- a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
- an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.
- the object of such devotion.
- a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
Before I begin to reflect on indoctrination, let me first establish why Psychiatry is modern society’s greatest cult. As an institution, it is bound together by veneration of a belief: that certain human experiences are “symptoms” of biochemical “diseases”/”conditions”/”disorders”/”illnesses”. This medical language is perpetuated by Psychiatry despite the fact that it is founded on no, or, at best, faulty, science. 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 The pseudoscientific construct of “mental illness” is so powerful, however, that even though Psychiatry has no evidence to hang its hat on, it perpetuates this biochemical story as though it does. But don’t take my word on it: on January 16th, 2013, Dr. Thomas Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), carried this message very powerfully himself, however hidden between the sophisticated and spellbinding scientific language it may have been:
“What about mental disorders or, as we often call them, “behavioral disorders”? We now understand these as brain circuit disorders, but we define them based on changes in behavior…
Of course, we face two big questions going forward in this research [into so-called “schizophrenia”]. First, can changes in brain function or some biomarker yield better prediction and longer lead-times for intervening to preempt psychosis? We now have the neuroimaging and cerebrospinal fluid measures in Alzheimer’s disease and the cardiac imaging and lipid measures in heart disease to define risk with more precision. Imagine the cognitive, imaging, and plasma measures that might redefine what we now call the risk state for schizophrenia so that early prediction becomes precise for any given individual.”9
[my emphasis added]
If “mental disorders” are, in fact, “brain circuit disorders”, why are they defined by “changes in behavior”, and not by evidence of, well, brain circuit disorder? I think it’s safe to assume that if Dr. Insel, as our country’s representative psychiatrist, had scientific evidence of brain changes, or biochemical alterations of any kind, he would have said so. But what Dr. Insel has perfectly articulated is that, in fact, it is through social observation— through observing “changes in behavior”— that this proclaimed medical condition gets diagnosed. Note, too, that when comparing the measures of “mental disorders” to those of Alzheimer’s disease or heart disease, he doesn’t say that these measures actually exist, but rather he asks us to “imagine” them, as if they did.
And thus, I argue that Psychiatry is a cult founded upon doctrines so truly powerful that its disciples have effectively facilitated a mass suspension of disbelief across mainstream society, and increasingly, the world at large. With this said, I can now begin to talk about indoctrination.
As a fourteen-year old, I hated the world, and I hated myself. This hatred stemmed from a realization I’d had while looking in the mirror at the start of my eighth grade year: that everything I thought I knew about who I was, where I belonged, and what I believed in, was not as it seemed. In the snap of a finger, anything tenable was untenable; any person I’d once trusted was untrustworthy; any characteristic of mine that had made me the girl I’d become in my first thirteen years on the planet was suddenly inauthentic and fake. After a lifetime of unmediated experience in the world, I suddenly discovered that I was nothing but an actor on life’s stage, playing a part. That I was a fraud, and a puppet being directed by greater social forces.
In revolt, I began to question everything that had been taught to me by my parents, my school, and my town. It was quite destabilizing and disorienting to believe that everything I once held as real actually wasn’t, and quickly, my confusion and fear morphed into anger channeled at any person who had tried to “make” me who I was. It didn’t help that this anger was brought to a psychiatrist, who told me at the end of our first session that the rage was a symptom of “mania”, and that I was “Bipolar”. Fuck that, I thought, the fire inside of me burning brightly. No way am I crazy.
Flash forward four years, when, as a freshman in college, I found myself utterly desperate for someone to tell me who I was, what was wrong with me, and what I needed to do to fix it. Indeed, I had turned one hundred and eighty degrees. Prescriptions for Depakote and Prozac had chased me through high school, as had that “Bipolar” label, which I’d shunned, agreeing to a “Major depression” label instead. That anti-authoritarian spark in me, which Bruce Levine has written so poignantly about here, had faded, and I was ready to turn myself into Psychiatry, convinced that I couldn’t manage my emotions, my thoughts, or myself, any longer. It didn’t matter that I’d been a successful student and athlete, a writer, a lover of nature, and a reliable friend, or that I was privileged with four years ahead of me at a prestigious college; I was in so much emotional and existential pain that I was sure I was broken, that the psychiatrist had been right all along. I was ripe for indoctrination into Psychiatry: miserable, isolated, marginalized, confused, scared, and convinced of my powerlessness. I was an apple hanging precariously from the tree, ready to be picked and devoured by Psychiatry.
-to teach (a person or group of people) systematically to accept doctrines, esp. uncritically
When Psychiatry had first attempted to indoctrinate me as a young teenager, I was not yet vulnerable or hopeless enough. When I eventually reached such a state, I surrendered myself immediately to a psychiatrist at America’s most prestigious private psychiatric institution, and became a full-blooded patient, passive and dependent and convinced of her brokenness, in a matter of weeks. I believed him when he said I’d need “meds” for the rest of my life, and would have to learn how to “manage my symptoms” and “set realistic expectations” for myself. I was sure that the “Bipolar” diagnosis was the explanation for all my problems, and that the prescribed “treatment” would be my solution. I needed to be “Bipolar”, and I needed to want the antipsychotic, antidepressant, and sleeping pill prescriptions that were written for me at the end of that first session, because they gave me hope that something could, and would, change. For, that’s what I wanted so desperately: a shift, some sort of momentum forward and out of the mire I was in. With his MD and PhD from Harvard, my psychiatrist emanated this powerful promise for change.
Just what does it mean to say that I was indoctrinated into Psychiatry?
-It meant letting Psychiatry tell me who I was, and forgetting how to define myself.
-It meant surrendering my humanness and replacing it with the narrative of a “chemical imbalance”, of an abnormal “condition” that made me different from everyone around me.
-It meant that I never questioned anything I was told by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker, because I believed that “mental health professionals” had science on their side, and expertise about me that I could never have. After all, who would ever be so presumptuous as to question a doctor?!
-It meant sacrificing my agency, my sense of self, and my sense of responsibility and accountability to the DSM, to any proclamation made by a “mental health professional”, and to my “meds”.
-It meant that I stopped trusting my gut, following my instincts, or having faith in myself and my ability to feel big feelings or think intense thoughts, and that my psychiatrist was always on speed dial in case I needed an upped dosage or an extra therapy session when I sensed another “episode” coming on.
-It meant that I was fragile, “couldn’t handle” too much stress, was emotionally unpredictable (“labile” was a favorite word of mine), was “hypersensitive”, and was at the whim of my “disease”; indeed “being Bipolar” became my justifiable excuse for impulsive behaviors, fights with family or friends, and shirked responsibilities.
-It meant that most of my decisions began with, “My psychiatrist says that…”.
-It meant that I was Bipolar.
-It meant that I forgot how to stand up for myself and for my rightful place in the world.
-It meant that I no longer believed I should have full rights, as my “disease” made me less than human.
-It meant that I lowered my eyes in subservience before the shiny, gray-silver DSM-IV-TR, the Psychiatric Bible, my life’s definer.
-It meant that I worshipped at the altars of worn leather armchairs, praying to the Gods of DSM, Harvard Medical School, and Lexapro.
-It meant that I became convinced only Psychiatry could save my life and any scrap of sanity I may have had left; that if left to myself, I would surely perish.
I could go on, and on, and on. My thirteen-year indoctrination into Psychiatry meant quite a lot of things, many of them so subtle and deep-seated that there aren’t the words to describe them. What I can state clearly is that the doctrines of Psychiatry were once the basic foundations upon which I constructed my life, as well as the lens through which I saw myself, and my place in the world. In those years, nothing came even remotely close to shaping my existence as much as the Cult of Psychiatry did.
And how, just how, did I wake up? How did I awaken to, and from, this powerful indoctrination? Let me focus, for the time being, on The Moment. That is, the moment in which I began to wake up from thirteen years of drugged, numbed, disconnected, psychiatrically labeled sleep. The moment in which I began to recognize and realize that everything I’d been told to believe about myself by Psychiatry was not necessarily true— a moment, ironically, quite like my experience before the mirror as a young teenager, which is what led me to becoming “Bipolar” in the first place.
You see, in that critical moment in May 2010, the spark that years ago had been fiery and bright in me was once again rekindled, the fuel, Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic. Upon seeing its hardcover face looking at me from a ‘New Release’ shelf in a Vermont bookstore, I couldn’t have predicted in my wildest imaginings that the result would be an awakening; indeed, I was so anesthetized by Psychiatry’s spell that I didn’t even know I was asleep. But something in the deepest parts of me— my life force, my élan vital— was stirring, and desperate for change. I was in an existential survival mode, although I didn’t know it consciously, and I was ready for something to be the catalyst. The timing was just right for it to be Anatomy, and despite how incredibly disconnected and sedated my mind was from five psychotropic drugs, my human spirit, still in me after all those years under the “care” of Psychiatry, began to stir.
I know today that my spirit was in me all along, small and faded and hidden away, but patiently waiting for the chance to wake up. Knowing this, I hold onto the belief that any human being oppressed by Psychiatry, whether for months or for decades, has the potential to wake up. It doesn’t necessarily require an awareness of one’s oppression in order for The Moment to happen— at least, that was my experience, for my understanding of the devastating human rights violations rampant across all of Psychiatry has grown progressively over the last two and a half years— all there needs to be is a deep, unconscious desire for a different way.
Something inside of me was desperate for change, for a path that would lead me away from where I was in that moment, which I’ve written about here, and all it took was an openness, and a readiness, to try out a different way of thinking. It was a way of thinking that required I leave behind every single belief I held about myself— that I was “mentally ill”, that I had a “chemical imbalance”, and that I needed “medication” to “treat” this “condition” that made me eternally different. I needed to hold onto the hope that maybe the theory behind Anatomy of an Epidemic was true: that long-term use of psychotropic drugs actually creates physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual disturbance and trauma. I needed to be willing to entertain the notion that rather than think of myself as someone with “treatment resistant Bipolar disorder” or “serious mental illness”, I could instead test out the hypothesis that my “treatment” was making me “sick” in the first place— a hypothesis that ended up being true. At the root of it all, I needed to be ready and open to the idea that, in truth, there had never been anything wrong inside of me, that I was no different than any other person, and that the intense emotional and psychic pain I’d felt for much of my life was not a “symptom” to be “treated”, but rather, was a part of the vast spectrum of human experience, as well as the direct result of entering the “mental health” system in the first place.
Last night, I was having dinner with a childhood friend who knew me before I got lost in the depths of Psychiatry. He knows me today, as well, but he missed knowing me in the thirteen years I spent believing I was “mentally ill”. We were talking about the fact that none of the realizations I’ve come to— realizations that are based in science (or in dispelling false science), in evidence, in experience, and in common sense— would have happened had I not been at least slightly open to thinking about things in a different way. In my case, that openness wasn’t even something I was necessarily conscious of in The Moment— that beautiful, powerful a-ha moment in which I turned the last page of Anatomy of an Epidemic and saw my life in an entirely different way. He said to me, “Laura, you know, we can talk ‘til the cows come home about all that needs to change, about all the myths that need to be dispelled, but none of it is going to matter if people don’t have an open mind.”
I wish I had a quick fix to that dilemma, just as I once wished there was a quick fix to my emotional and existential pain. I know today that there is no easy way to open up a collective consciousness’ closed mind. What I do know, however, is that the fraud, oppression, dehumanization, trauma, and human rights’ violations happening on a daily basis in the name of Psychiatry, of “care”, of “treatment”, and of “First, do no harm”, are happening right under our noses, and that somewhere in our collective future, a sneeze is bound to happen.
 Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic (2010).
2 Paula Caplan, They Say You’re Crazy: How The World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal (1995).
3 Joanna Moncrieff, The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment (2009)
4 Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” June 23, 2011, The New York Review of Books.
7 Elliot Valenstein, Blaming the Brain: The Truth about Drugs and Mental Illness (1998)
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.