative responses to people they aren’t happy with,” she said in a 2009 interviewwith Psychology’s Feminist Voices, a Toronto oral history project. “That is either ‘They were bad,’ in which case they went to the criminal justice system, or they said, ‘They were sick,’ in which case they went to the psychiatric system. They are mirror images of each other, the mad and the bad.”
Professor Burstow asserted that psychiatry, a largely male-dominated field since its inception in the 19th century, is rooted in patriarchy. Psychiatrists, she contended, have long had a tendency to regard troubled women as “hysterical” and to overdiagnose their conditions and overmedicate them.
“Women are disordered if they acted like women; women are disordered if they didn’t act like women,” she said.
Mr. Adam, her former student, said: “For Bonnie, the problem was also inherently in the power dynamic created between the recipient of the care and the professional. As soon as a professional enters, it becomes a power dynamic that is incongruent with good care.”
In 2017, Professor Burstow donated $50,000 to the University of Toronto to establish an anti-psychiatry scholarship there — a move that rankled some on the faculty.
“They’re trying to claim that there’s no such thing as psychiatric illness, and I think she did a lot of damage with the publicity she got surrounding that,” Edward Shorter, a professor of psychiatry at the university and a longstanding critic of anti-psychiatry, said in a phone interview. The university, he said, “made a big mistake in setting up a special scholarship fund in her name; it’s an anti-psychiatry fund that legitimizes the movement.”
Professor Burstow was not a psychologist; she studied philosophy and English as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, received a master’s in English from the University of Toronto, and then went to England to begin a doctorate in English.
But she returned to Canada before finishing her doctorate and resumed her studies at the University of Toronto, where she received a master’s in education. She began practicing as a psychotherapist in 1978 as she pursued a doctorate in educational theory with a psychology minor.
As she worked with patients while completing her doctorate, she noticed a pattern that would push her into the anti-psychiatry movement.
“A lot of what was causing women these problems was patriarchy,” Professor Burstow said in the oral history. “A lot of things that were seen as problematic were reasonable ways for women to cope in a patriarchal, traumatizing world.”
By 1979 she was referring to herself as a “feminist therapist” and publishing research that emphasized the importance of talk therapy. In 1992 she published “Radical Feminist Therapy,” a book that discusses, among other things, violence against women and their responses to it, including depression and eating disorders.
“Unlike a mainstream therapist,” she told the magazine Psychology Today in 2016, “a feminist therapist locates the major problems with which women struggle not so much inside them but in-the-world.”
Bonnie Judith Grower was born on March 6, 1945, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Sam and Dena (Bloomfield) Grower. Her mother was an economist for Manitoba’s provincial government; her father was an aide to the Manitoba minister of health.
She married John Arthur Burstow in 1966, and they divorced in 1972. She leaves no immediate survivors.
Professor Burstow moved against the grain from a young age. She dropped out of school at 12 as a form of protest and, by her account, lied to administrators when she returned a year and a half later in order to skip ahead to ninth grade.
“I think that helped me to become an anarchist later on‚” she once said. “The knowledge that the system is not in your interest.”
Though her work was well received by some peers and students, there were medical professionals and mental health advocates who criticized it, notably when her University of Toronto scholarship was endorsed by the Canadian division of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an organization established by the Church of Scientology, which also dismisses psychiatry as harmful.
“It’s clear that she has not had a positive impact on public health or the treatment of illness,” Professor Shorter said of Professor Burstow, “and it’s sort of dismaying to think of the number of people who might have been moved by this siren song — thinking, ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as psychiatric illness, and it’s all just labeling and marginalization’ — and then commit suicide, because this is not uncommon. These are illnesses with stakes, for sure.”
For Professor Burstow, however, “‘bad publicity’ is invariably better than ‘no publicity,’” as she wrote after creating her anti-psychiatry scholarship. In many cases, she noted, her critics only brought more supporters to the anti-psychiatry movement.
In 2003, she founded the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, an organization whose main focus is banning the use of electroshock therapy.
Along with writing nine books — six academic ones and three novels — Professor Burstow created two other research scholarship programs at the University of Toronto: one to examine violence against indigenous women, the other to look at anti-Semitism.
But challenging the conventions of the psychiatric establishment remained her central mission.
“We have an absolute pretense of what ‘normal’ is,” she said in a 2018 interview with the BBC. “People compare themselves to what we say is normal, and it’s not vaguely like what most people feel.”A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 1, 2020, Section A, Page 24 of the New York edition with the headline: Bonnie Burstow, 74, Professor and Psychotherapist Who Backed Anti-Psychiatry Movement