On April 25, 2014, Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, then-President of the APA, announced that the association had engaged the services of Porter Novelli, a prestigious PR company based in Washington DC and currently operating in 60 different countries.
“Mindful of the continuing stigma associated with mental illness and psychiatric treatment, we retained an outside consultant agency (Porter Novelli) to review APA’s communications capabilities, needs, and opportunities. Based on its report, we are now moving forward with an initiative to enact a sophisticated and proactive communications plan that will be directed both internally to APA members and externally to the media, mental health stakeholder groups, and the general public.”
I expressed the belief at the time that it would take a lot more than some PR embellishments to remediate the fundamental flaws in American psychiatry’s concepts and practices. Here is what I wrote:
“And that is what it’s all about. Psychiatry remains blind to the fact that it is its own spurious pathologizing of its clients that creates the stigma. It has no interest in genuine reform, but instead is embarked on a tawdry PR campaign to whitewash its transgressions and sell its concepts to the media, stakeholders, and the general public. Dr. Lieberman even acknowledges the APA’s need to sell this bill of goods to its own members!
And apparently nobody at APA headquarters can see how inherently insulting this is. Nobody can see that treating people as marks, whose thoughts and beliefs are to be manipulated by a professional PR company, is no way to treat people. But psychiatry has been treating human beings as non-people for decades.”
In the intervening year and a half, I’ve been watching the APA closely for any indications of fundamental change; any hint of critical self-appraisal; any suggestion of genuine reform or remediation.
But I’ve seen nothing of this sort. It’s still the same old APA, with its same old spurious diagnoses, and the same old assurances that their “treatments” are efficacious and safe, and that the great neurological insights are just around the corner.
For instance, Paul Summergrad’s final address as president, at this year’s annual meeting, contained the following:
“[W]e are in the midst of a profound transformation of our understanding of neuroscience, genetics, and epigenetics,” Summergrad said. “That we have not yet achieved interventions based on these insights or diagnostic tests is not because we will not achieve them, but because of the complexity of what we are studying.”
Psychiatrists are “…in the midst of a profound transformation…”
But I’ve seen not one shred of substantive reform: no formal repudiation of the chemical imbalance hoax; no apologies for perpetrating this hoax; and no reduction in the enthusiasm for medicalization, high voltage electric shocks to the brain, and drugs. In short, there’s been nothing to suggest that the APA has subjected itself, or its concepts, to any kind of serious scrutiny.
But I’ve recently discovered I was looking for the wrong things.
I went to Porter Novelli’s website, and found an interesting document. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s a “look-at-the-great-things-we’ve-done-for-the-APA” kind of document. It’s in a section called “Jack’s Garage”, which is described as “Porter Novelli’s global creative group”. Apparently, if a company or association goes to Porter Novelli and asks for help with their image, Porter Novelli sends them to Jack’s Garage. Why it’s called Jack’s Garage, I can’t begin to imagine. Perhaps to convey the impression that they fix things?
Then, there’s a document titled: American Psychiatric Association: Rebranding to move the field forward. Rebranding, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, means: to “change the corporate image of (a company or organization)”. In this document, there’s a sub-heading called “The Ask”, which I gather means what the client organization asked Jack’s Garage to do:
“The national association for psychiatrists was seen as the knowledgeable literary leader, a resource for published research and advances in the field, but the membership wanted a true leader that could advance the field, which still suffers from old stigmas and lack of understanding of the true science behind psychiatry.”
So, apparently, the APA told Jack or someone in his garage, that they (the APA) were seen as “…the knowledgeable literary leader, a resource for published research and advances in the field…”, but that the members wanted them to be “…a true leader that could advance the field.”
This isn’t entirely clear, but the gist seems to be that the APA wanted to change their image from a kind of back-room research repository to one of active leadership.
And the problems facing psychiatry are identified as:
- Old stigmas
- Lack of understanding of the true science behind psychiatry
This has been standard fare from psychiatry for the past twenty years or so; not only here in the US, but also in Europe. (See the February 27, 2015 European Psychiatric Association’s EPA guidance on how to improve the image of psychiatry and of the psychiatrist).
In fact, the problems facing psychiatry are that they have irreversibly committed themselves to the patently spurious notion that all significant problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving are illnesses, and that these “illnesses” need to be “diagnosed” by experts (specifically, themselves), and are best “treated” by neurotoxic drugs and high-voltage electric shocks to the brain. It is because of this that psychiatry is the only medical specialty that has an anti group. And it is because of this, and its consequent destructiveness and disempowerment, that psychiatry is widely and accurately perceived in a negative light.
With regards to the “lack of understanding of the true science behind psychiatry,” it needs to be pointed out that there is no true science behind psychiatry. What’s behind psychiatry is a massive pharma-funded hoax masquerading as science, and leaving in its wake a shameful trail of human destruction and disempowerment.
But that is a problem way beyond the reach of any PR firm, even one as prestigious as Porter Novelli.
Nevertheless, the APA went to PR and told them that they needed to change their image, and here’s Porter Novelli’s synopsis of their response:
Repositioning American Psychiatric Association from wise sage to caring ruler, we changed everything from messaging to their logo to support the new brand persona. APA also suffered from poor brand awareness, with many divisions within the organization using their own branding that did not ladder up to a central visual or verbal tone. We worked with the organization and each division to identify the best architecture that would strengthen the central brand while still allowing for flexibility within a successful framework.”
So, Porter Novelli “repositioned” the APA from “wise sage” (I kid you not), to “caring ruler.” And to accomplish this, they changed “everything,” from “messaging” to their logo. I assume that messaging means communicating one’s message. Psychiatry’s message is that all significant problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving are brain illnesses that need to be “treated” with high voltage electric shocks to the brain or with neurotoxic drugs. Presumably Porter Novelli has improved the APA’s delivery of this message. This is interesting, because I certainly haven’t noticed any changes in the way American psychiatry delivers this message. It’s still the same tired old unsubstantiated assertions, trotted out at every opportunity, coupled with systematic dismissal and marginalization of anyone who challenges these assumptions. And, of course, the need for “early intervention,” and endless lamentation of the “fact” that vast numbers of “mentally ill” people are not receiving “treatment”!
Anyway, according to Porter Novelli, the APA suffered from “poor brand awareness.” I’m not sure what this means, but as best as I can figure from the document in hand, it refers to the APA’s use of their logo, or — more correctly — logos, plural. You see; prior to Porter Novelli’s intervention, the APA had six different logos. Yes, six!
- The familiar bust of Benjamin Rush, the founder of American psychiatry;
- A stylized rod of Asclepius flanked by the words American Psychiatric Association and underpinned with the slogan “Healthy Minds, Healthy Lives”;
- A rather nondescript logo for their foundation (APF);
- A logo for their publishing group;
- A red, white, and blue logo for their Political Action Committee;
- And a logo for their annual meetings.
And all of this chaos and confusion is now gone – swept away by the tireless mechanics at Jack’s Garage. Now the APA has only one logo: a stylized rod of Asclepius in white, superimposed on (guess what?) a blue brain viewed from above. The words American Psychiatric Association appear to the left of the brain. The various divisions of the association use the brain logo with the appropriate wording (Foundation; Publishing; PAC; Annual Meeting) underneath.
But one picture is worth a thousand words. If you go here, and click through the images, you can find a pictorial summary of how Porter Novelli transformed the APA’s “confusion” into “strength.”
. . . . .
So, as often happens to me when I’m writing about psychiatry, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It is clear from Dr. Lieberman’s remarks, quoted earlier, that the decision to engage the services of Porter Novelli was based on the fact that psychiatry is widely perceived in negative terms. It is also the case – though I don’t think Dr. Lieberman would ever concede this – that the negative perceptions are accurate and justly deserved.
The notion that one can even begin to address these issues by tinkering around with the association’s logo borders on the bizarre. But perhaps it’s not all that surprising. After all, psychiatry is the profession that purports to ameliorate the most profound feelings of despondency, fear, anger, loneliness, and unfulfillment by tinkering with people’s brains!
But maybe I’m being too shallow. Perhaps there’s some profound but arcane message in the logo: “We’ll clean the snakes out of your brain!” Or, “Snake oil for the brain.” Or maybe it’s meant to be a plumber’s snake: “We’ll clean the s… out of your brain!” Or perhaps the reference is to venom: “We can poison your brain!” Or snake-charming: “We can charm your brain snakes.”
And to guard against any misunderstanding, this article is not a criticism of Porter Novelli, who presumably delivered what was asked of them. This is a criticism of organized American psychiatry, who apparently struggle under the illusion that a hundred years of systematic deception, fraudulent research, and destructive, disempowering “treatments” can be washed away by a blue picture of a brain. This is a criticism of the APA, who apparently imagine that their brain chemical hoax, thoroughly discredited by competent authorities, can be sneaked subliminally back into play by incorporating a picture of a brain into their logo.
I have no way of knowing what the APA paid Porter Novelli for this work. But if I were a member of the APA, I would certainly be asking.
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.