Last month, I wrote about how trying to avoid blame in the name of not hurting other people’s feelings is pathological and what we need to do is put blame where it belongs. It’s true in all areas of life; it’s especially important when it comes to the psychiatry industry. The horrors of involuntary commitment, forced drugging and the effects of diagnostic labels on the self-conception of those who bear them are widely known even if they’re denied or downplayed by providers. But those aren’t the only reasons to blame the psychiatry industry for causing more suffering than it’s ever cured. Psychiatry has turned out to be the practice of using someone’s suffering against them for profit. Victim-blaming for (tons of) money, in other words.
For example, if you don’t pay attention in school and find learning about the Pythagorean theorem difficult when the damn world is falling apart, you’re not just misbehaving — you’ve got a brain disease that needs to be medicated. Punishing a child for misbehaving in a situation like modern-day school would be bad enough, but psychiatry would not have us stop there. Disregarding the ever more rigid and ridiculous rules placed on and around childhood likely does scare those running the systems in power, and massive civil disobedience is exactly what we need if we’ve got a shot at saving the only planet known to sustain life. But psychiatry isn’t just about suppressing that which threatens the current structures of society. Psychiatry’s aim is to profit from framing what threatens their legitimacy as illnesses and then conveniently proposing the cures for those illnesses.
So when children are bored, when they can’t connect to memorizing dates or solving abstract problems that have no relevance to finding purpose in the world or tackling actual problems, psychiatry diagnoses them with an illness and medicates their “symptoms” so they can do better at school, an increasingly meaningless activity set up more to manage behaviors than to teach kids anything they will need for adult life. I mean no disrespect toward teachers who are in the trenches — er, classrooms — day in and day out, paying for supplies out of their own pocket, providing therapy and counsel to the students in myriad train-wreck home situations, being blamed for failing to control their overstuffed classrooms on the school administration side and for “failing” students on the my-kid-is-a-special-snowflake parent side. Teachers should get paid pro-sports salaries for the work they do. The issue is the system they are forced to do that work in. If you’re my age or younger, you probably went through a curriculum designed entirely for a test that determines funding, not an experience that prepares you for the future. I mean, did you learn anything about financial literacy in school? How about nutrition? Mental health? How to create and sustain meaningful relationships after you age out of all the structures of childhood? How to find (or, god forbid, create for yourself) dignified, fulfilling work? It’s no wonder kids are restless. Given the pressures of today’s world, it’s also no wonder parents are easily sold on the quick fix to behavior problems that psychiatry provides.
We shouldn’t be blaming kids’ brains for not being able to find meaning in the classroom, and we shouldn’t be blaming parents for struggling to survive today’s isolating, emotionally abusive culture. Psychiatry is what created not only the idea that a quick fix for children clearly experiencing distress was even possible, but also that it was necessary. Kids acting out in class is only a problem if school is more important than children (or the reputations of the parents of those children). What happens to kids who don’t want to take Ritalin because they’d rather be able to sleep, eat and feel like themselves? Are pill providers aware that such children exist? Parents, taken in by this lure of finally having peace in their house and A’s on Billy’s report cards, join forces with psychiatrists in a floridly patronizing “we know what’s best for the child” bond and maybe lower the dose, change the timing of intake, other tweaks here and there, anything but remove the chemical from the child’s daily regimen.
Psychiatry is not content with the colonization of the childhood market. If you have suicidal thoughts, psychiatry’s got a pill — or several — for that, too. They might suggest pairing their cocktail with therapy — or, for those who can’t afford therapy (even the sliding scales seem weighted these days), an app. But they would never consider the possibility that your neurochemistry is not the problem. Never mind that, even if it was, they don’t ask how it got that way — and they don’t ask if that hypothetical counselor they concede may help the medication take effect has made any inquiries along those lines, either. Psychiatry would never suggest, speaking of the affordability of non-medication forms of mental-health services, that actually, the pressures of modern life, particularly the financial ones, may have something to do with the rising rates of suicide in the United States, where economic inequality is higher than anywhere else in the world. (For reference, the global suicide rate is declining).
The industry would even rather basically admit that their own products may be contributing to the problem than consider alternative explanations for human suffering. Of course, the black-box warnings on antipsychotics and some antidepressants are for legal and liability reasons only. Such precautions are good business practices and psychiatry is first and foremost a business: the business of pathologizing as much of the human experience as possible and offering a seemingly easy, convenient solution. The business model of creating a problem and the solution is, in strictly business terms, brilliant. It’s similar to what Purdue Pharma did in the opioid space. This is all capitalism requires of those who wish to succeed, or these days even survive; it has no built-in moral or ethical constraints. As long as you’re expanding market share in your industry, capitalism doesn’t ask or take into account the damage you inflict in doing so. Psychiatry has gotten us to believe that its “market” is the human mind; really, it’s humanness in general.
If this were an old sci-fi movie, psychiatry would be the evil alien race on a collision course with earth that plans to completely take it over as soon as it can. While it’s thrilling on screen, what you want is for the meek, shivering underdog called humanity to pull through and save themselves and their fragile little planet. That we are not treating psychiatry as the malevolent invader that it is shows only how deeply we’ve fallen for its facade of helping people.
The combination of capitalism and individualism in our culture has dulled our sensitivity to the horrors our systems inflict on human beings in the name of healing. The common critique of this culture is that “people just want a quick fix for their problems.” Of course they do. Income inequality, the technology-charged speed of modern life, the combination of stagnant wages and increasing cost of living, the thousands of things we have to do to support our bodies’ detox pathways as more and more toxins fill our air and water and soil and land and food don’t leave much room or time for anything but a quick fix. We little people are not at fault. Psychiatry is taking advantage of and capitalizing on the desperation caused by the always-on yet radically disconnected, breakneck, noxious lives we are being forced to live if we want to survive.
There’s an aspect of our culture that makes looking outside ourselves very difficult: the explosion of the self-help industry. “Take radical responsibility.” “Keep growing.” Though this genre will give the occasional lip service to not bottling your emotions or suppressing them, you can’t really consistently follow much of the advice in those books without denying much of the “negative” half of human emotions. Constantly growing and changing may sound good, but it seems to serve an always-working, always-available mindset, which is just what a growth-at-all-costs economic model needs to stay alive. But constant growth is disastrous for a person just as it is for the planet. After all, ‘infinite growth’ is cancer’s philosophy, too.
But how much of this rather barbaric-sounding society we’re immersed in was psychiatry simply taking advantage of as any good entrepreneur would — find a pain point in the market and develop a product or service that assuages, however ethically or unethically, that pain? How much of this is psychiatry taking initiative to shape societal beliefs? If psychiatry hadn’t gotten its tentacles all over society, hadn’t been pushing so hard to define what’s “normal” and what’s unusual, we might not feel such a compulsive need to feel better immediately without working through the weltered parts of our lives that come with living as a human being in this world that we have. We might not feel compelled to force our kids to develop in cutthroat competition with each other rather than the mutually affirming relationships of belonging that all human beings need in order to be healthy. We might not interpret distraction in ourselves or our kids as a cardinal sin but rather welcome it as a part of developing creativity. We might not react to loved ones experiencing suicidal ideation with fear and exhortations to get help and inquiries about whether they’re taking their meds or if maybe they need to start.
If we see the psychiatry industry as the culprit, we might stop seeing ourselves as sick and start to see the system as the mentally and morally ill entity. We might begin to understand that the push to make everything from autism to schizophrenia a “spectrum” is not a kindness extended to account for the wide range of human experiences but a ploy to get more and more of us under psychiatry’s umbrella and using their “services.” We might see how stigma is actually one of psychiatry’s products — we don’t buy it but we do pay for it. If we’re the kind of sick psychiatry says we are, we’re likely scared. But we also likely feel ashamed of it, so we’re less likely to reach out to others or seek options and more likely to do what we’re told by those in power, which is take brain-damaging, personality-killing drugs. Or we might “rebel,” in which case, we’re committed and/or restrained ostensibly for our own safety. Most importantly, we might overturn the stigma of being labeled “mentally ill” and hand over the shame to whom it belongs: those who seek to profit from making up problems and “solving” them regardless of the pain it inflicts.
Psychiatry is to blame for the unremitting hell that more and more people find themselves in due to its medications, its will-violating procedures and its pathologizing effect on everything it touches. But it’s also to blame for the oversimplification of the world: here is the problem and here is the solution, psychiatry says in one breath. This is likely comforting to those who psychiatry hasn’t come for yet, but it’s bad to live in an oversimplified world. The world simply is not simple or simplifiable.
Psychiatry’s damage goes beyond that which medications and forced hospitalizations do. Psychiatry has forced society to become dependent on and compliant with its treatments and whims, which has left us few tools to deal effectively with a complicated world and the complexities of being fully human in it. Psychiatry has not defined the problem correctly because a diagnosis doesn’t explain anything even as it parses the deserving from the damned. Thus, psychiatry couldn’t possibly have a proper solution.
It may seem like the entirety of modern life is a lot to lay at the feet of psychiatry; there are certainly other factors involved in how deeply messed up the times we are living in are. But we should not underestimate, even if we can’t accurately measure, just how thoroughly the psychiatric lens has colored every aspect of our lives. Psychiatry has vast control over treatment options, insurance coverage, and, increasingly, things like job prospects and background checks. Perhaps the most important thing we need to blame psychiatry for is that it was intentional. The risks of medication, particularly long-term use, have been known for decades. The violation of will and the breaking of the human spirit that attend involuntary commitment, not to mention the stigma associated with being institutionalized, produces a stream of brutalized human beings who struggle to find work, housing, meaningful relationships and purpose long after their “treatment” is over. And yet psychiatry continues on, not as if it doesn’t know, but in spite of knowing.
It would be one thing if psychiatry was accidentally harming people without realizing it and would stop the moment its eyes were opened. But psychiatry deliberately goes after vulnerable people who can’t easily fight back. It doesn’t merely ignore the mounting accusations and criticisms against it, it defends itself or damages the credibility of those who speak out against it. It’s important to blame psychiatry not just for medication side effects or the stigma that comes from a diagnosis or the scars that involuntary hospitalization causes, but for the ways psychiatry continues to promote itself, shape public policy and thought and force itself into more and more areas of our lives and our world. Placing fault on psychiatry for the calamity that befalls the people it sucks in, as well as the ruinous ways our society is going in general, is just the first step in a much-needed cultural course correction. It will be a hard step to take, given how intertwined psychiatry is in every aspect of our lives, and we won’t know just how distorted and oppressed we really are by this industry until we take it — which is only just the beginning of why it’s necessary to do so.
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.