The Identity of Psychiatry and the Challenge of Mad Activism: Rethinking the Clinical Encounter

[Introduction to an essay currently in press with the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy]

Psychiatry has an identity in the sense that it is constituted by certain understandings of what it is and what it is for. The key element in this identity is that psychiatry is a medical speciality. During the early years of their training, medical doctors make a choice about the speciality they want to pursue. Psychiatry is one of them, and so is ophthalmology, cardiology, gynaecology, and paediatrics. Modern medical specialities share some fundamental features: they treat conditions, disorders, or diseases; they aspire to be evidence-based in the care and treatments they offer; they are grounded in basic sciences such as physiology, anatomy, histology, and biochemistry; and they employ technology in investigations, research, and development of treatments. These features characterize modern medical specialities even as physicians are increasingly framing their work in ways that take account of the whole person, recognising conflicting values and their implications for diagnosis and treatment, and acknowledging the role of the arts and humanities in medical education and practice (see, for example, Cox, Campbell, and Fulford 2007; Fulford, van Staden, and Crisp 2013; Cook 2010; and McManus 1995).

Psychiatry differentiates itself from other medical specialties by the conditions that it treats: mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. The nature of its subject matter, which are disturbances of the mind and their implications, 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.

There are significant, ongoing debates in these three areas that do not, at present, appear to be nearing resolution. But these debates are themselves superseded by a foundational challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality, a challenge that emanates from particular approaches in mental health activism. These approaches, which I will be referring to as Mad activism, reject the language of ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental disorder’, and with it the assumption that people have a condition that requires treatment. The idea that medicine treats conditions, disorders, or diseases is at the heart of medical practice and theory, and this includes psychiatry in so far as it wishes to understand itself as a branch of medicine. In rejecting the premise that people ‘have’ a ‘condition’, Mad activism is issuing a challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.
In this paper I examine how psychiatry might accommodate the challenge of Mad activism in the context of the clinical encounter.

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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.