Just when you think you have seen it all, you run into an article like this one in The Atlantic. A psychotherapist with a long antipsychiatry monologue. It is written in interview format with psychotherapist Gary Greenberg as the discussant. I thought it was interesting because the title describes this diatribe as the "real problems" with psychiatry. Of course what he writes about has nothing to do with the real problems that specifically are the rationing and decimation of psychiatric services by managed care companies and the government. The entire article can be discredited on a point by point basis but I will focus on a few broad brush strokes.
The author here spins a tale that the entire impetus for a diagnostic manual and a biomedical orientation for psychiatry is strictly political in nature and it has to do with wanting to establish credibility with the rest of medicine. That is quite a revision of history. Psychiatry pretty much exists now because psychiatrists would take care of the problems that nobody else wanted to. I have immediate credibility when another physician is seeing a person with a mental illness, they don't know what to do about it, and I do. It is less clear today, but psychiatry professional organizations were asylum focused and the goal was to treat people in asylums initially and then figure out a way to get them back home. Part of the psychiatric nosology was based on the people who would get out of asylums at some point and those who did not. The credibility of psychiatry has nothing to do with a diagnostic manual. It has to do with the fact that psychiatrists have a history of treating people with serious problems and helping them get well. There is no discussion of how the numbers of people institutionalized in the 1950s and 1960s fell to the levels of current European levels as a result of psychiatric intervention that included the use of new medications but also a community psychiatry movement that was socially based. (see Harcourt Figure II.2)
The author uses the idea of "chemical imbalance" rhetorically here as further proof that psychiatrists are using a false premise for political purposes. He presumes to tell his readers that during the time he is giving the interview there is some psychiatrist out there using the term chemical imbalance to convince a patient to take antidepressants. Since I have never used that term and generally discourage it when patients bring it up, I wonder if he is right. Any psychiatrist trained in the past three decades knows the situation is much more complex than that. Eric Kandel describes the situation very well in his 1979 classic article on "Psychotherapy and the Single Synapse". Any antipsychiatrist using "chemical imbalance" against psychiatry in a rhetorical manner suggests that there is no biomedical basis for mental disorders. There should be nobody out here who believes that is true and in fact this article acknowledges that.
The basic position here is to deny that anything psychiatric exists. Psychiatrists don't know what they are doing. Psychiatrists are driven by the conflict of interest that nets them "hundreds of millions of dollars". He doesn't mention how much money he makes as an outspoken critic of psychiatry. He tries to outflank his rhetoric by suggesting any psychiatrists who disagrees with him and suggests that it is typical antipsychiatry jargon is "diagnosing him". He doesn't mention the fact that antipsychiatry movements are studied and classified by philosophers.
I think the most revealing part of this "interview" is that it appears to be orchestrated to enhance the author's rhetoric. The evidence for that is the question about "drapetomania" and implying that has something to do with coming up with DSM diagnoses and the decision to drop homosexuality as a diagnostic category. That is more than a stretch that is a clear distortion and of course the question is where the interviewer comes up with a question about "drapetomania". I wonder how that happened?
This column is an excellent ad for the author's antipsychiatry work. Apart from that it contains contains the standard "chemical imbalance" and psychiatric disorders are not "real illnesses". To that he adds the conflicting positions of saying there appear to be biological correlates of mental disorders but they would never correlate with an existing diagnosis and the idea of a chemical imbalance metaphor is nonsense. He uses colorful language to boost his rhetoric: "They'll (those wacky psychiatrists - my clarification) bob and weave, talk about the "living document," and unleash their line of bullshit."
His conclusory paragraph and the idea to "take the thing (DSM) away from them" has been a common refrain from the DSM critics. In fact as I have repeatedly pointed out, there is nothing to stop any other organization from coming up with a competing document. In fact, sitting on my shelf right now (next to DSM-IV) is a reference called the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. It is listed as a collaborative effort of six different organizations of mental health professionals. It was published 12 years after the last edition of the DSM - it is newer. I have texts written by several of the collaborators of this volume. When I talk with psychiatrists from the east coast, they frequently ask me about whether or not I am familiar with the volume. My point here is that if the author's contentions about the reality basis of DSM diagnoses are correct, it should be very easy to come up with a different system. I encourage anyone or group of people to develop their own diagnostic system and compete with the DSM.
So the last minute attacks on psychiatry with the release of the DSM seem to be at a fever pitch. The myth of the psychiatric bogeyman is alive and well. Add The Atlantic to the list of uncritical critics of psychiatry.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1. Hope Reese. The Real Problems with Psychiatry. The Atlantic. May 2, 2013.
2. Bernard E. Harcourt. From the asylum to the prison: rethinking the incarceration revolution. The Law School, University of Chicago, 2007.
3. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM). A collaborative effort of the American Psychoanalytic Association, International Psychoanalytic Association, Division of Psychoanalysis (38) of the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, National Membership Committee on Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work. Published by the Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations. Silver Spring, MD (2006).
4. Kandel ER. Psychotherapy and the single synapse. The impact of psychiatric thought on neurobiologic research. N Engl J Med. 1979 Nov 8;301(19):1028-37. PubMed PMID: 40128.