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Consumer/survivors organize in Eastern Europe

By Judi Chamberlin

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In May, I spent two weeks visiting consumer/survivor groups in Central and Eastern Europe, under sponsorship of Mental Disability Rights International. My first, brief stop was in Vienna, where I met some of the local activists and gave a lecture that the group arranged. Then I set off, by train, for my excursion to the former Communist countries of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia (the westernmost part of the former Yugoslavia).

I spent three days in Budapest, where I visited with the local group, called Egisz, the National Organization for support or Psychiatric Consumers and their Families. We met in the apartment of the group's leader, Gabor Gombosh (who provided translation), where several members had gathered specifically to meet me, and spent several hours discussing their work and ideas. Although they are a fairly new group, they have already begun a media campaign to combat the usual stereotypes, and will soon have their own radio program. They publish a newsletter, and hold social and cultural events for their membership. They recently decided to join the European Network of Users and Ex-Users in Mental Health, and so should be developing closer contacts with similar organizations.

I also met with the director of the newly-established Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Judit Fridli, a former political dissident who started the organization specifically to work on the problems of psychiatric patients, drug addicts, and people with AIDS, all of whom are in difficult social positions. Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the Hungarian CLU is working against forced treatment and for the development of self-help groups. I also managed to fit in a visit to a psychiatric ward, as well as to give a lecture to about twenty people who were interested in learning more about the U.S. movement.

Then it was off (by train) to Prague, in the Czech Republic. The group I met with there, the Czech Association for Mental Health, is, despite its name, an all-survivor group that split off from a larger mixed group. I visited their drop-in center, which is in an apartment building and reminded me of the Ruby Rogers Center in Boston, and spent several hours in an enjoyable discussion with about ten members, with translation provided by the group's leader, Jan Gottwald. Whenever I visit a survivor group, the same issues come up, and we discussed the lack of rights, the necessity for self-help and alternatives, and the importance of international contacts.

During my two-and-a-half day visit, I also met with the leader of a cross-disability organization, and a sympathetic psychiatrist (and also squeezed in a little sightseeing). Then it was off to Ljubljana-a fourteen hour train trip!-where I was delighted to renew my acquaintance with Tanja Lamovec and Igor spreizer, whom I had met at a conference in Denmark. Igor is on the board of the European Network, and had just returned from its meeting. Their organization, Altra, publishes a newsletter, and also conducts group meetings, educational lectures, meals, sports, tai-chi, and similar activities. They operate two group homes for people discharged from the hospital (there are few other such facilities in Slovenia), and will be starting an employment project. They had arranged for me to give a series of talks on advocacy, self-help, and group organization for their membership, and, with Tanja's translation, we were able to engage in lively and productive discussion.

On the way home, I stopped in London, where I had dinner with some local activists, and also crossed paths with David Oaks, who had just returned from Lithuania and was giving some lectures in England and Scotland.

The trip was too short, but I was able to learn something about what is happening in these countries, and to establish some contacts for the future. My experience when I travel to other countries is always that our movement is working on the same issues everywhere, because we are everywhere, facing the same problems of discrimination and the lack of basic legal rights.