Darby Penney, MLS
People will long remember Darby Penney for her courage, strength in the face of institutional power, and unwavering outrage at all forms of social injustice.
What is less well known about Darby is that she was one of the kindest, sweetest, and funniest people ever to “hold the barricades” of a social movement. Her love for life and her sheer joy in activism, coupled with her wry wit, enchanted her friends and disarmed many of her opponents. Many may remember the twinkle in her eye when she was anticipating a confrontation and the calm, firm way she would plant her feet, shake her head, and state, “I just don’t agree with that” when she encountered opposition.
Darby’s early advocacy focused on civil rights, HIV-AIDS, and the LGBTQI+ community. She learned strategy and tactics from these struggles and used them masterfully to help shape the mental health consumer/survivor/ex-patient (CSX) movement (as it was called then).
She loved “poking the bear,” and she knew how to use theatre to gain attention and make a point. Her use of puppets to lampoon authorities was legendary – her reputation cemented when she was fired for conducting an informal puppet show highly critical of the state’s Commissioner of Mental Health. In the current era, when the term “performative” has come to mean inauthentic, Darby stands out as someone who understood the power of the performing arts but who was always completely true to herself, whether giving legislative testimony or performing street theatre.
While Darby was always mindful of the groundbreaking contributions of leaders who preceded her, especially women like Judi Chamberlin, Rae Unzicker, and Sally Zinman, she ushered in a new phase in the movement. She was one of the first activists to attempt to work from inside the system as director of the NYSOMH Office of Recipient Affairs.
From that position, she instigated significant changes in the state’s policies on coercive interventions, convinced the NYS Civil Service system to create a civil service category for the new role of “peer specialist,” and amplified countless voices of countless others trying to influence the system. And although the movement morphed over time (from “C/S/X” to “consumer” to “peer” – with all the differences implied by the changes), Darby remained laser-focused not on promoting individual wellness but on dismantling systems of oppression.
Her greatest regret, expressed often towards the end of her life, was that the movement had lost much of its political punch as peer positions were normalized and mainstreamed.
Darby was also a librarian, a published poet, and co-author of the widely read “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.” Many people were intimidated by her powerful intellect, precise use of language, brilliant oratorical skills, and stubborn refusal to veer from her vision of what could be. But this clarity of language and vision forced people to confront logical inconsistencies in their thinking.
She was an early convert to the “trauma lens,” which she saw as a profound recognition that what the field calls “mental illness” is a trauma response. Her love for language was affronted: How can we talk about the “disease of schizophrenia” when research shows clearly that toxic stress and trauma are primary causal factors?
There was – and still remains – a wide gulf between the “peer movement” and the “trauma movement.” But Darby saw them as interchangeable aspects of a single reality, both linked inextricably with the abuse of power and privilege to deny full personhood to another human being.
No matter their circumstances or abilities, Darby saw every person as equally worthy of respect – no exceptions, no excuses.
Ultimately, this is Darby's gift to CTIPP and the trauma movement.
"She advocated for patients to have more choice and autonomy about their treatments; she railed against involuntary commitment, and she developed peer support networks that stressed the value of the expertise of individuals with psychiatric histories." (New York Times: Darby Penney, Who Crusaded for Better Psychiatric Care, Dies at 68. 12.21.21)