A History of Mental Health Advocacy & Activism (Beginnings to 1990s)

image

  1. Early advocacy and activism

The modern consumer/service-user/survivor movement is generally considered to have begun in the 1970s in the wake of the many civil rights movements that emerged at the time.[1] The Survivors’ History Group – a group founded in April 2005 and concerned with documenting the history of the movement – traces an earlier starting point.[2] The group sees affinity between contemporary activism and earlier attempts to fight stigma, discrimination and the poor treatment of individuals variously considered to be mad, insane and, since the dominance of the medical idiom, to suffer with mental illness.[3] In their website which documents Survivor history, the timeline begins with 1373, the year the Christian mystic Margery Kempe was born. Throughout her life, Margery experienced intense voices and visions of prophets, devils, and demons. Her unorthodox behaviour and beliefs upset the Church, the public, her husband, and resulted in her restraint and imprisonment on a number of occasions. Margery wrote about her life in a book in which she recounted her spiritual experiences and the difficulties she had faced.[4]

The Survivors’ history website continues with several recorded instances of individual mis-treatment on the grounds of insanity. But the first explicit evidence of collective action and advocacy in the UK appears in 1845 in the form of the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society: an organisation composed of individuals most of whom had been incarcerated in madhouses and subjected to degrading treatment (Hervey 1986). For around twenty years, the Society campaigned for the rights of patients, including the right to be involved in decisions pertaining to their care and confinement. In the US, around the same time, patients committed to a New York Lunatic Asylum produced a literary magazine – The Opal – published in ten volumes between 1851 and 1860. Although this production is now seen to have painted a rather benign picture of asylum life, and to have allowed voice only to those patients who were deemed appropriate and self-censorial (Reiss 2004), glimpses of dissatisfaction and even of liberatory rhetoric emerge from some of the writing (Tenney 2006).

An important name in what can be considered early activism and advocacy is Elizabeth Packard. In 1860, Packard was committed to an insane asylum in Illinois by her husband, a strict Calvinist who could not tolerate Packard’s newly expressed liberal beliefs and her rejection of his religious views. At the time, state law gave husbands this power without the need for a public hearing. Upon her release, Packard campaigned successfully for a change in the law henceforth requiring a jury trial for decisions to commit an individual to an asylum (Dain 1989, p.9). Another important campaigner is Clifford Beers, an American ex-patient who published in 1908 his autobiography A Mind That Found Itself. Beer’s biography documented the mistreatment he experienced at a number of institutions. The following year he founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (NCMH), an organisation that sought to improve conditions in asylums and the treatment of patients by working with reform-minded psychiatrists. The NCMH achieved limited success in this respect, and its subsequent efforts focused on mental health education, training, and public awareness campaigns in accordance with the then dominant concept of mental hygiene (Dain 1989, p. 6).

  1. 1900s−1950s: ‘Mental Hygiene’

On both sides of the Atlantic, mental health advocacy in the first few decades of the 20th century promoted a mental hygiene agenda.[5] Mental hygiene is an American concept and was understood as “the art of preserving the mind against all incidents and influences calculated to deteriorate its qualities, impair its energies, or derange its movements” (Rossi 1962). These “incidents and influences” were conceived broadly and included “exercise, rest, food, clothing and climate, the laws of breeding, the government of the passions, the sympathy with current emotions and opinions, the discipline of the intellect”, all of which had to be governed adequately to promote a healthy mind (ibid.). With such a broad list of human affairs under their purview, the mental hygienists had to fall back on a set of values by which the ‘healthy’ life-style was to be determined. These values, as argued by Davis (1938) and more recently by Crossley (2006), were those of the educated middle classes who promoted mental hygiene in accordance with a deeply ingrained ethic. For example, extra-marital sex was seen as a deviation and therefore a potential source of mental illness. Despite this conservative element, the discourse of mental hygiene was progressive, for its time, in a number of ways: first, it considered mental illness to arise from interactions among many factors, including the biological and the social, and hence to be responsive to improvements in the person’s environment; second, it fought stigma by arguing that mental illness is similar to physical illness and can be treated; third, it promoted the prevention of mental illness, in particular through paying attention to childhood development; and fourth, it argued for the importance of early detection and treatment (Crossley 2006, pp. 71-75).

In the US, Clifford Beer’s own group, the NCMH, continued to advance a mental hygiene agenda and, in 1950, merged with two other groups to form the National Association for Mental Health, a non-profit organisation that exists since 2006 as Mental Health America.[6] In the UK, mental hygiene was promoted by three inter-war groups that campaigned for patient wellbeing and education of the public. These groups merged, in 1946, to form the National Association for Mental Health (NAMH), which later, in 1972, changed its name to Mind, the name under which it remains to this day as a well-known and influential charity.[7] In the late 50s, these two groups continued to educate the public through various campaigns and publications, and were involved in training mental health professionals in accordance with hygienist principles. In addition, they were advocates for mental patients, campaigning for the government to improve commitment laws, and, in the UK, working with the government to instate the move from asylums to ‘care in the community’.

Even though the discourse of mental hygiene was dominant during these decades, the developments that were to come in the early 70s were already taking shape in the emerging discourse of civil rights. A good example of these developments in the UK is the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), better known today as Liberty. Founded in 1934 in response to an aggressive police reaction to protestors during the “hunger marches”, it became involved in 1947 in its first “mental health case”: a woman wrongly detained in a mental health institution for what appeared to be ‘moral’ rather than ‘medical’ reasons.[8] During the 50s, the NCCL campaigned vigorously for reform of mental health law to address this issue, and was able to see some positive developments in 1959 with the abolition of the problematic 1913 Mental Deficiency Act and the introduction of tribunals in which patients’ interests were represented.

  1. 1960s: The ‘Anti-psychiatrists’

During the 1960s criticism of mental health practices and theories was carried through by a number of psychiatrists who came to be referred to as the ‘anti-psychiatrists’. Most famous among them were Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, and David Cooper. Szasz (1960) famously argued that mental illness is a myth that legitimizes state oppression (via the psychiatric enterprise) on those judged as socially deviant and perceived to be a danger to themselves or others. Mental illnesses for Szasz are problems in living: morally and existentially significant problems relating to social interaction and to finding meaning and purpose in life. Laing (1965, 1967) considered the medical concept of schizophrenia to be a label applied to those whose behaviour seems incomprehensible, thereby permitting exercises of power. For Laing (1967, p. 106) the people so labelled are not so much experiencing a breakdown but a breakthrough: a state of ego-loss that permits a wider range of experiences and may culminate in a “new-ego” and an “existential rebirth”. These individuals require guidance and encouragement, and not the application of a psychiatric label that distorts and arrests this process. David Cooper (1967, 1978) considered ‘schizophrenia’ a revolt against alienating familial and social structures with the hope of finding a less-alienating, autonomous yet recognised existence. In Cooper’s (1978, p. 156) view, it is precisely this revolt that the ‘medical apparatus’, as an agent of the ‘State’, aims to suppress.

From the perspective of those individuals who have experienced psychiatric treatment and mental distress, the anti-psychiatrists of the 1960s were not activists but dissident mental health professionals. As will be noted in the following section, the mental patients’ liberation movement did not support the inclusion  of sympathetic professionals within its ambit. Nevertheless, the ideas of Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, and David Cooper were frequently used by activists themselves to ground their critique of mental health institutions and the medical model. At the time, these ideas were radical if not revolutionary, and it is not surprising that they inspired activists engaged in civil rights struggles in the 1970s.

  1. The 1970s civil rights movements

Civil rights activism in mental health began through the work of a number of groups that came together in the late 60s and early 70s in the wake of the emerging successes and struggles of Black, Gay and women civil rights activists. In the UK, a notable group was the Mental Patients’ Union (1972), and in the US three groups were among the earliest organisers: Insane Liberation Front (1970), Mental Patients’ Liberation Front (1971), and Network Against Psychiatric Assault (1972).[9] An important difference between these groups and earlier ones that may have also pursued a civil rights agenda such as the NCCL, is that they, from the start or early on, excluded sympathetic mental-health professionals and were composed solely of patients and ex-patients. Judi Chamberlin (1990, p. 324), a key figure in the American movement, justified it in this way:

Among the major organising principles of [black, gay, women’s liberation movements] were self-definition and self-determination. Black people felt that white people could not truly understand their experiences … To mental patients who began to organise, these principles seemed equally valid. Their own perceptions about “mental illness” were diametrically opposed to those of the general public, and even more so to those of mental health professionals. It seemed sensible, therefore, not to let non-patients into ex-patient organisations or to permit them to dictate an organisation’s goals.

The extent of the resolve to exclude professionals – even those who would appear to be sympathetic such as the anti-psychiatrists – is evident in the writings of Chamberlin as well as in the founding document of the Mental Patients’ Union. Both distance themselves from anti-psychiatry on the grounds that the latter is “an intellectual exercise of academics and dissident mental health professionals” which, while critical of psychiatry, did not include ex-patients or engage their struggles (Chamberlin 1990, p. 323).[10] Further, according to Chamberlin, a group that permits non-patients and professionals inevitably abandons its liberatory intentions and ends up in the weaker position of attempting to reform psychiatry. And reform was not on the agenda of these early groups.

On the advocacy front, the mental patients’ liberation movement – the term generally used to refer to this period of civil rights activism – sought to end psychiatry as they knew it.[11] They sought to abolish involuntary hospitalisation and forced treatment, to prioritise freedom of choice and consent above other considerations, to reject the reductive medical model, to restore full civil rights to mental patients including the right to refuse treatment, and to counter negative perceptions in the media such as the inherent dangerousness of the ‘mentally ill’. In addition to advocacy, a great deal of work went into setting up non-hierarchical, non-coercive alternatives to mental health institutions such as self-help groups, drop-in centres, and retreats.[12] The purpose of these initiatives was not only to provide support to individuals in distress, but to establish that mental patients are self-reliant and able to manage their own lives outside of mental health institutions. Central to the success of these initiatives was a radical transformation in how ex-patients understood their situation. This transformation was referred to as consciousness-raising.

Borrowed from the women’s liberation movement, consciousness-raising is the process of placing elements of one’s situation in the wider context of systematic social oppression (Chamberlin 1990). This begins to occur in meetings in which people get together and share their experiences, identifying commonalities, and re-interpreting them in a way that gives them broader meaning and significance. An implication of this process is that participants may be able to reverse an internalised sense of weakness or incapability – which hitherto they may have regarded as natural – and regain confidence in their abilities. In the mental patients’ liberation movement, consciousness-raising involved ridding oneself of the central assumptions of the ‘mental health system’: that one has an illness, and that the medical profession is there to provide a cure. In the discourse of the time, inspired by the writings of Thomas Szasz and others, psychiatry was a form of social control, medicalising unwanted behaviour as a pre-text for ‘treating’ it and forcing individuals into a sane way of behaving. By sharing experiences, participants begin to see that the mental health system has not helped them. In a book first published in 1977 and considered a founding and inspirational document for mental health activists, Chamberlin (1988, pp. 70-71) writes of the important insights ex-patients gained through consciousness-raising:

Consciousness-raising … helps people to see that their so called symptoms are indications of real problems. The anger, which has been destructively turned inward, is freed by this recognition. Instead of believing that they have a defect in their psychic makeup (or their neurochemical system), participants learn to recognise the oppressive conditions in their daily lives.

Mental suffering and distress, within this view, are a normal response to the difficulties individuals face in life such as relationship problems, social inequality, poverty, loss and trauma. In such situations, individuals need a sympathetic, caring and understanding response, and not the one society offers in the form of psychotropic drugs and the difficult environment of a mental health hospital (Chamberlin 1988).  Consciousness-raising does not stop at the ‘mental health system’, and casts a wider net that includes all discriminatory stereotypes against ex-patients. In a deliberate analogy with racism and sexism, Chamberlin uses the term mentalism to refer to the widespread social tendency to call disapproved of behaviour ‘sick’ or ‘crazy’. Mental patients’ liberation required of patients and ex-patients to resist the ‘mental health system’ as well as social stereotyping, and to find the strength and confidence to do so. In this context, voluntary alternatives by and for patients and ex-patients were essential to providing a forum for support and consciousness-raising.

  1. Consumers/Service-Users & Survivors

In the 1980s, the voices of advocates and activists began to be recognised by national government agencies and bodies. This was in the context of a shift towards market approaches to health-care provision, and the idea of the patient as a consumer of services (Campbell 2009). Patients and ex-patients – now referred to as consumers (US) or users (UK) of services – were able to sit in policy meetings and advisory committees of mental health services and make their views known. Self-help groups, which normally struggled for funding, began to be supported by public money. In the US, a number of consumer groups formed that were no longer opposed to the medical model or to working with mental health professionals in order to reform services.[13] While some considered these developments to be positive, others regarded them as indicating what Linda Morrison, an American activist and academic, referred to as a “crisis of co-optation”: the voice of mental health activists had to become acceptable to funding agencies, which required relinquishing radical demands in favour of reform (Morrison 2005, p. 80). Some activists rejected the term consumer as it implied that patients and professionals were in an equal relation, with patients free to determine the services they receive (Chamberlin 1988, p. vii).[14]

Countering the consumer/user discourse was an emerging survivor discourse reflected in a number of national groups, for example the National Association of Psychiatric Survivors (1985) in the US and Survivors Speak Out (1986) in the UK. Survivor discourse shared many points of alignment with earlier activism, but whereas the latter was opposed to including professionals and non-patients, survivors were no longer against this as long as it occurred within a framework of genuine and honest partnership and inclusion in all aspects of service structure, delivery and evaluation (Chamberlin 1995, Campbell 1992). [15]

In the US, developments throughout the 1990s and into the millennium confirm the continuation of these two trends: the first oriented towards consumer discourse and involvement, and the second towards survivors, with a relatively more radical tone and a concern with human rights (Morrison 2005). Today, representative national groups for these two trends include, respectively, the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery (NCMHR), and Mind Freedom International (MFI).[16] The former is focused on promoting comprehensive recovery, approvingly quoting the ‘New Freedom Mental Health Commission Report’ target of a “future when everyone with mental illness will recover”.[17] To this end they campaign for better services, for consumers to have a voice in their recovery, for tackling stigma, discrimination, and promoting community inclusion via consumer-run initiatives that offer assistance with education, housing and other aspects of life. On the other hand, MFI state their vision to be a “nonviolent revolution in mental health care”. Unlike NCMHR, MFI do not use the language of ‘mental illness’, and support campaigns such as Creative Maladjustment, Mad Pride, and Boycott Normal. Further, MFI state emphatically that they are completely independent and do not receive funds from or have any links with government, drug companies or mental health agencies.[18] Despite their differences, both organisations claim to represent both survivors and consumers, and both trace their beginnings to the 1970s civil rights movements. But whereas NCMHR refer to ‘consumers’ always first and generally more often, MFI do the opposite and state that the majority of their members identify as psychiatric survivors.

In the UK, the service-user/survivor movement – as it came to be referred to – is today represented nationally by a number of groups.[19] Of note is the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) which brings together survivor and user groups and individuals across the UK in order to strengthen their voice and assist with policy change.[20] Another long-standing group (1990), though less active today, is the UK Advocacy Network, a group which campaigns for user led advocacy and involvement in mental health services planning and delivery.[21] A UK survey done in 2003 brings some complexity to this appearance of a homogenous movement (Wallcraft et al. 2003). While most respondents agreed that there is a national user/survivor movement – albeit a rather loose one – different opinions arose on all the important issues; for example, disagreements over whether compulsory treatment can ever be justified, and whether receiving funds from drug companies compromises the movement. In addition, there were debates over the legitimacy of the medical model, with some respondents rejecting it in favour of social and political understandings of mental distress. In this context, they drew a distinction between the service-user movement and the survivor movement, the former concerned with improving services, and the latter with challenging the medical model and the “supposed scientific basis of mental health services” (Wallcraft et al. 2003, p. 50). More radical voices suggested that activists who continued to adopt the medical model have not been able to rid themselves of the disempowering frameworks of understanding imposed by the mental health system. In a similar vein, some respondents noted the de-politicisation of the movement, as activists ceased to be primarily concerned with civil rights and began to work for the mental health system (Wallcraft et al. 2003, p. 14).

In summary, there exists within the consumer/service-user/survivor movements in the US and the UK a variety of stances in relation to involuntary detention and treatment, acceptable sources of funding, the medical model, and the extent and desirability of user involvement in services. Positions range from working for mental health institutions and reforming them from the ‘inside’, to rejecting any co-operation and engaging in activism to end what is considered psychiatric abuse and social discrimination in the guise of supposed medical theory and treatment. It appears that within national networks and movements pragmatic and co-operative approaches are more common, with radical positions pushed somewhat aside though by no means silenced. In this context Mad Pride, representing the latest wave of activism in mental health, re-invigorates the radicalism of the movement and makes the most serious demand yet of social norms and understandings. But Mad Pride, underpinned by the notions of Mad culture and Mad identity, builds on the accomplishments of Survivor identity to which I now briefly turn.

  1. Survivor identity

The connotations of survivor discourse are unmistakable and powerful. With survivor discourse the term ‘patient’ and its implications of dependence and weakness are finally discarded (Crossley 2004, p.169). From the perspective of those individuals who embraced the discourse, there is much that they have survived: forced detention in the mental health system; aggressive and unhelpful treatments; discrimination and stigma in society; and, for some, the distress and suffering they experienced and which was labelled by others ‘mental illness’. By discarding of what they came to see as an imposed identity – viz. ‘patient’ – survivors took one further step towards increased self-definition (Crossley 2006, p. 182). Further, the very term ‘survivor’ implies a positive angle to this definition in so far as to survive something implies resilience, strength, and other personal traits considered valuable. Morrison (2005, p. 102) describes it as the “heroic survivor narrative” and accords it a central function in the creation of a collective identity for the movement and a shared sense of injustice.

Central to survivor identity is the importance of the voice of survivors, and their ability to tell their own stories, a voice which neither society nor the psychiatric system respected. The well-known British activist and poet Peter Campbell (1992, p. 122) writes that a great part of the “damage” sustained in the psychiatric system

has been a result of psychiatry’s refusal to give value to my personal perceptions and experience … I cannot believe it is possible to dismiss as meaningless people’s most vivid and challenging interior experiences and expect no harm to ensue.

The emphasis on survivor voice highlights one further difference from 1970s activism: whereas earlier activists sustained their critique of psychiatry by drawing upon the writings of Szasz, Goffman, Marx and others, survivor discourse eschewed such sources of ‘authority’ in favour of the voice of survivors themselves; Crossley (2004, p. 167) writes:

Survivors have been able to convert their experiences of mental distress and (mis)treatment into a form of cultural and symbolic capital. The disvalued status of the patient is reversed within the movement context. Therein it constitutes authority to speak and vouches for authenticity. The experience of both distress and treatment, stigmatized elsewhere, has become recognized as a valuable, perhaps superior knowledge base. Survivors have laid a claim, recognized at least within the movement itself, to know ‘madness’ and its ‘treatment’ with authority, on the basis that they have been there and have survived it.

Survivors are therefore experts on their own experiences, and experts on what it is like to be subject to treatment in mental health institutions and to face stigma and discrimination in society. So construed, to survive is to be able to emerge from a range of difficulties, some of which are external and others internal, belonging to the condition (the distress, the experiences) that led to the encounter with psychiatry in the first place. In this sense, survivor discourse had not yet been able to impose a full reversal of the negative value attached to phenomena of madness, a value reflected in the language of mental illness, disorder and pathology. This is clearly evident in the idea that one had survived the condition, for if that is the attitude one holds towards it, it is unlikely that the ‘condition’ is looked upon positively or neutrally (except perhaps teleologically in the sense that it had had a formative influence on one’s personality). Similarly, if one considers oneself to have survived mental health institutions rather than the condition, there still is no direct implication that the condition itself is regarded in a non-negative light, only that the personal traits conducive to survival are laudable. It is only with the discourse of Mad Pride, yet to come, that the language of mental illness and the social norms and values underpinning it are challenged in an unambiguous manner.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed (2018)

Note: the above is an excerpt from Madness and the Demand for Recognition: A Philosophical Inquiry into Identity and Mental Health Activism (Oxford University Press, 2019).

***

[1] The following account outlines key moments, figures, groups and strategies in mental health advocacy and activism; it is not intended to be exhaustive but rather to illustrate the background to the Mad Pride movement and discourse.

[2] The timeline can be found at: http://studymore.org.uk/mpu.htm. (The website states that Survivor history is being compiled into a book.) See also Campbell and Roberts (2009).

[3] In contrast to Survivor history, there is a tradition of historical and critical writing on the history of ‘psychiatry’ and ‘madness’, and on the development of lunacy reform and mental health law. Notable names in this tradition are Roy Porter, Andrew Scull, and Michel Foucault.

[4] See Peterson (1982, pp. 3-18).

[5] This section benefits, in part, from Crossley’s (2006, Chapter 4) account of mental hygiene.

[6] Mental Health America. Online: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

[7] Mind. Online: http://www.mind.org.uk/

[8] The history of Liberty can be found on their website: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/who-we-are/history/liberty-timeline

[9] In the US, groups were able to communicate with each other through a regular newsletter, Madness Network News (1972-1986), and an annual Conference on Human Rights and Against Psychiatric Oppression (1973-1985).

[10] For a similar point see the founding document of the Mental Patients’ Union, reprinted in Curtis et al. (2000, pp. 23-28).

[11] Some activists referred to themselves as ‘psychiatric inmates’ or ‘ex-inmates’ highlighting the fact of their incarceration in mental institutions and their rejection of the connotations of the term ‘patient’. This early difference in terminology – inmate versus patient – prefigures the multiplicity of terms and associated strategies that will come to define activism and advocacy in mental health to this day.

[12] The earliest example of a self-help group is WANA (We Are Not Alone). Formed in New York in the 1940s as a patient-run group, it developed into a major psychosocial rehabilitation centre, eventually to be managed by mental health professionals (see Chamberlin 1988, pp. 94-95).

[13] See Bluebird’s History of the Consumer/Survivor Movement. Online: https://www.power2u.org/downloads/HistoryOfTheConsumerMovement.pdf

[14] Mclean (1995, p. 1054) draws the distinction between consumers and survivors as follows: “Persons who identify themselves as ‘consumers’, ‘clients’ or ‘patients’, tend to accept the medical model of mental illness and traditional mental health treatment practices, but work for general system improvement and for the addition of consumer controlled alternatives. Those who refer to themselves as ‘ex-patients’, ‘survivors’ or ‘ex-inmates’ reject the medical model of mental illness, professional control and forced treatment and seek alternatives exclusively in user controlled centres.”

[15] Consumers and survivors aside, more radical voices persisted, continuing the discourse and activities of the 1970s’ groups. These voices were vehemently opposed to psychiatry and rejected any cooperation with services or with advocates/activists who tended towards reform. Examples include the Network to Abolish Psychiatry (1986) in the US and Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression (CAPO, 1985) in the UK, both of which were active for a few years in the 1980s. (CAPO was an offshoot of the earlier Mental Patients’ Union.) For these groups, the ‘mental health system’ was intrinsically oppressive and had to be abolished: attempts to reform it, merely strengthened it (see Madness Network News, Summer 1986, vol.8, no.3, p.8). Reflecting on the beginnings of Survivors Speak Out (SSO, 1986), Peter Campbell, a founder, wrote that CAPO and other “separatist” groups were more concerned with “philosophical and ideological issues” and that SSO was “born partly in reaction to this: they were the first part of the ‘pragmatic’ wing which now dominates the user movement” with an emphasis on dialogue with others (Peter Campbell on The History and Philosophy of The Survivor Movement. Southwark Mind Newsletter, issue 24 – year not specified).

[16] Note that the reference here is to national networks and groups and not the local groups engaged in self-help, support, education, training, and advocacy of which there are hundreds in the US, UK and elsewhere.

[17] National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery. Online: http://www.ncmhr.org/purpose.htm

[18] Mind Freedom International. Online: http://www.mindfreedom.org/mfi-faq

[19] National organisations are of two types: those concerned with mental health generally (discussed in the text), and those with a focus on a particular condition or behaviour such as the Hearing Voices Network and the National Self-Harm network.

[20] National Survivor User Network. Online: https://www.nsun.org.uk/our-vision

[21] UK Advocacy Network. Online: http://www.u-kan.co.uk/mission.html

Advertisements

COMPLEXITIES FOR PSYCHIATRY’S IDENTITY AS A MEDICAL SPECIALTY

Even though psychiatry is a medical speciality, it is a special medical speciality. This arises from its subject matter, ordinarily conceived of as mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. Psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should while ophthalmology, for example, deals with the ophthalmic system not working as it should. The nature of its subject matter raises certain complexities for psychiatry that, in extreme, are sometimes taken to suggest that psychiatry’s positioning as a medical speciality is suspect; these include the normative nature of psychiatric judgements, the explanatory limitations of psychiatric theories, and the classificatory inaccuracies that beset the discipline. In this post, I examine these complexities, asking whether or not they are fatal to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.

Normative Complexity

When doctors refer to an organ or system not working as it should they do not intend this judgement in a moralistic sense; what they mean is that the organ or system is not functioning in the way they expect it to given the purpose for which it was designed, or that it is not functioning as it does for the majority of people in an appropriately defined population, or that its anatomy or histology is grossly distorted. These three naturalistic takes on dysfunction (which are not the only possible ones) correspond, respectively, to evolutionary theory, bio-statistical theory, and lesion theory. There is now a huge literature both in the philosophy of medicine and the philosophy of psychiatry on the concept of dysfunction and on the possibility of defining it in value-free terms (e.g. Boorse 2011; Bolton 2008, 2013a; Varga 2015; Kingma 2013). A key intuition driving this debate seems to be that if we cannot define dysfunction in value-free terms then it becomes harder to distinguish proper clinical judgement from the moralistic interjections of zealous clinicians. The debate continues and I will not venture into it, partly because it is not directly the subject of this post, and partly for the reason that in many cases that distinction does not really matter: clinical judgement and moralistic judgement collapse into each other when all parties are (broadly) in agreement that something is not working as it should, and that that thing is an appropriate target for medical intervention; i.e. there are known treatments and a known prognosis; it is a condition that doctors treat as opposed to, say, a spiritual malady. When disagreements arise, clinical and moralistic judgements come apart and clinical intervention is problematised. Note that from the perspective of the patient, the doctor’s alleged moralistic judgement can go both ways: the doctor can judge that you have an organ or a system that is not functioning as it should, whereas you think that it is; conversely, the doctor can judge that the organ or system is functioning as it should, whereas you think that it is not. In the former case you reject medical diagnosis and intervention, and in the latter case you seek them but they are denied. In addition, there is a variant of the first possibility where someone else – perhaps a relative – deems that something about you is not working as it should, a judgement with which the doctor agrees but which you reject.

As doctors and patients know, these possibilities for disagreement are not uncommon in medical practice. For example, you experience pain in your acromio-clavicular joints when you exercise; you visit an orthopaedic doctor who tells you that this is consistent with age: “there’s nothing wrong with you”, the doctor says, an explanation that you refuse to accept. Conversely, the doctor examines you and prescribes anti-hypertensive medication which you refuse to take as you feel well and do not believe that you have problems with your blood pressure. In psychiatry, discrepancies in judgements of this sort are more intractable, more common, and, given the power that psychiatrists have to detain individuals, more serious in their implications. This intractability arises from the fact that psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should. The normative judgements involved in such a determination are more complex than those involved in determining, say, whether or not the ophthalmic system is working as it should. This complexity, in turn, creates considerable possibilities for disagreement. This is to be expected: belief, reasoning, emotion, and perception – to name a few faculties of mind – permit a wide range of evaluations and demonstrate a high degree of “observer-relativity” (Bolton and Hill 2004, p. 99; see also Bolton and Banner 2012, p. 83). To agree on what it is to have true belief, valid reasoning, appropriate emotion, and veridical perception is more complicated than it is to agree on what it is to have good visual acuity, even after we account for the fact that for a fighter pilot a 0.1 drop in vision is life-changing, whereas for a drummer it is not.

Negotiating the intractable disagreements that arise in psychiatric practice means that psychiatry, like – but more than – other medical specialities, has to be aware of differences in values among the various stakeholders, and of the cultural beliefs that constitute the profession itself as well as those that persons bring to the consultation. Given the magnitude of these challenges, it is not surprising that theoretical and now also practical endeavours have taken psychiatry as the paradigm case of the complexity of the clinical encounter and therefore also as the target for developing and testing solutions that can benefit clinical practice irrespective of specialty.[1] Far from undermining the identity of psychiatry as a medical speciality, the normative complexity inherent in psychiatry demonstrates that it shares the same problems other specialities have to deal with, only in psychiatry these problems are more common and challenging.

Explanatory Complexity

The subject matter of psychiatry is the ‘mind not working as it should’. As a medical speciality, psychiatry aims to relate the various failures of mind to underpinning biological substrates in the brain. One position in this respect is to reduce those failures to specific brain dysfunctions. Mental disorders, on this view, are nothing but brain disorders; as some authors have put it, “there are only brain disorders that psychiatrists prefer to treat and other brain disorders that neurologists (and neurosurgeons) prefer to treat” (Baker and Menken 2001). Biological reductionism goes back a long way; historians of medicine identify a shift to purely somatic explanations of ‘madness’ towards the end of the 19th century in Europe (e.g. Scull 1975), a shift that persists among some practitioners and researchers. Yet it is fair to say that biological reductionism is not a popular view today, with many practitioners and researchers adopting a multifactorial, non-reductionist view of causation of mental disorders, the well-known biopsychosocial model.

Non-reductionist views are held even by those who wish to end the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders in favour of the latter. White and colleagues, for example, make a number of arguments in this regard, one of which is the empirical point that psychosocial factors “interact strongly” with neurological disorders, while “disorders of the mind are rooted in dysfunction of the brain” (White et al. 2012: 1). Their point is that psychological, social, and biological causal and risk factors run across all medical conditions, whether mental or physical. If so, then there might not be much sense insisting on the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders, especially, they argue, in light of recent advances pertaining to the neurological and genetic bases of mental disorders. Part of the authors’ motivation in advancing this proposal is to foreground psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality. This, they point out, can improve recruitment into the profession, for if psychiatry is more explicitly aligned with neurology it may become more attractive to medical students. On the other hand, a more medicalised psychiatry would be able to define more clearly its distinctive contribution to mental health care relative to allied professions such as clinical psychology and mental health social work. Standing in contrast to White and colleagues’ proposal is a position paper by Bracken and colleagues that advances a similarly non-reductionist position but rejects the suggested equivalence between psychiatry and neurology: “psychiatry is not neurology; it is not a medicine of the brain. Although mental health problems undoubtedly have a biological dimension, in their very nature they reach beyond the brain to involve social, cultural  and psychological dimensions” (Bracken et al. 2012: 432).

There is no doubt that both mental and physical health conditions demonstrate “multifactorial pathways”, nevertheless psychosocial factors appear to be more prominent in mental disorders across a range of dimensions (Bolton 2013b: 25). To the extent that this is the case, psychiatry differs from many other medical specialties in that it “has particular expertise in the management of psychosocial factors as well as internal biological factors” (ibid.). One could take this observation to support the view that we should not collapse the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders. Or one could decide that the terms of the debate are out of keeping with developments in the new mental health sciences. These “new sciences do not work with ideological battles between the biological, the psychological, and the social … rather they work with all of these factors and the diversity of interplay between them” (ibid.). There is much work to be done, both empirical and conceptual, to understand how the different social, psychological, and biological factors interact in specific conditions. However – and this is key – that work applies to physical health as well as mental health conditions (see, for example, Hernandez and Blazer 2006, and Bolton in press). Even though psychiatry, relative to other medical specialities, is more heavily involved in the psychosocial dimensions of the conditions of interest, the model of causation, risk, prevention, and treatment that applies in psychiatry, as it does across all of medicine, is biopsychosocial.

Classificatory Complexity

In the foregoing, the notion of the mind not working as it should was explicated in terms of the various faculties of mind. The issue, therefore, is that a particular faculty – belief, emotion, perception, reasoning, will – is not working as it should. These faculties are interrelated, and from its inception psychiatry sought to recognise patterns of symptoms and signs and to construct diagnostic categories on that basis. So a particular condition, say schizophrenia, comprises dysfunctions in multiple faculties of mind; e.g. paranoid delusions (belief), blunted affect (emotion), ambivalence (will), and auditory hallucinations (perception). It is now accepted that psychiatry’s classifications of its subject matter into discrete conditions is much more controversial than, say, ophthalmology’s classifications. Often this is expressed by saying that psychiatric categories lack validity, which in turn is often taken to mean that they do not “map onto any entity discernible in the real world” (Kinderman et al. 2013: 2). We can refer to this position as medical realism, the view that the validity of disease categories rests on the extent to which they “represent features of the underlying structure of the world” (Simon 2011: 66). In order to do so, the categories in question, typically, need to satisfy two conditions: (1) the category has to be separated from related categories by a “zone of rarity”; (2) the category has to be “associated with explanatory variables of deeper structural significance” such as “causal factors [and] pathogenetic mechanisms” (Jablensky 2016: 27; see also Kendell and Jablensky 2003). Accordingly, in light of a medical realist view, a valid disease entity is a ‘natural kind’.[2]

With a few notable exceptions such as the dementias and conditions such as Huntington’s Chorea, it is questionable whether current psychiatric categories can satisfy the two aforementioned requirements. Consider, first, the requirement for a zone of rarity surrounding the condition. In clinical medicine, a zone of rarity can be established on two grounds: clinical state and biomarkers. Clinical state refers to the symptoms and signs established during a clinical examination and by which the patient is determined to have a condition that is discontinuous with the ordinary functioning of the organ or system in question. For example, myocardial infarction is separated by a zone of rarity on the basis of clinical state: the experience of chest pain is qualitatively different from a healthy heart. On the other hand, a biomarker refers to a biological “characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or pharmacologic responses to a therapeutic intervention”.[3] In accordance with this definition, myocardial infarction is associated with a host of biomarkers such as Troponin and Creatine Kinase that, together with clinical state and other investigations, establish a zone of rarity surrounding the condition. Biomarkers can play  a key role in diagnosis, prognosis, and classification.

Moving on to psychiatry, there is now ample literature that casts doubt on the ability of current psychiatric classifications to establish a zone of rarity surrounding their putative conditions. In the philosophy of psychiatry literature, the assumption that psychiatric categories are natural kinds has long been questioned (e.g. Zachar 2015, 2000; Haslam 2002; cf. Cooper 2013). On the basis of clinical state, it has proven difficult to draw categorical distinctions between one disorder and another, and between disorder and its absence. Symptoms of schizophrenia and symptoms of bipolar disorder overlap, necessitating awkward constructions such as schizoaffective disorder or mania with psychotic symptoms. And the boundary between clinical depression and intense grief has been critiqued as indeterminate, with the distinction between the two made on the seemingly arbitrary specification of the number of weeks during which a person can feel low before a diagnosis is made (see Horwitz and Wakefield 2007).[4] And things are not better on the biomarker front; despite vigorous research, limited progress has been made in identifying biomarkers of clinical relevance, whether diagnostic, prognostic, or predictive (see Venkatasubramanian and Keshavan 2016; Kobeissy et al. 2013; Rose and Singh 2009). All of this indicates that there are difficulties in establishing a zone of rarity around key psychiatric categories.

Moving on to the second requirement identified earlier for a condition to constitute a natural kind – the requirement that the category is associated with distinctive aetiological and pathogenetic mechanisms – we find similar problems. Even though some progress has been made towards understanding the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, our understanding of the aetiology of these conditions remains at best provisional, with a multitude of non-specific factors interacting in complex ways over a long period of time. For example, research on molecular genetics – which has seen significant advancement in recent years with the use of whole-genome studies and large samples – has only been able to identify genetic commonalities that stretch across multiple psychiatric categories (see Jablensky 2016).

In summary, the majority of psychiatric conditions cannot properly meet the requirements for a medical realist view. Some critics of psychiatry take this conclusion to imply that psychiatric categories lack validity (e.g. Kinderman et al. 2013, Timimi 2014, all the way back to Szasz 1960). But all the critics can really assert is that current psychiatric categories do not meet the requirements for medical realism about disorder: they are not natural kinds. And that is not a problem for the identity of psychiatry as a medical speciality for three reasons: (1) Defenders of a medical realist view of psychiatric categories can simply point out that more work needs to be done to refine the existing categories and to improve the science and the research on biomarkers, aetiology, and pathogenesis.[5] (2) Alternatively, one could respond to the aforementioned critics by pointing out that there are many medical conditions that do not fully meet the requirements for medical realism yet are regarded as valid conditions that merit clinical attention and treatment. For example, the condition known as essential hypertension is not separated from normotension by a zone of rarity but is continuous with it, and neither is its causation entirely understood, hence its classification as ‘essential’ (or primary or idiopathic). Rheumatoid arthritis, while satisfying the zone of rarity requirement, is an autoimmune disorder whose aetiology is not understood. And some types of anaemia, while satisfying the aetiology requirement, are continuous with normal red blood cell size and number. (3) Finally, one could point out to the critics that medical realism is not the only option in medical ontology, another option being medical anti-realism.

Medical anti-realists reject the view that the diseases “we identify are either part of, or given to us by, the underlying structure of the world” (Simon 2011: 84). In contrast to medical realists, anti-realists do not accept the assumption of a mind-independent world that gives us our disease categories, rather such categories are pragmatic constructions driven by a range of criteria and stakeholders (see Simon 2011: 89-92).[6] Among the criteria that enter into recognising a set of symptoms and signs as a disease category are the ability of the category to give useful information on prognosis, to enable doctors to affect the course of the patient’s condition, to explain the patient’s prior condition, and to be therapeutically modifiable. Other criteria can be of a utilitarian and economic nature whereby disease categories are recognised if doing so would benefit society as a whole, or would be economically productive or viable. For example, the cut-off point for treating essential hypertension has to achieve a balance between expected treatment benefit (by reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease) and the economic considerations of offering this treatment in a national health system.

The aforementioned criteria are emphasised differently by the different stakeholders. Doctors, researchers, governments, pharmaceutical companies, and patient groups each have their own interests and varying abilities to influence the construction of disease categories. This creates the possibility for disagreement over the legitimacy of certain conditions, something we can see playing out in the ongoing debates surrounding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition that “receives much more attention from its sufferers and their supporters than from the medical community” (Simon 2011: 91). And, in psychiatry, it has long been noted that some major pharmaceutical companies influence the construction of disorder in order to create a market for the psychotropic drugs they manufacture. From the perspective of medical anti-realism (in the constructivist form presented here), these influences are no longer seen as a hindrance to the supposedly objective, ‘natural kind’ status of disease categories, but as key factors involved in their construction. Thus, the lobbying power of the American Psychiatric Association, the vested interests of pharmaceutical companies, and the desire of psychiatrists as a group to maintain their prestige do not undermine the identity of psychiatry as a medical specialty; what they do is highlight the importance of emphasising the interests of patient groups as well as utilitarian and economic criteria to counteract and respond to the other interests. Medical constructivism is not a uniquely psychiatric ontology, it is a medicine-wide ontology; it applies to schizophrenia as it does to hypertension, appendicitis, and heart disease. Owing to the normative complexity of psychiatry (outlined earlier) and to the fact that loss of freedom is often involved in psychiatric practice, the vested interests involved in psychiatry are more complex and harder to resolve than in many other medical specialties. But that in itself is not a hindrance to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.

 *

We can see that on the normative, explanatory, and classificatory fronts, there is much that psychiatry can concede to its critics and still be able to able to maintain its identity as a medical speciality. It can concede the normative complexity of the psychiatric encounter while pointing out that this is a more challenging instance of the normative complexity of the general clinical encounter: values-based practice (alongside evidence-based practice) applies to all medical specialities. It can concede that it is more heavily invested in the psychosocial dimensions of the conditions of interest but that, like all medical specialities, it works within a biopsychosocial framework: the causality of all disorders is complex, across multiple levels. It can concede that a range of vested interests influences the construction of its disease categories, while pointing out that this is merely a more involved example of what occurs in all medical specialities.

References

Baker, M., and Menken, M. 2001. Time to Abandon the Term Mental Illness. BMJ 322: 937.

Biomarkers Definition Working Group. 2001. Biomarkers and Surrogate Endpoints: Preferred Definition and Conceptual Framework. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics 69(3): 89-95.

Boorse, C. 2011. Concepts of Health and Disease. In Philosophy of Medicine (pp. ­13-64), F. Gifford (ed). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Bolton, D. 2008. What is Mental Disorder? An Essay in Philosophy, Science and Values. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D. 2013a. What is Mental Illness. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 434-450), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D. 2013b. Should Mental Disorder be Regarded as Brain Disorders? 21st Century Mental Health Sciences and Implications for Research and Training. World Psychiatry 12(1): 24-25.

Bolton, D. FORTHCOMING. The Biopsychosocial Model. Palgrave.

Bolton, D., and J. Hill. 2004. Mind, Meaning and Mental Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D., and N. Banner. 2012. Does Mental Disorder Involve Loss of Personal Autonomy? In Autonomy and Mental Disorder (pp. 77-99), L. Radoilska (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bracken, P., Thomas, P., Timimi, S., Asen, E., Behr, G., Beuster, C., Bhunnoo, S., Browne, I., Chhina, N., Double, D., Downer, S., Evans, C., Fernando, S., Garland, M., Hopkins, W., Huw, R., Johnson, B., Martindale, B., Middleton, H., Moldavsky, D., Moncrieff, J., Mullins, S., Nelki, J., Pizzo, M., Rodger, J., Smyth, M., Summerfield, D., Wallace, J., and Yeomans, D. 2012. Psychiatry Beyond the Current Paradigm. British Journal of Psychiatry 201: 430-434.

Cooper, R. 2013. Natural Kinds. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 950-965), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fulford, K., van Staden, C. W., and Crisp, R. 2013. Values-based practice: Topsy-turvy take-home messages from ordinary language philosophy (and a few next steps). In The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychiatry (pp. 385-412), K. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ghaemi, N. 2016. Utility without Validity is Useless. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 15(1): 35-37.

Haslam, N. 2002. Kinds of Kinds: A Conceptual Taxonomy of Psychiatric Categories. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 9, 203-217

Hernandez, L., and Blazer, D. 2006. Genes, Behaviour, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate. Washington, D.C.: The National Academics Press.

Horwitz, A., and Wakefield, J. 2007. The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jablensky, A. 2016. Psychiatric Classifications: Validity and Utility. World Psychiatry 15(1): 26-31.

Kendell, R., and Jablensky, A. 2003. Distinguishing Between the Validity and Utility of Psychiatric Diagnoses. American Journal of Psychiatry 160(1): 4-12. ­

Keil, G., Keuck, L., and Hauswald, R. 2017. Vagueness in Psychiatry: An Overview. In Vagueness in Psychiatry. G. Keil, L. Keuck, and R. Hauswald (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kinderman, P., Read, J., Moncrieff, J., and Bentall, R. 2013. Drop the Language of Disorder. Evidence Based Mental Health 16: 2-3.

Kingma, E. 2013. Naturalist Accounts of Mental Disorder. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 363-384), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kobeissy, F., Alawieh, A., Mondello, S., Boustany, R., and Gold, M. 2013. Biomarkers in Psychiatry: How Close Are We? Frontiers in Psychiatry 3(114): 1-2.

Rose, N., and Singh, I. 2009. Biomarkers in Psychiatry. Nature 460: 202-207.

Scull, A. 1975. From Madness to Mental Illness: Medical Men as Moral Entrepreneurs. European Journal of Sociology 16: 219-261.

Simon, J. 2011. Medical Ontology. In Philosophy of Medicine (pp. ­65-114), F. Gifford (ed). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Szasz, T. 1960. The Myth of Mental Illness. American Psychologist 15: 113-118.

Timimi, S. 2014. No More Psychiatric Labels: Why Formal Psychiatric Diagnostic Systems Should be Abolished. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology 14: 208-215.

Varga, S. 2015. Naturalism, Interpretation, and Mental Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Venkatasubramanian, G., and Keshavan, M. 2016. Biomarkers in Psychiatry – A Critique. Annals of Neurosciences 23(1): 3-5.

White, P. D., Rickards, H., and Zeman, A. 2012. Time to End the Distinction Between Mental and Neurological Illnesses. BMJ 344: e3454.

Zachar, P. 2000. Psychiatric Disorders Are Not Natural Kinds. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 7: 167-182.

Zachar, P. 2015. Psychiatric Disorders: Natural Kinds Made by the World or Practical Kinds Made by Us? World Psychiatry 14(3), 288-290.

*

[1] Values-based practice is one such solution (see Fulford and Van Staden 2013).

[2] A ‘natural kind’ is a philosophical concept which refers to entities that exist in nature and are categorically distinct from each other. The observable features of a natural kind arise from its internal structure which is also the condition for membership of the kind. For example, any compound that has two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen is water, irrespective of its observable features (which in the case of H2O can be ice, liquid, or gas).

[3] Biomarkers Definition Working Group (2001: 91).

[4] Indeterminacies of this kind have been discussed recently under the concept of ‘vagueness’; the notion that psychiatric classifications are imprecise with no sharp distinctions possible between those phenomena to which they apply and those to which they do not (Keil, Keuck, and Hauswald 2017). One possible implication of vagueness is a gradualist approach to mental health. For example, Sullivan-Bissett and colleagues (2017) argue that delusional and non-delusional beliefs differ in degree, not kind, a point that can also apply to the distinction between clinical depression and intense grief.

[5] An example of such attempts at refinement is the framework of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). See also Ghaemi (2016) and Bingham and Rashed (2014).

[6] As can be seen, the realist/anti-realist debate taps into fundamental issues in epistemology concerning our conception of truth. In the text I am not so much concerned with the status of that debate but simply with pointing out that there are alternatives to medical realism.

Religious Fundamentalism, Scientific Rationality, and the Evaluation of Social Identities

IMG_6521

[Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition (2019, OUP)]

Referring to religious fundamentalism, Gellner (1992, p. 2) writes:

The underlying idea is that a given faith is to be upheld firmly in its full and literal form, free of compromise, softening, re-interpretation or diminution. It presupposes that the core of religion is doctrine, rather than ritual, and also that this doctrine can be fixed with precision and finality.

Religious doctrine includes fundamental ideas about our nature, the nature of the world and the cosmos, and the manner in which we should live and treat each other. In following to the letter the doctrines of one’s faith, believers are trying to get it right, where getting it right means knowing with exactness what God intended for us. In the case of Islam, the tradition I know most about, the Divine intent can be discerned from the Qur’an (considered to be the word of the God) and the Traditions (the sayings) attributed to the Prophet (see Rashed 2015b).[1] The process of getting it right, therefore, becomes an interpretive one, raising questions such as: how do we understand this verse; what does God mean by the words ‘dust’ and ‘clot’ in describing human creation; who did the Prophet intend by this Tradition; does this Tradition follow a trusted lineage of re-tellers?

We can see that ‘getting it right’ for the religious fundamentalist and for the scientific rationalist mean different things – interpreting the Divine intent, and producing true explanations of the nature of the world, respectively. But then we have a problem, for religious doctrine often involves claims whose truth – in the sense of their relation to reality – can, in principle, be established. Yet in being an interpretive enterprise, religious fundamentalism cannot claim access to the truth in this sense. The religious fundamentalist can immediately respond by pointing out that the Divine word corresponds to the truth; it is the truth. If we press the religious fundamentalist to tell us why this is so we might be told that the truth of God’s pronouncements in the Qur’an is guaranteed by God’s pronouncement (also in the Qur’an) that His word is the truth and will be protected for all time from distortion.[2] Such a circular argument, of course, is unsatisfactory, and simply points to the fact that matters of evidence and logic have been reduced to matters of faith. If we press the religious fundamentalist further we might encounter what has become a common response: the attempt to justify the truth of the word of God by demonstrating that the Qur’an had anticipated modern scientific findings, and had done so over 1400 years ago. This is known as the ‘scientific miracle of the Qur’an’; scholars interpret certain ambiguous, almost poetic verses to suggest discoveries such as the relativity of time, the process of conception, brain functions, the composition of the Sun, and many others. The irony in such an attempt is that it elevates scientific truths to the status of arbiter of the truth of the word of God. But the more serious problem is that science is a self-correcting progressive enterprise – what we know today to be true may turn out tomorrow to be false. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is fixed; every scientific claim in the Qur’an (assuming there are any that point to current scientific discoveries) is going to be refuted the moment our science develops. You cannot use a continually changing body of knowledge to validate the eternally fixed word of God.

Neither the faith-based response nor the ‘scientific miracle of the Qur’an’ response can tie the Divine word to the truth. From the stance of scientific rationality, all the religious fundamentalist can do is provide interpretations of the ‘Divine’ intent as the latter can be discerned in the writings of his or her tradition. Given this, when we are presented with identities constituted by doctrinal claims whose truth can, in principle, be established (and which therefore stand or fall subject to an investigation of their veracity), we cannot extend a positive response to these identities; scientific rationality is within its means to pass judgement.

But not all religion is purely doctrinal in this sense or, more precisely, its doctrines are not intended as strictly factual claims about the world; Appiah (2005, p. 188) makes this point:

Gore Vidal likes to talk about ancient mystery sects whose rites have passed down so many generations that their priests utter incantations in language they no longer understand. The observation is satirical, but there’s a good point buried here. Where religious observance involves the affirmation of creeds, what may ultimately matter isn’t the epistemic content of the sentences (“I believe in One God, the Father Almighty …”) but the practice of uttering them. By Protestant habit, we’re inclined to describe the devout as believers, rather than practitioners; yet the emphasis is likely misplaced.

This is a reasonable point; for many people, religion is a practical affair: they attend the mosque for Friday prayers with their family members, they recite verses from the Qur’an and repeat invocations behind the Imam, and they socialise with their friends after the prayer, and during all of this, ‘doctrine’ is the last thing on their minds. They might even get overwhelmed with spiritual feelings of connectedness to the Divine. In the course of their ritual performance, they are likely to recite verses the content of which involves far-fetched claims about the world. It would be misguided to press them on the truth of those claims (in an empirical or logical sense), as it would be to approach, to use Taylor’s (1994a, p. 67) example, “a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier”; in both cases we would be applying the wrong measure of judgement, it would be “to forever miss the point” (ibid.).[3]

And then there is the possibility that the ‘truths’ in question are metaphorical truths, symbolic expressions of human experience, its range and its moral heights and depths. Charles Taylor (2007, 1982) often talks about the expressive dimension of our experience, a dimension that has been largely expunged from scientific research and its technological application. Human civilizations have always developed rich languages of expression, religious languages being a prominent example. The rarefied language of scientific rationality and its attendant procedural asceticism are our best bet to get things right about the world, but they are often inadequate as a means to express our psychological, emotional, and moral complexity.

To judge the practical (ritualistic) and expressive dimensions of identities in light of the standards of scientific rationality is to trespass upon these identities. Our judgements are misplaced and have limited value. My contention is that every time we suspect that we do not possess the right kind of language to understand other identities, or that there is an experience or mode of engagement that over-determines the language in which people express their identities, we have a genuine problem of shared understanding; we are not within our means to pass judgements of irrationality on the narratives that constitute these identities. Now I am not suggesting that the distinctions between doctrine and practice, or between understanding the world and expressing ourselves, are easy to make. And neither am I suggesting that a particular case falls neatly on side or the other of these distinctions. But if we are going to adopt the stance of scientific rationality – given that we have to adopt some stance as I have argued earlier – then these are the issues we need to think about: (1) Is the narrative best apprehended in its factual or expressive dimension? (2) Are there experiences that over-determine the kind of narrative that can adequately express them?

In Defense of Madness: The Problem of Disability

By developing a perspective on the social model of disability and by appealing to the concept of intelligiblity, I respond to arguments against Mad Pride activism. You can access the articlm_covere HERE.

Abstract: At a time when different groups in society are achieving notable gains in respect and rights, activists in mental health and proponents of mad positive approaches, such as Mad Pride, are coming up against considerable challenges. A particular issue is the commonly held view that madness is inherently disabling and cannot form the grounds for identity or culture. This paper responds to the challenge by developing two bulwarks against the tendency to assume too readily the view that madness is inherently disabling: the first arises from the normative nature of disability judgments, and the second arises from the implications of political activism in terms of being a social subject. In the process of arguing for these two bulwarks, the paper explores the basic structure of the social model of disability in the context of debates on naturalism and normativism, the applicability of the social model to madness, and the difference between physical and mental disabilities in terms of the unintelligibility often attributed to the latter.

Mad Activism and Mental Health Practice

On the 6th of August 2018 I delivered a live webinar that was part of a Mad Studies series organised by Mad in America. The aim of the webinar was to explore ways of incroporating ideas from Mad activism into clinical practice. The full recording of the webinar and the accompanying slides can be found below.

More Things in Heaven and Earth

cropped-img_6448.jpg

For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).

The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, Slow to Hell

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Old Mut, Dakhla

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot

 

On Irrational Identities

(Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition. OUP, 2018)

In Chapter 7 I raised and examined the distinction between failed and controversial identities. I began by pointing out that every demand for recognition – all gaps in social validation – involves the perception by each side that the other is committing a mistake. Given this, I formulated the question we had to address as follows: how do we sort out those mistakes that can be addressed within the scope of recognition (controversial identities) from those that cannot (failed identities)? The implication was that a failed identity involves a mistake that cannot be corrected by revising the category with which a person identifies, while a controversial identity involves a mistake that can, in principle, be corrected in that way. The issue I am concerned with here is no longer the identity-claim as such but the validity of the collective category itself; the question is no longer ‘what kind of mistake is the person identifying as x implicated in?’ but ‘is x a valid category?’. This question features as an element of adjudication for the reason that some social identities can be irrational in such a way that they cannot be regarded as meriting a positive social or a political response. As Appiah (2005, p. 181) writes:

Insofar as identities can be characterised as having both normative and factual aspects, both can offend against reason: an identity’s basic norms might be in conflict with one another; its constitutive factual claims might be in conflict with the truth.

For example, consider members of the Flat Earth Society if they were to identify as Flat-Earthers and demand recognition of the validity of their identity. They may successfully demonstrate that society’s refusal to recognise them as successful agents incurs on them a range of social harms such as disqualification. Yet it is clear that their identity does not merit further consideration and this for the reason that it is false: Earth is not flat. A similar predicament befalls some Creationists; Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that Earth is about ten thousand years old and was created over a period of six days, a belief that stands against all scientific evidence. It is not unreasonable to suggest that neither the Flat-Earthers nor the Young-Earth Creationists ought to have their identity-claims taken seriously, as the facts that constitute their identities do not measure up to what we know to be true, given the best evidence we now possess. To put it bluntly, whatever else might be at stake between us and the Flat-Earthers or Young-Earth Creationists, the shape of the Earth, its age, and the emergence and development of life on it are not.

Who does ‘us’ refer to in this context? To those who regard scientific rationality as an important value to uphold in society. By scientific rationality I mean an epistemological and methodological framework that prioritises procedural principles of knowledge acquisition (such as empirical observation, atomisation of evidence, and non-metaphysical, non-dogmatic reasoning), and eschews substantive convictions about the world derived from a sacred, divine, or otherwise infallible, authority (see Gellner 1992, p. 80-84). In rejecting the demands of Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists, we are prioritising the value of scientific rationality over the value of an individual’s attachment to a particular identity. We are saying: we know that it matters to you that your view of the world is accepted by us, but to accept it is to undermine what we consider, in this instance, to be a more important value. Note that such a response preserves the value of free-speech – Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are free to espouse their views. Note also that refusing to accord these identities a positive response is a separate issue from taking an active stand against them (an example of the latter would be government intervention to ban the teaching of creationism in schools).[1] What we are trying to determine here is not who should receive a negative response but who is a legitimate candidate for a positive one. Owing to the irrationality of their constituting claims, Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are not.

At this point in the argument someone could object to the premise of assessing the rationality of identities. They could object on two grounds: they could say there is no stance from where we can make such assessments; or they could say that even if such a stance exists and it is possible to determine the rationality of an identity, such a determination is always trumped by the demand for recognition and by individuals’ attachment to their identities. Both positions could further argue that as long as an identity is neither trivial nor morally objectionable, it ought to be considered for a positive response. We can recognise in the first position a commitment to cognitive relativism; in the second position we can recognise an extreme form of liberal tolerance. Both positions are problematic…

[1] For an example of what an active stance would look like in such cases and the problems it raises, see Appiah (2005, pp. 182-189) for an ingenious thought experiment based in the mythical Republic of Cartesia. The regime in Cartesia encourages the creed of hard rationalism and actively seeks to transform any deviations from rationality among its citizens.