Alicia Narava: Paul Engels, Pioneer for Mental Patient’s Rights

Paul Engels is an ex-psychiatric patient who in 1980 created with two other Vermont ex-patients the grass-roots movement they called the Vermont Liberation Organization. Paul also started a television project where he brought together patients from the Vermont State Hospital to discuss issues with treatment and services, thereby helping marginalized Vermonters with psychiatric diagnoses by creating a safe space for them, their experiences, and their voices. 

Being the first Vermonter to use broadcast media when advocating for mental patients’ rights, Paul founded White Light Communications, a non-profit media company based in Burlington in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Its shows reflected the voices and experiences of psychiatric survivors. Engels was the Executive Director and interviewed nearly one hundred survivors, covering topics including homelessness, involuntary treatment, suicide, and surviving the mental health system.

Meanwhile, Paul also was helping to build a grass-roots movement consisting of the most disempowered Vermonters — those considered mad or insane. Over time, the Vermont Liberation Organization morphed into the Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, which continues today to advocate for all psychiatrically labeled Vermonters.


VPS logo [Online image]. (2022.

Engels demonstrated a transformational leadership style, motivating and inspiring his followers and helping to direct positive change in groups.

Leadership styles are classifications of how a person behaves while directing, motivating, guiding, and managing groups of people. Great leaders can inspire political movements and social change. They can also motivate others to perform, create, and innovate (Cherry, 2019, May 20).

Paul embodied Cherry’s description of being emotionally intelligent and passionate, and achieving the goals of the organization, while also helping group members to fulfill their potential. This is a community-centered approach to leadership, valuing both the leader and the community of followers. “[T]he individual and the community are both precious. It’s not an either/or thing. You can’t leave out one or the other” (Belenky, 1996, Spring/Summer).

Engels also demonstrated a form of spiritual leadership. “Every individual, group, and community has the capacity to exercise spiritual leadership. In order to exercise spiritual leadership, we as individuals, groups, and communities, have a clarity of vision and awareness of our purpose and gifts” (Women’s Theological Center, n.d.). Paul wrote about the spirit in cases of schizophrenia, where people have broken spirits. He observed that many different things in life can cause one’s spirit to break.

What’s the cure for schizophrenia? Deviant behavior can be unlearned and new behaviors learned in a new social environment. That’s what the self help movement is all about. With each other’s help, we can embrace the brokenness, accept the despair, surrender to the feeling of emptiness. It’s all part of life. We can give the spirit time to heal and to be made whole. We can keep trying to order and reorder those words until they make sense to somebody. We can pay attention to our dreams and let them heal us. We can give ourselves time and space and feeling and belief. We can come home from the journey” (Engels, 1995, Spring).

The following interview with Judi Chamberlin, founder of the Mental Patients Liberation Front and early organizer of the national ex-patient movement, is a great example of how Engels — then known as Paul Dorfner — provided a space for ex-patients to share their stories and experiences.

[To view the video, click on]

Paul Dorfner [Engels] introducing Chamberlin interview [Screenshot]. (c. 1990).

“If you want to be a leader, part of what you need to do is leverage the tools you’ve got, the people you have and the momentum you have to do something that might not be comfortable and might not be fun, but at least takes you to a new place in a way that’s productive and useful” (Raz, 2014, January 17).

Engels took the skills that he had as a psychiatric survivor and worked through the challenges and discomfort to create an organization and television show. “A movement must be public. It’s important to show not just the leader, but the followers, because you find that new followers emulate the followers, not the leader” (Sivers, 2010, February).

Engels’ story is similar to that of Issa Nyaphaga, a Cameroon citizen who took his experience of oppression and became an influential leader, growing a culture of resistance against his government’s censorship of information through art. Nyaphaga spoke about what power and leadership mean to him: “Power is not only when you have a lot of money, or when you have a gun in your hand, or when you can make laws to marginalize other people. I believe in power of love. Power to create. Power to organize. Power to transform” (Nyaphaga, 2018, January 30).

Paul Engels started a Vermont movement where none existed, helping to expose mistreatment and harmful techniques and treatments in psychiatry and the mental health system. By creating a platform for Vermonters with psychiatric labels, he helped to dissolve the stigma of mental illness, and empowered many to engage in their own healing process. Both by example and through his historic work, Paul has shown us that there are perspectives on mental disorders that go beyond traditional psychiatry, and that we can take alternative routes and engage in our own healing.



Belenky, M. (1996, Spring/Summer). Women & “public homeplace”: An interview with Mary Field Belenky. Counterpoint XII: 2, 4-5, 22.

Chamberlin, J. (1990). Judi Chamberlin: interview with Paul Engels: On the ex-patients movements. White Light Communications Collection (MS 984). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

Cherry, K. (2019, May 20). Leadership styles and frameworks you should know.

Engels, P. (1995, Spring). The reality of brokenness. Counterpoint XI: 1, 9.

Nyaphaga, I. (2018, Jan. 30). A lifelong struggle for freedom of expression [Video]. YouTube.

Raz, G. (Host).  (2014, January 17). Seth Godin: Can ordinary people become leaders? [Radio broadcast]. NPR.

Sivers, D. (2010, Feb.). Derek Sivers: How to start a movement [Video]. TED Conferences.

Women’s Theological Center. (n.d.). What Is spiritual leadership?

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APA cite in text as: (Narava, 2023)

APA cite in full References as: Narava, A. (2023). Paul Engels, Pioneer for Mental Patients’ Rights. Vermont Psychology.

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Alicia Narava is a native Vermonter, born and raised in Barnard, and currently living in Winooski. Her personal experience with a mental disorder was the catalyst in pursuing a Behavioral Science degree at CCV. After graduating from CCV, she will pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology, followed by a master’s in psychology. Though there is uncertainty in her career, one thing is for sure: she wants to make a positive difference in the mental health care systems and improve the lives of others. She has a passion for making meaningful change in social issues, including poverty, racial justice, body autonomy, healthcare, homelessness, refugee crisis and immigration, and climate crisis. When not in school, you can find her enjoying the outdoors with her dog and cat.