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.
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. 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.
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.
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’.
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”. 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). 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. (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). 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.
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 Values-based practice is one such solution (see Fulford and Van Staden 2013).
 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).
 Biomarkers Definition Working Group (2001: 91).
 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.
 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).
 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.