Tranquilizing Humanity into Oblivion: A Warning from Nathan S. Kline

Mark L. Ruffalo, LCSW
38
1979

Nathan S. Kline, MD, is widely heralded as the father of American psychopharmacology and the discoverer of the original antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs. His discoveries in the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new era in American and global psychiatry and sparked the transition from a psychoanalytically-inclined psychiatry to a field dominated by biology, neuroscience, and psychopharmacology. Historians of psychiatry note that it is largely because of Nathan Kline’s early research that we have the psychiatry of today—one marked by its emphasis on diagnosis and medication, and its seeming repudiation of psychotherapy.

Nathan S. Kline, MD, (1916-1982), pioneer in psychopharmacology.

Throughout his long and accomplished career as a researcher and psychiatrist, Kline asserted that a more complete understanding of psychoactive substances and their effect on human functioning could forever change the landscape of psychiatry—and mankind in general. In a quote widely attributed to Kline, he submitted:

“Those of us who work in this field see a developing potential for a nearly total control of human emotional status, mental functioning, and will to act. These human phenomena can be started, stopped or eliminated by the use of various types of chemical substances. What we can produce with our science now will affect the entire society.”

Clearly, Kline recognized the vast influence that his discoveries would have, not only for psychiatry but for the future of humanity.

I once treated a patient in psychotherapy who had seen Dr. Kline many years earlier, in the 1960s. The patient paid $900 for a consultation with Dr. Kline at his private office in Manhattan—a small price to pay given that the patient’s life was being completely overtaken by his extreme mood swings, and no treatment up to that time had been able to help him. At a time when most psychiatrists were psychoanalysts, Kline was investigating with psychotropic drugs, and the patient was desperately seeking relief. For the first time in his life, the patient was diagnosed with manic-depression and started on a new drug called lithium. To this day, the patient credits Dr. Kline with saving his life and giving him hope for a meaningful and productive existence.

Despite Kline’s widespread success and optimism regarding the promise of psychopharmacology, he frequently warned of the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications. In 1957, Kline wrote:

“The tranquilizing drugs, as I have repeatedly and strongly urged, should be used only for the treatment of those whose mental and emotional state disables them… The picture of the snarling vicious dangerous monkey transformed by a few milligrams of a chemical into a friendly ‘tranquil’ and ‘happy’ animal fascinates me in a horrendous way. Such a creature is a pleasure to have around the laboratory, but he would not last ten minutes in his native jungle. Similarly, mankind is perfectly capable of tranquilizing itself into oblivion.1 [emphasis added]

Kline himself was trained as a psychotherapist, having Paul Schilder, the famous Austrian psychoanalyst, as his mentor. At the Rockland State Hospital in New York, where Kline conducted his research, he kept psychoanalytic psychiatrists and psychologists on staff to provide psychotherapy. Kline insisted that his discoveries were adjunctive to psychotherapy, not replacements, and that there was no inherent antagonism between his biological approach and a more traditional psychotherapy-based approach. Kline was clearly friendly towards his psychotherapist colleagues, and although he may have disagreed with them regarding the nature of mental disorder, he saw psychotherapy as serving a very useful role in many, if not all, forms of psychopathology.

This is, of course, in sharp contrast with the psychopharmacology of today. Modern psychopharmacology operates with a hubris and certainty that the solution to all psychiatric conditions—and life problems—is a pill, and that psychotherapy may provide some relief from suffering but does not really “treat” mental disorder. This belief is based on the flawed assumption that mental disorders are brain diseases and that psychiatric medications treat diseases, not symptoms. (See my article on the myth of the chemical imbalance here.) Psychotherapy is seen as a “second-class” treatment, its practitioners as “less than” the medically credentialed biological psychiatrists. But this is a complete reversal of the psychopharmacology of Kline’s era which, despite its successes, recognized that medications are a blunt instrument—methods of changing experience but useless in changing people.

Modern psychiatry would be wise to heed Kline’s warning on tranquilizing itself—and the world—into oblivion. Psychiatric medications can certainly help some people, but there is vast agreement that they are grossly overprescribed, do not treat any known diseases, and provide only superficial relief. Thankfully, a number of well-respected psychiatrists have recently begun to speak up about the limitations of a strictly biological approach, among them Allen Frances and Daniel Carlat. One can only hope that the psychiatry of tomorrow places medication into its appropriate context and heeds Dr. Kline’s wise—and ominous—warning.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Kline, N. S. (1957). Foreward. In R. S. de Ropp, Drugs and the mind (p. ix). New York: Random House.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. good blog…I think the problem we have today is very difficult…
    we still don’t know the CAUSES of most mental suffering…
    so we can go ahead and treat the symptoms with any kind of treatment..
    whether it works or not…I see another problem here…many persons
    would like to throw out biology from the model of causation bio/psych/soc..

    • We all believe in a physical universe, Littleturtle. We all believe biology is real. I believe making someone take mind altering drugs for decades on end, destroying parts of the brain with bursts of electroshock, or whacking someone over the head repeatedly with a wooden bat effecst the biology of that person.

      Until a bio-marker can be located how can any drugs or surgery help? A drug may lower the exact chemicals already in short supply and elevate those already too high. Many of us here doubt madness is caused by biology (in most cases.) But even assuming it is, until we know what parts of the brain are responsible for the inability to function, how can we justify random experimental drugs and electroshock? Would any respectable surgeon perform brain surgery in the dark–not even knowing if the cancer existed?

  2. Thank you, sir. I sincerely believe that the average psychiatrist, even today, started out with the best intentions, even if Big Pharma’s marketing money has mostly corrupted the entire establishment and skewed their conversation, with their relentless propaganda, in the direction of pharmaceuticals. It is good to see when a psychiatrist, especially one of his apparent eminence, also realized the dangers implicit in the use of psychotropic drugs. I am not opposed to the use of drugs in all circumstances, even if I believe that their long-term use is harmful. Thank you for reminding us of this person, who clearly meant to do good, and was humble enough and cautious enough that he did the best he could with a balance of therapy and drugs. Best to you, sir.

  3. I certainly wouldn’t be out to excuse the so-called father of psycho-pharmacology. Nathan Kline’s scientism reminds me of the scientism of B. F. Skinner. In one version, you’ve got rewards and punishments behind behaviors, in another, chemistry. While humanity is in no danger of “tranquilizing” itself out of existence, it has come a long way towards “tranquilizing” particular, and unwanted, segments of that humanity out of existence.

    The good news is that the reason I’ve never had ECT, nor a lobotomy, might have something to do with Nathan Kline’s work. Shock treatment in institutions, for diagnoses other than simply depression, was much more common prior to the introduction of neuroleptics. Also, not to downplay the efforts of many many people to end the practice, chemical lobotomy basically did in the perceived necessity for having surgical lobotomies.

    This is where the numbers start to tell a different story. I wouldn’t say the numbers of the casualties (non-survivors) declined after Nathan Kline’s work. All you have to do is read Peter Breggin or Robert Whitaker to get the other side of the picture. Treatment since has gotten more, rather than less, deadly, and this is alarming for another reason. Once society had a tendency to needlessly lock some individuals up for life. When it was doing so, the life expectancy of the person in the institution wasn’t so foreshortened as it is today. I don’t really consider early death an improvement over life imprisonment when it comes down to it. The death rate among people in the mental health treatment is alarming, an international scandal and tragedy, and this death rate is a direct result of the work of the likes of Nathan Kline.

    • From what I can see Psychiatry creates diagnoses and illnesses that cost the taxpayer an awful lot of money.

      I would say that at least 50 percent of UK Mental Health Expense is created by White Collar Professional Fraud.

      The psychiatric illnesses are longterm because nobody gets better by taking tranquillisers regularly.

  4. I’m sure this is true about Norman Kline, but for an indication of just how early the drug companies were pushing substances that would “tranquilize us into oblivion,” as Kline says, see these ads from the 50s from Smith, Kline, and French for Thorazine. Good for, let’s see: arthritis, menopause, “senile agitation,” “hyperactive” children, cancer, bursitis, alcoholism, pain (wouldn’t want any pain…), and, of course psychosis and scizophrenia. My mother was given the stuff for several years as an alternative to being committed. It “became necessary” shortly after her parents told her they would not support her in any way if she left a bad marriage. So, you know, bad marriage + thorazine or mental institution, take your choice. Anyway, I would imagine Kline had things like this in mind when he said that about tranqulizing ourselves into oblivion.

  5. Dear Dr Ruffalo,

    Thanks for the informative Article.

    “…psychiatry of today—one marked by its emphasis on diagnosis and medication, and its seeming repudiation of psychotherapy….:

    CONUNDRUM
    The Reality of Life is, that if a person gets Better, then they get Better.

    A Dr Wray at my GP Surgery, Newton Medical Centre, in Central London told me in 2012 that if someone “has a diagnosis of Schizophrenia” then, they would remain “Mentally Ill”.

    I reported myself during the interview as WELL and the doctor recorded “..mildly agitated but no sign of thought disorder no sign of self neglect ..currently functioning….down for a blood cholesterol test….”

    I had become consistently well and functional, when I stopped consuming neuroleptics in 1984 (and this is clear from my history).

    (I had been disabled and suicidal and in and out of hospital between 1980 and 1984, while I consumed neuroleptics – because I had suffered very badly from the Ill effects of neuroleptics).

    Newton Medical were Gaslighting!

  6. For example:
    Haldol affects 2 dopamine receptor subtypes ( it took me 10 years to finally get off of a 2mg. prescription of haldol alone )
    Abilify affects 10 different receptor subtypes
    Zyprexa affects approximately 17 different subtypes of receptors
    When these “meds” are lowered the body has to adapt to the number of receptors that become unblocked.
    Reading between the lines- it appears thought leader psychiatrists are so optimistic about the future of their “field”- because they understand – their own suppliers the pharmaceutical cartel are in effect entirely unrestrained as to their right to invent- label -and have distributed -as “medicine” any substance or mixture of substances (poisons of all types or whatever)- to shut down/ or retard any human brain function or body function, targeting any place within the brain or human body as they see fit . While psychiatrists themselves can label people for life -via the DSM- and increasingly force medicate and monitor human beings with a growing rigor-and apply to them a growing ever more deadly arsenal of “meds” – ever more difficult to withdraw from- plus higher voltage electric shock if the psychiatrist wishes . Even if we think we left psychiatry behind the nursing homes which many humans hope not to enter is a world of unrestricted psychiatric, pharma and “medical” oppression . And the Hospice – we will get morphine whether we want it or not .
    There are ethical practitioners that can help people ease withdrawal even at MIA’s own list of resources.Take the time to investigate thoroughly and choose wisely . Tools for a withdrawal tool box are not all in only one place . Don’t forget survivors that have come out the other end of it may have self developed first do no harm withdrawal and survival techniques which are not respected sufficiently by “professionals” “academics” or anyone else that make them reluctant to cast their pearls into the public arena only to be laughed at . Do we really think that big-pharma think tanks are short the funds to counter anything they hear about ?