“Are Mental Illnesses Real?”

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The Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technologies offers a three-part exploration of the questions revolving around mental illness & diagnosis, wending through Szasz, mental illnesses vs. brain illnesses, the “Reification-Causation” argument, the work of David Rosenhan on misdiagnosis, Robert Kendell on definitions of diagnosis, and Bill Fulford on concepts of disease, through considerations of “how closely entwined political values can be with concepts of disease and illness” and concluding “In the end, I feel like the classification of illness is largely (and perhaps appropriately) driven by pragmatic, treatment-oriented factors: if it can be treated by medical means, then it is a illness; if not, it’s not. Of course, I recognise that even this definition assumes that the concept of “medical treatment” is more stable than it really is.”

Part One →
Part Two →
Part Three →

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3 COMMENTS

  1. “None of this to suggest that other areas of medicine are free from existential challenge. Far from it. There are plenty of AIDs and cancer denialists out there too, and their critiques often follow a similar pattern. Nevertheless, I would submit that those forms of denialism are more obviously ‘fringe’, and their arguments more easily refuted, than those which relate to psychiatry and mental illness.”

    It will be interesting to see where this series goes. This seems a rather problematic beginning.

    • I hadn’t realized that parts two and three were already available:

      http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/are-mental-illnesses-real-part-three.html

      *Spoiler Alert*

      There is a surprise ending:

      “In the end, I feel like the classification of illness is largely (and perhaps appropriately) driven by pragmatic, treatment-oriented factors: if it can be treated by medical means, then it is a illness; if not, it’s not. Of course, I recognise that even this definition assumes that the concept of “medical treatment” is more stable than it really is.”

      It is a surprise ending, because it is the first place the reader encounters any mention of “pragmatic, treatment-oriented factors.” Yes, by all means, let’s look at the outcomes of psychiatric intervention and use that information – rather than straw man arguments using Thomas Szasz, as if his was the final critique of psychiatry – to determine whether “mental illnesses,” as defined by psychiatry are, in fact, real.

  2. Well, if treatability is the real criterion for “mental illness,” I’d have to say that Whitaker’s book shows that it fails the test miserably.

    Of course, the author never addresses whom the treatment is supposed to benefit. Lobotomy was very effective in making patients more docile, which the doctors and a lot of the staff felt was very beneficial. I’m not sure their “patients” would have agreed with them, had they retained the ability to actually decide and communicate their agreement or disagreement after the brutal procedure.

    The author also does not address the possibility that what is called “mental illness” is actually a spiritual issue relating to the meaning of the person’s experience and their purposes as a human being on planet earth. I was surprised he never addressed this, as most of the religious arguments against psychiatric labeling and treatment (including the Dalai Lama, I’ve recently learned) focus on the presence of a spiritual entity whose experiences and decisions have a fundamental impact on things like suffering, orientation to reality, and happiness/satisfaction.

    In the end, it was a lot of words to reach a very mundane conclusion.

    — Steve

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