Discuss: If critical psychiatrists had scientifically valid and convincing arguments, psychiatrists would agree with their position

(Discussion initiated by Patrick Allen)

Critical psychiatrists make – at least – four claims:

  •  Psychotropic drugs are harmful.
  • Mental health conditions are problems in living a la Thomas Szasz: they are not illnesses.
  • Psychiatry medicalises human experience and suffering.
  • Psychiatry is in cahoots with ‘Big Pharma’ which partially provides the incentive for the previous three problems: more harmful drugs, a disease model of human experience and suffering, and the increasing medicalisation of the same.

I accept that different critical psychiatrists may hold these claims with various degrees of conviction, but these four claims are a good starting point. To address the point of debate – “If critical psychiatrists had scientifically valid and convincing arguments, psychiatrists would agree with their position” – we need to assess each of these claims. If they are valid then psychiatrists should agree. Let us first state the (obvious) point that agreement or lack thereof is not the sole consideration for the validity of a position. The point of debate should rather be: are the arguments of critical psychiatrists valid? In any case, with this minor point aside we can turn to more substantive concerns. I’ll just sketch some of the issues here.

  • Psychotropic drugs are harmful: this is clearly an empirical claim and I am not an expert on the evidence here. But there seems to be loud voices from consumers of psychiatric drugs and psychiatrists alike who have compelling evidence (including first-person experience) that the side-effects of psychiatric drugs are serious (think of Clozapine for instance) and the therapeutic effects poorly understood. On that basis, if only tentatively, we can grant the critical psychiatrists the first point. But it should be qualified by saying that some people benefit from psychotropics and swear by them.
  • Mental health conditions are problems in living a la Thomas Szasz: they are not illnesses: this is a conceptual point and has been much debated over the past twenty years in the philosophy of psychiatry. Basically, the issue turns on how we define illness or disorder. I am obviously not going to go in to that long debate but I personally find convincing that a central feature of illness is a negatively evaluated experience of incapacity where incapacity is defined as the failure of intentional action (see the work of Bill Fulford and Derek Bolton, although Derek adopts different terminology).  And this central feature can apply equally to the conditions we call physical as to those we call mental. In short, whether or not mental conditions are illnesses depends on how we define illness. Therefore, I would not grant critical psychiatrists the second point.
  • Psychiatry medicalises human experience and suffering: Yes, psychiatry does do that: many behaviours including sexual have become ‘addictions’ and ‘disorders’; mischievous, active children have ADHD; sadness is depressive disorder; and so on… So it is true that psychiatry is engaged in medicalisation. And this clearly can be a bad thing, for instance in the loss of diversity and authenticity that ensues from transforming the human condition to broken mechanism. But not everyone would take this view, some would not consider medicalisation a negative thing. There seems to be deeply held values at play here pertaining to the meaning of our experiences and our lives more generally. Thus, I would agree with the critical psychiatrists that psychiatry medicalises human experience, but would leave the issue of medicalisation – whether it is bad or not – a point for debate. Hence, I would not grant critical psychiatrists the third point.
  • Psychiatry is in cahoots with ‘Big Pharma’: Seems likely! There is a wealth of evidence supporting this point. And if it is true, this really is a problem as it jeopardises the scientific integrity and ethical standing of psychiatry. I therefore grant the critical psychiatrists the fourth point.

So, the score is 2 for and 2 against! I’ll leave it at this.