Rae Unzicker’s exposure to the psychiatric system began at a young age. Growing up in an abusive home, her parents sent her to psychiatrists off and on for years before she was involuntarily committed. While there, she was quickly introduced to the chaotic and damaging atmosphere of a psychiatric institution, exposing her to mandatory drugs, seclusion rooms, forced feeding, and work “therapy” that required her to wash dishes six hours a day. Once she was release, Unzicker’s road to recovery was long, but after several suicide attempts and stays at other treatment facilities, she ultimately counted herself–along with her friend Judi Chamberlin, an early leader in the movement–a psychiatric survivor. Like Chamberlin, Unzicker embraced her role as an advocate of patient’s rights and for the radical transformation of the mental-health system. In 1995, President Clinton appointed her to the National Council on Disability; two years later she was elected president of the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy (NARPA). Unzicker was widely known for her public appearances, conferences and speeches, and her writings, including numerous articles and contributions to the book Beyond Bedlam: Contemporary Women Psychiatric Survivors Speak Out. A survivor of cancer of the jaw and breast, Rae Unzicker died at her home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on March 22, 2001 at the age of 52.
Although a small collection, Rae Unzicker’s papers document her activities as a leading advocate for the rights of mental health patients, including transcripts of speeches and videotaped appearances, correspondence and feedback related to workshops and conferences, press kits, and newspaper clippings. The most important materials, however, are her writings. It is through her poems and her full-length memoir, You Never Gave Me M & M’s, that Unzicker’s story and voice are preserved.
Background on Rae Unzicker
“To be a mental patient is to be stigmatized, ostracized, socialized, patronized, and psychiatrized.”
From “To be a Mental Patient” by Rae Unzicker, 1984
Public servant and disability civil rights activist, Rae Unzicker spent her adult life advocating the fair treatment and equal rights for psychiatric patients, including their right to decide if and how they receive treatment. Unzicker’s advocacy was grounded in her own experiences, for she knew firsthand the damaging atmosphere of psychiatric institutions. From the age of 12, she found herself in and out of therapists’ offices, hospitals, and mental institutions. It was not until the age of 24 that her road to recover really started to see significant positive changes, although she continued to have high and low periods throughout her life. Despite her continual struggles, Unzicker considered herself a psychiatric survivor, and she was determined to create change in the care of mental health patients.
Born Carole Renetta Engles in 1948, Rae grew up in Ottawa, Kansas, where she graduated from high school in 1966. During high school, Unzicker was known for her poetry, oratorical skill, and interest in journalism. During her senior year, she won the American Legion Oratorical Award as well as a Senior High Journalist of the Year award and a journalism scholarship awarded to her by The Ottawa Herald. After graduation, she continued to pursue journalism and worked on the yearbook staff at the University of Kansas, until her hospitalizations and relationship with her parents left her unable to neither attend nor afford classes. She did eventually graduate with a B.S. in Journalism in 1970.
After a very traumatic year which included being raped and having a therapeutic abortion, Unzicker moved to Sioux Falls, where she made her home until her death in 2001. In Sioux Falls, Unzicker began working for the local news station, KSOO-TV. It was the beginning of a promising career, but suffering from the same doubts and anxiety that plagued her in high school and college, she attempted suicide multiple times which resulted in her termination from the news station. Despite the unfortunate outcome of her time at the station, it was during this time that she began seeing Dr. Robert Hughes, who was extremely influential in her recovery. He was the first to refuse to indulge her threats of suicide and the first to reward her with consistent positive feedback. It was this positive reinforcement and encouragement for her accomplishments that started to change the way Unzicker saw herself and how she reacted to situations. However, after another failed suicide attempt, Hughes refused to see Unzicker as his patient. This act changed Rae. She came to recognize that she had hurt someone who cared about her and whom she considered a friend, and from this, she pushed herself to join the “healthies,” using the lessons Dr. Hughes had taught her.
Rae married Jim Unzicker (1932-1998) in 1974 and became a mother to five step-children. Together Rae and Jim operated a film and advertising company. After being married for a few months, Rae drafted a manuscript of her memoir, You Never Gave Me M & M’s. This book recounted her childhood and early adulthood, including her stays in mental hospitals, those who helped her, her revelations about her condition, and ultimately her call for change in the understanding and care of mental health care patients. The final chapters of this book can be seen as a manifesto for her founding of the South Dakota Mental Health Advocacy Project in 1979. As the book recounts the horrors and turmoil Rae faced emotionally and physically, it ultimately ends with a message of hope, an honest and almost surprising message considering Rae’s mental state only a few years earlier.
As part of her advocacy for the rights of mental health patients, Rae spoke at multiple conferences and workshops around the country and in Europe. She appeared on multiple television shows including The Phil Donahue Show. She even ran a campaign, albeit unsuccessful, for a position in the South Dakota House of Representatives. Despite her unsuccessful campaign, she continued to advocate for human rights in South Dakota and beyond. She was honored for her contributions to the betterment of society by Women’s Day magazine, when she was named an Outstanding Woman in America in 1987. However, the ultimate recognition of her contributions to the fight for people labelled with psychiatric disabilities came when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the National Council on Disability (NCD) in 1995. She served on this council until her death in 2001, and she is often credited with the conception and editing of From Privileges to Rights: People Labelled with Psychiatric Disabilities Speak for Themselves (2000), which was a report to President based on testimony from people with psychiatric disabilities. The report called for those with psychiatric disabilities to be treated as citizens and to be afforded the same rights applied to all other citizens. Rae’s work at the national level did not stop with the NCD. She became President of National Association for Rights, Protection, and Advocacy (NARPA) in 1997.
Rae was a prolific writer, and wrote numerous speeches and articles on the subject of mental health care. Late in her life, she published a chapter in Beyond Bedlam: Contemporary Women Psychiatric Survivors Speak Out (2000); this book offered a look at the experiences of women who were survivors of the psychiatric system, what lead them to treatment and how they were treated. In her chapter, “From the Inside,” Rae describes how she felt that something was wrong with her from a young age, how her abusive home life and the unhelpful treatments she received in hospitals only made problems worse. She paints an abysmal portrait of mental health care, calling its “help” a lie. Written nearly forty years after her first experience with psychiatry, “From the Inside” served as a reminder of how much change was still needed in the care of mental patients.
Approaching the end of her life, her battle with breast cancer worsened as the cancer returned in 1999. Then in 2000, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Finally, she lost her battle with cancer at the age of 52 in 2001, in her home in Sioux Falls.
Described as energetic but tempestuous by David Kohn, one of her “refugees,” Rae was a witty and charming woman and a phenomenal public speaker. Yet, she did have a darker, troubled side that she continually battled her entire life. However, it was ultimately her struggle that informed her career as a mental health activist, and is what drove her to pursue equal rights for all mental health patients.
Rae Unzicker’s papers document her activities as a leading advocate for the rights of mental health patients. Although small, the collection provides insight into Unzicker’s life, thoughts, and passions. Newspaper clippings of Unzicker’s articles from Sunday, a review column in a Sioux Falls paper, showcase her wit and zeal, as well as her interests in theater, local events, and politics, including a series about the local Problems Living Center. Transcriptions and drafts of her speeches and appearances reveal the major points of Unzicker’s advocacy and exhibit her allure as a public speaker. Unzicker’s papers also include a plethora of correspondence and feedback related to workshops and conferences; these letters give thanks, endorsement, and encouragement, and demonstrate the large number of audiences Unzicker reached with her appearances and words. Although the collection lacks much of Rae’s personal correspondence, it includes a particularly moving letter written to her parents; this letter of reconciliation offers insight into Rae’s relationship with her parents as well as her recovery. Unlike her speeches or letters, which offer brief descriptions of her experiences with the mental health care system, Unzicker’s memoir, You Never Gave Me M & M’s, provides the most complete account of her childhood and early adulthood, including her first attempt at suicide, her first encounter with a psychiatrist, and the numerous highs and lows she faced on her journey to recovery. The collection includes two full copies of the manuscript, one of which has handwritten edits.
In addition to these materials, the collection includes videotaped appearances, photographs, a press kit, resources for mental health care (such as articles, poetry, and worksheets), Rae’s poetry and creative writings, and newspaper clippings about Rae and her husband Jim as well as various issues in mental health care.
Acquired from Donor, 2013.
Processed by Brittany Mayo, May 2014.
For materials related to the civil rights for mental patients, see:
- Judi Chamberlin Papers (MS 768)
Cite as: Rae Unizcker Papers (MS 818). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
- Ex-mental patients
- People with disabilities--Civil rights
- People with disabilities--Legal status, laws, etc.
- Unzicker, Rae
Types of material