Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

Judi Chamberlain (1944-2010), Activist, Author, Global Traveler — In (Some of) Her Own Words

Judi Chamberlin passed away a few days ago, leaving a legacy of activism, truth-telling, and leadership. She was a highly respected founder of the movement for civil rights for people with psychiatric labels, and for all people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. She had recently kept a regular blog called “Life As a Hospice Patient.”

I didn’t know Judi well, but I was fortunate to be able to interview her for my 2005 book, Survival Strategies for Going Abroad: A Guide for People with Disabilities. She shared the wisdom she had gained from her own international travel experiences, journeying throughout Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other destinations. She gave speeches, and consulted with grassroots psychiatric survivors’ projects, and carried out advocacy activities related to her role as a board member for Mental Disability Rights International.

Her close friends and colleagues are posting many moving remembrances and tributes in honor of Judi’s life and work. Even the national media has taken notice, with stories on National Public Radio and in the Boston Globe. I would just like to share some of her own statements, from my interview with her, about traveling and working with the worldwide disability rights community.

During the interview, Judi recalled one of her earliest global traveling experiences — a long, miserable flight to Australia. “There was a point, about halfway through the trip, when I thought, ‘I just can’t stand this.'” When she finally arrived, she remembers being “just totally exhausted, totally wiped out, nonfunctional.” But her ride from the airport, with fellow human rights activists, turned her mood around completely. “We got in the car and started driving toward Melbourne. Within five minutes, it was like we had known each other all our lives, because we had such an intense common frame of reference.”

Since then, Judi told me, her own mental health issues never really posed a barrier to her globetrotting. “I’ve never gotten depressed while I traveled,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I’ve gotten depressed when I came home!” In contrast, her chronic lung disease sometimes created problems for her, such as when traveling to high altitudes or polluted environments.

In her travels, Judi always met with other psychiatric survivor advocates, where she always found a very supportive environment. “It’s really important to know that there are psychiatric survivor organizations in every country and to try to make contacts with them,” she said.

I asked what advice she would give to others planning to go overseas. She answered:

“The biggest thing for people with a psych disability who think that they might have some sort of stress-related episode or whatever, would be to learn in advance as much as you can about what kinds of support systems you can set up. If people are not familiar with psych disability and you say to them, ‘I’m just terribly depressed, or in having an anxiety attack, or I’m beginning to hear voices,’ if people are naive about it, they might send you to a hospital — not where you want to be in another country.

“I’m not sure the U.S. Embassy would be terribly helpful, because they have the same ideas as anybody else — that if you’re in the psychiatric system, you probably need to be there. That’s why I think it’s really important, there’s an ex-patient group or an advocacy group — or in the absence of that, just some sort of disability group — that you know about in advance. If you deal with these things on a repeated basis, and and are afraid it might happen to you when you’re abroad, you probably have some kind of self-care plan. And if you’re staying with a host family, you should be able to discuss it with them, preferably before you get there rather than after — ‘ Look, sometimes what happens to me is this. And what helps me at these times is this.’ Set up your support systems in advance, even if you’re never going to need them.”

I asked Judi whether she would recommend disclosing mental health diagnoses or other invisible disabilities when applying to travel abroad programs. She commented:

“Some people have a psychiatric history, but they’re not frequently dealing with any psychiatric symptomology. So they have to weigh the stigma factor against any benefit. If a person thinks it’s likely that while I’m abroad I might get anxious or get depressed, and might act in some ways that people might not understand, then it might be a good idea to set something up in advance.”

I asked her to talk about the similarities and differences among the different places she had visited, with regard to psychiatric survivors’ issues. She said:

“It’s interesting — wherever I go, people say to me, ‘In this particular country’ — wherever we happen to be — ‘the problems of stigma are much greater than they are anywhere else.’ It always makes me laugh. The problem of stigma, the perceptions of people with psychiatric disability, are the biggest obstacle that we face. It may vary in its cultural context a little bit, but it really doesn’t differ all that much from one country to another. People with psychiatric disabilities are very widely perceived as being unable to care for themselves, and being fundamentally different from other people; and legally they are disadvantaged in that they can’t control their own lives in the ways that other people can. This is very, very cross-cultural.”

While the stigma and oppression exist all around the world, so does the solidarity. Judi said:

“I really feel that there’s a unity among psychiatric survivors that just transcends language and culture, so if somebody wants to feel grounded they should definitely try to find some of those folks, in advance, before they go. Get some names, get some contacts.”

3 Comments

  1. Devin says:

    Hi Laura,

    Sounds like an interesting, inspiring person. Thank you for the introduction.
    devin

  2. sometimes i also have anxiety attacks and when it happens, i just breathe slowly and deeply to help me relax.’**

  3. Relaxation techniques and meditation can help a lot during Anxiety Attacks. “.

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