Mlle. Madeline # 22040's unbending resistance is part of a long history; as long as there have been asylums and mental hospitals, there have been patients who find their confinement an injustice. Gayle Hornstein compiled a bibliography of over 600 first-person patient narratives; she believes that "patient memoirs are a kind of protest literature, like slave narratives or witness testimonies." One example is that of Elizabeth Ware Packard. Committed to an Illinois asylum in 1860 by her husband, she carried her resistance from the back wards into court, and was found "not insane" by a jury. She wrote several illustrated books describing abusive practices in the asylum, which resulted in official investigations and changes in the Illinois commitment law.

While the ex-patients' movement has roots in 19th century social reform efforts and individual patients' struggles for justice, the modern movement began in earnest in the 1970s. Pioneering groups took their inspiration from other movements of disenfranchised people, such as the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the disability movement. Like these groups, ex-patients and their allies are concerned with human and civil rights, with prejudice and discrimination, and work toward a future in which the larger society will recognize the full humanity of people with psychiatric disabilities. As the movement developed, its members worked (and continue to work) for social, political and legal equality, for the right to self-definition and self-determination, and for alternatives to the medical model. Over the past 35 years, the movement has evolved from a largely discounted fringe group to one that is poised to become a significant political force for change.