Psychiatric survivors do not fit under one umbrella. In general terms, they all usually share a background as patients with mental disorders who have experienced psychiatric or mental health care. For some individuals, this distinction has evolved into a movement against modern psychiatric practices. Such ex-patients may campaign for reform in psychiatric attitudes and practices, or they may simply condemn psychiatry as a whole. In other cases, the term "survivor" is understood in the psychiatric sense: individuals who have lived through and are coping with significant emotional traumas.
The movement for psychiatric survivors can be viewed as a human rights movement. Individuals involved in this movement feel that mentally ill individuals are routinely discriminated against by society. This discrimination often manifests in approaches to psychiatric treatment. Chiefly, psychiatry survivors claim to promote freedom of choice, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to human dignity.
One of the chief complaints of psychiatric survivors is the loss of independence and choice. Primarily, this conflict arises in cases of forced treatment and involuntary commitment. If individuals are legally deemed a danger to themselves or to others, these individuals may be forcibly admitted to a mental health hospital in many regions. Further, resistant individuals may be compelled to ingest medication or may even be forcibly restrained with devices like strait jackets.
Forced treatments can open debate about another rights issue: the right of individuals for safety and security from undesirable punishments. Many psychiatry survivors, for example, speak out against their pharmaceutical regimens, claiming the effects of psychiatric medication are worse than any disease. Others might have had negative experience with practices such as electroconvulsive therapy or with negative perceptions of medical staff. Stripping away both choice and safety, psychiatry survivors claim, robs individuals of basic dignity.
While some psychiatric survivors condemn psychiatry as a whole, others campaign for better policies, laws, and practices. This movement has deep historical roots, as improved understanding and activism significantly helped the overall perception of psychiatry patients change from fundamentally flawed or even evil to individuals in need of medical help. In addition, advocacy helped abolish such practices as lobotomies and insane asylums in many regions. Several books and organizations dedicated to psychiatric survivors arose in the 20th century.
The word survivor may also be used in psychiatry itself. In most cases, this term describes patients who have endured some type of trauma and are currently in the healing process. For example, an individual who has been assaulted or who has endured the emotional effects of witnessing wartime combat may be referred to as a survivor.