Saturday, March 2, 2019

An Effort To Distance Critical Psychiatry From Antipsychiatry

I read the paper “Critical psychiatry: a brief overview” by Middleton and Moncrieff. This paper was the basis for the commentary by Peter Tyrer in the previous post on this blog. The authors try to make an argument to differentiate critical psychiatry from antipsychiatry. They claim that critical psychiatry offers constructive criticism of the field whereas antipsychiatry seeks to abolish the field. Constructive criticism needs to be valid criticism I hope to point out why critical psychiatry does not meet that threshold.

One of the interests for me in reading this paper was to see if critical psychiatry in fact could be distinguished from typical antipsychiatry rhetoric. That might be the easiest way to illustrate a significant difference. An associated strategy might be to show that critical psychiatry had origins that were clearly independent of antipsychiatry.   The authors suggest multiple common origins.  They both have the same heroes - Szasz and Foucault. They both draw heavily on the defective ideas of Szasz and Foucault. These ideas have no scientific basis and are not logically derived.

Social control is one concept that ties in what the authors claim is “controversy” about the institution of 19th century psychiatry and the ideas of Szasz and Foucault. By the authors own definition Szasz trivializes serious mental illness as a social disorder and socially deviant behavior rather than a potentially lethal illness. In order to consider a mental illness to be a true disease, Szasz believed it would have to be a “neurological” illness.  That does not recognize that a significant number of these disorders have no known pathophysiological mechanism.  Szasz and the authors paint themselves into a corner with this construct given the clear medical, neurological, and substance induced disorders listed in any diagnostic manual for psychiatry. They also seem to not realize that these distinctions are all arbitrary definitions by Szasz. Most medical professionals and lay people do not believe that a specific pathophysiological mechanism is the basis for disease, illness, or treatment in most cases. For the antipsychiatry and critical psychiatry adherents of Szasz this is one of their most predictable arguments.

On the issue of social control, the antipsychiatry arguments are as weak. The authors explain Foucault’s position as:

“Thus, the birthplace of institutional psychiatry can be considered arrangements for managing unproductive behaviour in a system of wage labour and industrial production. The growth of psychiatry in the 19th century legitimated this system by presenting it as a medical and therapeutic endeavor.”

I really doubt that Foucault was accurate in his historical observations.  German psychiatry at the time was clearly focused on persons with significant psychopathology and who could eventually be discharged as well as the biological basis of psychopathology. Have psychiatrists ever had the influence to run governments and dictate government policy? What ever spin Foucault could put on old history we all know what is happening now. Psychiatry is nearly completely marginalized.  Despite the antipsychiatry movement there is widespread agreement that there are too few psychiatrists and that people do not have enough time with them.  That process also highlights the true agents of social control.  Federal and state governments have supervised rationing bed resources to the point where they are extremely low.  At the same time there has been a huge increase in the mentally ill who are incarcerated, making county jails the largest psychiatric institutions in the country. Los Angeles County jail is building a new facility that is designed to hold a population with mental illness. They are calling it the Mental Health Treatment Center.  Foucault's speculation has not stood the test of time. There should be no doubt that the true agents of social control are federal and state governments, law enforcement, and businesses that profit from their relationships with government officials and not a marginalized medical specialty.  

The authors also march out the old Foucault quote “psychiatry is a moral practice, overlaid by the myths of positivism”.  Philosophers have the annoying practice of coming to a conclusion that is not backed up by any data or proof. That may be why Foucault also has to discredit positivism. He is basically in his own little parallel universe.  Let’s forget about the fact that no psychiatrist I have ever met was trained to exert social control and manage “unproductive behavior” by putting the poor and disabled into almshouses. Present day psychiatrists in the US are most commonly battling with insurance companies to get minimally adequate care for their patients.  That insurance company rationing has also resulted in the bed crunch that leads to incarceration, chronicity, and associated medical problems. Foucault’s proclamations about psychiatry have not withstood the test of time and in the modern world are wrong. 
An offshoot of the social control speculation is the authors comments about the sick role:

“Psychiatry’s institutional functions are legitimated by the designation of its clients or patients as ill or ‘sick’.”

They speculate that when the designation occurs the person is relieved from their social responsibilities as long as they play ball and remain in a passive sick role following the advice of their psychiatrist. Unfortunately for the authors they seem to have no real-world experience in what happens to people with psychiatric disabilities. They live in poverty. In the US, they may have to spend a much larger portion of their income on medical expenses. They have significant medical morbidity and have less access to care.  Substandard living conditions exposes them to more violent crime than the average person. They are at higher risk for incarceration. If they receive assistance from the state or federal government, these stipends can be reduced or stopped at any point resulting in homelessness – another significant risk in this population.  All of these factors combine to illustrate that there is no contract with society.  American society has shown time and time again – persons with mental illness are the first people thrown under the bus. So much for another critical psychiatry theory.

The final section is a recap about social control and they have an interesting paragraph where they blame psychiatry for both homosexuality as an illness and drapetomania as an illness.  No mention of the fact that Spitzer changed that designation about homosexuality in 1973, decades before the rest of the world caught on (some still have not).  Blaming psychiatry for drapetomania is standard antipsychiatry rhetoric. Anyone reading that word should realize this. It was a term coined in 1851 by Samuel Cartwright, an American physician to suggest that when slaves ran away it was a sign of mental illness. Antipsychiatrists have locked onto to this term since Whitaker put it in his provocative book Mad In America (p 171) as something else to blame psychiatrists for. The only problem is that Cartwright was not a psychiatrist and his off the wall theories were widely discredited at the time. The term has nothing to do with psychiatry or any psychiatric diagnostic system. Anyone using either homosexuality or drapetomania as examples of a powerful group (implicitly psychiatry) defining socially repudiated behavior as a mental illness to eradicate or control it (the authors words) – is by definition an antipsychiatrist.

The authors proceed to discuss treatment and how it differs if provided by critical psychiatrists.  This discussion contains very little that is remarkable.  They suggest that psychotherapeutic outcomes are broadly similar and discuss very broad definitions of psychotherapy. Anyone familiar with psychotherapy would not agree with these broad generalizations. They provide no real evidence for their conclusion that there are obstacles in place that discourage the relationship dimensions of therapists and encourage “paternalizing and instrumental approaches”.  It sounds to me like they are not approving of research based psychotherapies.   

On the medical side of things, I have serious questions about whether they do anything at all that is medical.  They suggest that psychiatry needs to be affiliated with medicine in order to get professional legitimacy. They have apparently never picked up a copy of Lishman’s Organic Psychiatry, Lipowski’s Delirium: Acute Confusional States, or Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine by Kryger, Roth, and Dement.  Professional legitimacy is a two way street and psychiatry gives as much as it gets.  They can also find those biomarkers they are looking for in any sleep medicine text.

The section on “drug treatment” explains the critical psychiatry theory of a “drug centered” model.  In this model, there are no specific mechanisms of action – only alterations in normal mental processes, emotion, and behavior.  They include a table showing that the effects of most modern psychiatric medications depend on producing sedation, cognitive impairment, dysphoria, and loss of libido.  When I read this section I had three thoughts.  The first is that this table contains list of side effects.  I had to look again to confirm that the authors are calling them psychoactive effects.  The second is that none of the critical psychiatrists treats anyone with severe psychiatric disorders or monitors side effects very well.  The most striking feature of treating people with severe illnesses is when their acute symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, mania, or severe depression go away. The associated goal is when their side effects are managed so that they have none.  Not noticing either of these effects may be because you are just not treating very ill people. My third thought was that the authors just don’t know very much about pharmacology.  We are currently talking about decades of study of some of these systems where the behavioral pharmacology and imaging studies have been done. If you don’t know that stimulants can cause hallucinations and delusions, that non stimulant dopamine receptor agonists can do the same thing and that dopamine receptor antagonists can reverse these effects – you have just not been paying very much attention. This is basic pharmacology that every psychiatric resident should know.

The authors conclude that “critical psychiatry is not antipsychiatry” but the problem is they have not offered any compelling arguments to back that statement. If anything, the bulk of their discussion illustrates that their philosophical origins and rhetoric against clinical aspects of modern psychiatry is right out of the antipsychiatry playbook.  They claim to be not be anti-science and have clearly rejected modern pharmacology and brain science in favor of a meaningless theory of drug effects.  The closing paragraphs on the existence of social problems and the importance of the therapeutic relationship is nothing new to the practice of psychiatry - everybody does it.

The only logical conclusion is that critical psychiatry is antipsychiatry.  Just like Szasz and Laing they eschew the term, but there is just no getting around it.  I want to end with a quick note about the practical implications of critical psychiatry coming out into the light. The first is that clinicians doing the work every day should not be surprised to see this rhetoric surface time and time again. There is nothing innovative about critical psychiatry - how could there be? Nothing will deter them from making these arguments in the foreseeable future.  My concern is the potential impact on patients. I have certainly seen patients affected by antipsychiatry cults. I have concerns about the effects in large health care organizations. Is it just money that caused psychiatric resources to be cut to the bone and our patients incarcerated or is there somebody making these decisions who embraces critical psychiatry or antipsychiatry?

At the academic level, the best way to deal with these biases against psychiatry is to leave the people perpetuating these biases back in the mid-19th and 20th centuries. Psychiatry has given many of these authors plenty of space in journals and debates.  They thrive on freedom of speech and expression. I think there is a problem with academic or clinical departments allowing the expression of information that in many cases reflects poor scholarship, is largely rhetorical, and in some cases is patently false. No other medical departments do this. 

The question is where and when that line should be drawn and as readers may have guessed - my threshold is lower than most.      

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


In their Szaszian efforts to act like psychiatric disorders are not illnesses, diseases, or diagnoses, antipsychiatrists typically refer to them using the pejorative term "labels".  The following philosophical cartoon illustrates why a psychiatric diagnosis is no more a label than a hot dog is a sandwich.  Cartoon here


Middleton H, Moncrieff J.  Critical psychiatry: a brief overview. BJPsych Advances (2019), vol 25, 45-54.    


  1. Szasz and Jeffrey Liebermann can both be wrong and they are.

    There certainly are psychiatric diagnoses that are nonessentialist statistical constructs but there certainly are not 300 of them, "precisely defined".

    Psychiatry and DSM undermine the case for treating the seriously mentally ill involuntarily by calling everything bad that happens a mental disorder.

    Feighner had it right in 1970 or whatever...let's focus on the 15 or so big ones and treat the rest as situational problems and areas of research.

    We have a goddam murine typhus outbreak in LA right now because we can't take care of the basic legal and management issues of serious cases.

    But psychiatry and psychology organizations want to have serious discussions about whether traditional masculinity and voting for Trump are mental disorders and whether or not unpleasant tweets can be the basis of PTSD.

    This is what happens when you don't prioritize and take nosology seriously with the attention of a statistician. This was all covered by Meehl forty years ago but no one paid attention other than a few quantitative psychologists.

  2. BTW, I did enjoy your takedown of Foucault. But the postmodernist scourge has infiltrated modern psychiatry and psychology and has become mainstream. Lacan and Marceuse dominate a lot of analytical institutions today.

    1. Thanks, the link to my critique of the NYTimes article on Prof. Gutting critique of the DSM-5 is particularly useful. Although he criticizes Foucault, it is telling that he make the same mistake, some of his defenders try to jump on me rhetorically, and in the end nobody can tell me how they would ever determine the difference between an explicit and implicit agenda. I was really interested in that answer and nobody was able to provide it.

      If you are going to philosophize about something and you don't know anything about it - your logical should be airtight. And in that scenario - how could it be?

      Psychoanalysis should be a technical field like the rest of psychiatry. I think it is a useful endeavor both at the clinical and theoretical level. I don't think being affiliated with a philosopher adds much. Antipsychiatry seems to depend on it along with rhetoric.

    2. I'm not all that bothered by critical psychiatry. Look at clinical nutrition and the standard practice of internists and FPs. Most of them have bought into 70 years of institutionally backed misinformation on sugar and cholesterol. Statins are more controversial than SSRIs. I remember when ulcers were caused by stress not helicobacter. It happens in other fields too. It's how fields evolve. But we are in a rut and I think that's what a lot of us are responding too.

    3. I will always have a problem with somebody presuming that they know more about my job than I do and then telling me that I am an idiot based on their superior knowledge.

      It's as simple as that.

  3. That I do have a problem with. But there are plenty of highly qualified people criticizing psychiatry and psychology. One can disagree with Healy but he is not stupid. Look at the pablum that comes out of Psychology Today's website and the throwaway psych journals. Most of it is virtue signaling ideology and not science. Many of us on this site have negative feelings about drugs like Paxil and the lack of measurement and biomarkers in psychiatric practice and have not been shy about saying so.

    In the interest of epistemic humility, I'm open to the idea that the newly approved esketamine will be a breakthrough but I am very skeptical. What's your current take on it?

    1. It will be interesting to see what will happen with the FDA approach. They are using a REMS approach so that it will be administered in MD offices only and it is not a take home drug.

      When I explained that to my wife after she heard the news story - her response was: "Who is going to go into a doctor's office every week to take a drug?" I did explain to her that it was less invasive than the current infusion - but not much. There is still an observation period and the patient needs to be driven home.

      There is also the issue that the infusion clinics seemed to be waning in the Twin Cities for some reason and I wonder if attrition due to the weekly procedure was part of that.

      I have seen people abusing very high doses of ketamine that the got from some of these clinics that were run by non-psychiatrists by using both tablets and compounded gels. As most psychiatrists know ketamine (along with PCP) is an abusable drug. I have seen it abused for at least 30 years and why people wanted to get dissociation and psychosis was always a mystery - but with Schatzberg's recent paper we now have a mechanism.

      Hope to put something on the blog here about it soon. A psychiatrist on Twitter who had early access described positive results. A friend of mine who specializes in treatment refractory mood disorders told me that 2/3 of his patients respond to the infusion.

  4. I'm interested but there are some logistical issues. I think you need a third room with a couch and a crash cart, and a nurse.

    1. I think there needs to be a standardized approach. If you have a crash cart - do you also need to be ACLS certified? I am assuming the office based approach approved by the FDA means it can be managed less intensively than that - but I need to read the package insert and look at the ADEs in the trials.

  5. I was wondering about ACLS myself, it's not a bad idea anyway (probably will save more lives than robotic board recertification). Or maybe do you need a bed instead of a couch? You're not going to wait two hours and not see other patients, so there would have to be at least some kind of trained observer.

    One odd elephant in the room about the reputation of's completely dependent on the reputation of psychology since most people don't know the difference and psychology is much bigger. I feel comfortable criticizing it because I have criticized psychiatry much like the late Mickey Nardo on the scientific and statistical problems in the field.

    Psychology (and related fields) training has slowly abandoned scientific approaches since the Boulder model went out of fashion...with disastrous results. It's abundantly clear when you read most of the on-line articles at psychological websites than only a few, such as Scott Lillenfeld, have a solid background in science and research. Much of it is just cathartic BS and personal agendas, as well as downright dangerous and stupid fake science, such as fat acceptance and "healthy at any weight". They don't realize how completely out of touch they look to the average reader.

  6. Articles like this cause me to pause and reconsider:

    I think the purpose of the article was pro but my thoughts ended up being con.

  7. I think that most of the early use is going to be in large clinics and medical centers where there are areas (post op, recovery rooms, infusion rooms, etc) where people can be observed en masse by trained staff and discharged. Smaller clinics might be able to replicate that to come extent by hiring ICU nurses or nurse anesthetists and coordinating the treatments for the same day of the week.

    Time will tell - this is all fueled by the promise of results for treatment resistant depression. That will give it an advantage over Relprevv - sustained release olanzapine that never really caught on.