In Defence of Madness: The Problem of Disability

My essay, about to be published in the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy.

I write defending mad positive approaches against the tendency to adopt a medical view of the limitations associated with madness. Unlike most debates that deal with similar issues – for example the debate between critical psychiatrists and biological psychiatrists, or between proponents of the social model of disability versus those who endorse the medical model of disability – my essay is not a polemical adoption of one or other side, but a philosophical examination of how we can talk about disability in general, and madness in particular.

You can read the essay here: IN DEFENCE OF MADNESS

And here is the 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 judgements, and the second 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

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Beyond Dysfunction: Distress & the Distinction Between Social Deviance & Mental Disorder

Over the course of last year I have been working on a small project with Rachel Bingham examining the possibility of distinguishing ‘social deviance’ from ‘mental disorder’ in light of recent work on concepts of health. The result was an essay published recently in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology (21:3-September 2014).

Johanna Moncrieff and Dan Stein wrote commentaries on our essay to which we responded in a short piece published in the same issue with the original essay.

In our response to Moncrieff and Stein we found it necessary to point out that in the writings of some critical psychiatrists and psychologists there is a problematic conflation of empirical with conceptual issues in relation to ‘mental disorder’. That section is reproduced below. Note that Criterion E is the final clause in the DSM definition of mental disorder. It states that a mental disorder must not solely be a result of social deviance or conflicts with society.

Mental Disorder: Separating Empirical From Conceptual Considerations

Let us begin by revisiting the conceptual basis of attributions of mental disorder. Criterion E is not, as we argued with Stein et al. (2010, 1765), conceptually necessary, but is of ethical and political importance given the historical context. Thus, notwithstanding the other criteria, a condition can only be considered for candidacy for mental disorder if “dysfunction” is present. What is a dysfunction? As Moncrieff puts it, there is a tautology in the definition of mental disorder where it is stated that a mental disorder reflects an “underlying psychobiological dysfunction” (Moncreiff 2014). Moncrieff argues that this is flawed because underlying processes have not been established, which renders the definition tantamount to saying that a dysfunction is a reflection of a dysfunction: a definition that adds nothing to our knowledge.

Here Moncrieff follows Thomas Szasz in finding a lack of resemblance to physical disorder to be the primary problem with the concept of mental disorder (see Fulford et al. 2013).1 In pursuing this, the critical psychiatrist not only fails to see the complexity of the concept of physical disorder, but also commits the same error as the biological psychiatrist. The latter implies that an ever longer awaited complete neurochemistry of mental health conditions would solve the conceptual problems. The former—the critical psychiatrist—implies the converse; that the absence of proof for the “existence of separate and distinct foundational processes,” as Moncrieff (2014) puts it, proves that mental health conditions are not disorders. As we have argued elsewhere, identifying the biological basis for a set of behaviors or symptoms does not in itself pick out what is pathological or disordered: for example, a complete description of the neurochemical states governing sexuality would not permit the inference that homosexuality is a disorder, any more than discovery of the neural correlates of falling in love or criminality would make these mental illnesses (Bingham and Banner 2012). Neurobiological changes—their presence or their absence—tells us about conditions when we find them by other means, but it does not tell us what is or is not a disorder. The same arguments could be run for underlying psychological processes. Consequently, emphasis on scientific progress or failure to progress in understanding the neurobiological correlates of mental health conditions does little to advance the conceptual debates, a point that may help to explain the impasse in the ongoing exchange between critical and biological psychiatrists.

Thus, although Moncrieff is right in pointing out that the term ‘dysfunction’ is redundant in the definition of mental disorder, she is wrong about the reason why this is so. It is not, as she claims, due to the point that no “separate and distinct foundational processes” (2014) that can ground dysfunction have been discovered empirically. After all, this leaves her open to the simple response that they actually have been, a response many biological psychiatrists do offer. The redundancy of the term ‘dysfunction’ in the definition of mental disorder is a result of conceptual analysis (and not empirical evidence), whereby it has not proven possible to define dysfunction in a way that excludes values. Here, we follow Derek Bolton in the view that once we “give up trying to conceptually locate a natural fact of the matter [dysfunction] that underlies illness attribution… then we are left trying to make the whole story run on the basis of something like ‘distress and impairment of functioning’” (2010, 332). We are left then with those things that matter in real life, the reasons that lead to healthcare being sought: usually the presence of significant distress and disability.

This is what the terms ‘dysfunction’ and ‘mental disorder’ pick out once we achieve some clarity on their referents. Stein is clearly aware of the problems inherent in defining dysfunction. However, somewhat surprisingly, the assumption that we can talk of ‘dysfunction’ over and above experienced factors (distress and disability in particular) arises through Stein’s commentary. In other words, although Stein has acknowledged the conceptual problem, in places he still writes as if there were a clear definition of dysfunction, without telling us what this would be. For example, he describes “situations when there is evidence of dysfunction, but an absence of distress and/or impairment” and gives the example of tic disorders which have no “clinical criterion (emphasizing distress and/or impairment)” (Stein 2014). We would argue that, despite the lack of explicit acknowledgement in DSM, tic disorders enter the manual because of their association with clinically significant distress and disability. It is important to avoid confusing the empirical questions (e.g., Why do people have tics? Can people have tics and not be distressed?) with the conceptual questions (e.g., When is a tic a disorder? Can tics be disorders if they do not cause distress or impairment?).

A further potential pitfall is to conflate the technical use of ‘dysfunction’ with the ordinary use of that term. This might occur where, on the one hand, we perceive a ‘dysfunction’ but on the other hand we are unable to say what the dysfunction consists of. When Moncrieff writes that dysfunction and distress are not co-extant, because, “people may neglect themselves and act in other ways that compromise their safety and survival without necessarily being distressed,” she is offering a description of behavior many would consider ‘dysfunctional’ in the lay sense (2014). Considered as a basis for conceptual analysis, however, this does not illuminate any “underlying psychobiological dysfunction”, which previous definitions aspired to do. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that Moncrieff provides this counterexample rather than sticking to her argument that dysfunction in fact does not exist. In citing safety and survival, Moncrieff’s phrase does resemble the evolutionary theoretic approach (notably described in Wakefield’s Harmful Dysfunction Analysis), which as has been discussed widely elsewhere and noted in our paper, has fallen out of favor owing to problems with evolutionary theory specifically and naturalistic definitions in general. What of importance is left in Moncrieff’s putative definition if not underlying psychobiological and evolutionary dysfunction? We would argue: only the harm or threat of harm experienced by the individual, whether that harm is cashed out as distress and disability or as some other similar negatively evaluated experienced factor.

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.