New York Times

Judi Chamberlin, 65, Advocate for Mental Health Patients

Published: January 30, 2010

Judi Chamberlin, whose involuntary confinement in a mental hospital in the 1960s propelled her into a leading role in the movement to guarantee basic human rights to psychiatric patients, died on Jan. 16 at her home in Arlington, Mass. She was 65.

The cause was pulmonary disease, said Martin Federman, her companion since 2006.

“It was not into one of those horror-story-type places” that Ms. Chamberlin was committed in 1966, Mr. Federman said. Still, five months in a state hospital in New York City for a diagnosis of chronic depression were enough to prompt her to action.

She was then Judi Ross, 22 years old, and had suffered a miscarriage. “She didn’t get over that, as people kept telling her she would,” Mr. Federman said. After several voluntary hospitalizations, she was involuntarily committed.

“There are real indignities and real problems when all facets of life are controlled — when to get up, to eat, to shower — and chemicals are put inside our bodies against our will,” Ms. Chamberlin told The New York Times in 1981.

There was a lack of activity, of fresh air. There were seclusion rooms and wards for noncompliant patients, even those who were in no way violent. The drugs, which she said made her lethargic and affected her memory, seemed more intended to control than cure. And she could not sign herself out.

She had become, she said, “a prisoner of the system.”

After her release, Ms. Chamberlin began working with several organizations in the budding rights movement for mental health patients. She gave speeches and interviews throughout the country. In 1978, her book “On Our Own” (Hawthorne) was published.

In 2000, she was a primary author of a federal report by the National Council on Disability called “From Privileges to Rights.” The report said that within the traditional system patients had to earn privileges, among them to see visitors, leave the grounds and have their own clothes. Those should be basic rights, not privileges, the report said.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush presented Ms. Chamberlin with the Distinguished Service Award.

Born in Brooklyn on Oct. 30, 1944, Judi Ross was the only child of Harold and Shirley Jaffe Ross. Her father was an advertising executive, her mother a school administrator.

Her marriages to Howard Cahn and Robert Chamberlin ended in divorce. Besides Mr. Federman, she is survived by a daughter, Juli Chamberlin of Medford, Mass., and three grandchildren.


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