Sally Zinman

January 3, 2013

Learn about the story of Sally Zinman, a pioneer in the consumer movement who has been doing advocacy work for more than 30 years. Discover how she recovered from abuse on a farm in the name of treatment and the pivotal role she has played in groundbreaking mental health legislation.

Stories of Recovery: Sally Zinman


One day I woke up and I didn't know who I was. I was totally disconnected from Sally Zinman.  I could tell you everything about her life -- where I went to college, I had gotten a masters in English, where I had taught. All those things, but it wasn't me.

My onset of what people describe or diagnose as mental illness came at a much later time than most people. Most people usually late teens or early twenties. I was in my early thirties. I had never been -- I always had problems and had been able to function with them -- probably not at my highest capacity, but at least been able to function.

I used to gorge. I used to throw-up. I used to spend times of not eating, what they diagnose now as anorexic. My family put me in a facility being run by a person named Dr. John Rosen. When I was in his "treatment," I'll put quotes around that, I was beaten by him on my face and breasts.  I was tied to a bed with just my underwear on, watched by a man and a woman. And, ultimately I was put in a cellar what they called a security room. It had a 2 x 4 for the lock on the front door.

It had a small window at the upper part of one of the walls where people could see in. It was hard for me to see out because it was higher than I was. I was in there for two months in pantyhose and a bra, with a bed which was a mattress on the floor. I had a bucket to go to the bathroom, which they came and cleaned out once a day. I was allowed to go upstairs to shower and go to the bathroom and wash my teeth and face once a day with two guards which were again a man and a woman that were in the bathroom with me so there was no privacy.

The doctor would come in periodically and just sort of throw me against the wall or hit me. You know, I didn't know who I was, and being treated that way, I was thinking maybe I'm a bad person. Maybe in my life I did some really horrible things, because why else would you treat somebody in this way? I didn't know my diagnosis at the time because he didn't tell me what diagnosis he was using. But later, much later, on another occasion I learned that the diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia.

My ticket out was to say my name was Sally Zinman. So I just started saying that. I didn't believe it, but that's what got me out. I did get out of the locked room. Ultimately, I got out of being an in-patient. And ultimately I got out of being an out-patient, all by, in my opinion, lying. I still didn't know who I was, but I had learned not to tell anybody. And that experience was so difficult and so horrendous, thatI knew and resolved at that time that I would be back to do something about this -- that it was wrong, and what was born was my life of advocacy.

And I don't think that is different from the thousands of people I've met in the last 40 years in the consumer/survivor movement -- that their advocacy was born by what happened to them, and this resolve and determination to try to make sure that what happened to them would not happen to people that followed them. To change the system enough that the next generations would experience it in a different way.

My recovery process was through many vehicles.  Probably a primary vehicle was getting back to the earth, and doing very, very healthy things for my body and mind. I bought a farm, and began an organic vegetable farm. I started reading a lot, a lot of books and started coming to certain conclusions not just about what happened to me, but generalizing about the mental health system and the problems of forced treatment. 

I think for the first time in our state, we are beginning to have adequate, we're beginning to have access to adequate care with the Mental Health Services Act. Deinstitutionalization did not fail. It was never completed. And what we need is voluntary person-centered holistic services that deal with the whole human being. And they can be done in a voluntary way, because they are being done in a voluntary way by the Mental Health Services Act. 

There still is not enough money. A lot of money, there is a lot of money in the Mental Health Services Act. It's not enough to serve everybody. But not having available voluntary services is not an excuse to promote coercion, or even to go in the direction of coercion. The direction has to be more voluntary holistic services, person-centered, recovery based services.

I became involved in the consumer/survivor movement when I went to the first, my first conference. It was called the International Conference on Human Rights Against Psychiatric Oppression. And it was in 1977. And I remember my feeling when I went there that suddenly I was not alone.
There were people that felt the same things I felt. It was like one of those huge "Aha" moments that changed the whole direction of my life. It was in 1977, and since then, I have been involved in the, deeply involved in the mental health consumer/survivor activist movement. And it gave me the direction that I needed.  

Previous to that time, I hired a private investigator, and in something like 3 days because she put facts about my life in front of me - where I had rented an apartments and people I had talked to. Because she did some investigation. I acknowledged and said, "I'm Sally Zinman." I wonder why all that I needed was a private investigator that cost $15 an hour in 3 days to find that. Or, was it that I had done enough self-traveling in those 6 or 7 years that it didn't matter what my name was. That I was a new person by that time and brought in a new life. I'm not sure which. I also with this private investigator, went back to my second goal which was to do something about the doctor, and I would say that was my first advocacy effort in this movement. That she and I ultimately, and other people that she bought in, some very brave ex-patients of this doctor, were able to get his license taken away.

When I returned from the conference, I put an ad in the paper, just the regular paper, saying "Mental patient want to start mental patient rights group." And if you're interested call me. And put the telephone number. And I got a whole lot of people calling. And we met for the first time at the farm, around the kitchen table, where so many things are in this world - around kitchen tables and in church basements and wherever you can get people together.

And I think in 1977 by maybe 6 months after the conference, we had started a consumer-run program in Florida called Mental Patients Rights Association. Ultimately it was a drop-in center, and we also had a residency. We had no money. We were able to get $5000 to pay the rent of the Center. So we had like a storefront where people could come in.It was the initial model of what we call Wellness Recovery Centers today.
People came in. We had butcher paper on the wall. People wrote what they wanted to do. And we all volunteered and did those things. And, eventually because my daughter is African American, we're a mixed couple, mixed family, I knew very clearly that by the time she was 5 and going into school that we moved from this area in Florida to an area that was more integrated and accepting of mixed families.

And, I came to Berkeley, California. When I first came out to California, within 3 days of coming out, a colleague of mine who asked me to come to what he called a "consumer steering committee meeting" in Sacramento. And I did, and that was, I think there were 19 people there, and it was the initial group that started a first state-wide organization, consumer-run organization, in the country called the California Network of Mental Health Clients. And my life became very intertwined with the California Network of Mental Health Clients for the next 28 years. Eventually, I left the Berkeley Drop-In Center, where I served as the Coordinator. We did not use Director at the time because that was a hierarchical relationship and we believed in "Nothing About Us Without Us", and almost pure democracy. I became the Executive Director from 1997 to 2007 of this California Network of Mental Health Clients.

I am old enough, and my life has spanned 36 or more years of consumer activism and I have seen what that activism has produced. And it is very clear to me that the indicators of the past of our huge advances are indicators of the future. And so, I have great hope that this movement will continue. I think it will be defined differently than we defined it, because I think in fact we have changed the system for those that follow us. So they will define the next steps based on their experiences which were different than ours.