People who work for justice in psychiatry are known by a number of names depending on their particular political orientation. Consumers tend to work for better conditions within the existing psychiatric system. Psychiatric survivors, ex-patients, ex-inmates, and antipsychiatry activists usually work to completely overhaul, remold, or destroy the system. When the various groups are working together, you start hearing abbreviations like consumer/survivor, or consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x).
Consumers refer to themselves as consumers because they feel that it is a step up from being called a patient: They are consumers of psychiatric services, and as such have certain rights in directing those services. Not everyone agrees. Many people who have been grievously harmed within the psychiatric system find the word consumer laughable at best, insulting at worst, to describe their experiences. Many have said that they were never consumers, only consumed by the abuse they endured in the system.
Don Weitz writes:
The labels "mental health consumer" and "consumer/survivor" are misleading and insulting to many of us who've suffered psychiatric abuse, the terror and injustice of involuntary committal, and other violations of our human rights. Hell, we were almost consumed by psychiatry's "safe, effective and lifesaving treatments" - it's a miracle many of us are still alive but many more are permanently disabled or dead.
Call Me Antipsychiatry Activist - Not "Consumer"1
Weitz refers to himself as both an antipsychiatry activist and a psychiatric survivor, describing insulin shock and similar traumatic treatment within the psychiatric system. Many other survivors and ex-patients have come up with the comparison between consumer and consumed on their own, and I count myself among them. But not everyone agrees.
Some consumers have responded to this comparison by commenting that they would not be alive without the psychiatric help they received, and that it is in bad taste to use this form of wordplay. Some, but by no means all, mistakenly believe that people who refer to themselves as consumed are delusional and probably need antipsychotic medication, are Scientologists, or are followers of a few well-known people such as Thomas Szasz. Some are, but some are not.
There are many points of view on this topic, but in the end I can only speak from my own. If I used psychiatric services on purpose and wanted to continue doing so, I might refer to myself as a consumer. I don't do these things, and I don't want to. Despite having the sort of problems that usually get you referred to a psychiatrist as mentally ill, I have found alternatives to psychiatry. The word consumer makes no sense in this context. On the other hand, what I have to show from involuntary exposure to psychiatry is trauma, a few close calls with death, plenty of abuse, and brain damage. While I am lucky in that I am alive, consumed fits much better than consumer in describing my relationship to the mental health system. And I fear that many who now call themselves consumers may later discover themselves being consumed.
1Weitz, Don. Call Me Antipsychiatry Activist, Not "Consumer." http://www.madnation.cc/essays/weitz2.htm. Madnation. Page accessed May 15, 2004