As a father whose 27-year-old son has been unwillingly trapped in the mental health system, I am painfully aware that I have betrayed him because I have not been able to protect him from harm nor been able to set him free. At age 19, he naively told his mother and his doctor that he was hearing voices, which then marked the beginning of a nine year hellish nightmare that he is still unavoidably immersed in. I would like to explain my perspective on why this is the case.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 450 million people worldwide suffer from debilitating mental illnesses and the numbers are on the rise exponentially. The National Institute of Mental Health states that nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness (44.7 million in 2016). It affects tens of millions each year. In Canada, by age 40, about 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness.
Yet, do these so-called diseases actually exist?
Perhaps a more accurate claim is that millions of people diagnosed do not actually have disorders. Rather, they are in disorder. They are in disarray due to inhumane treatment resulting in dis-ease. I label the debilitating condition PBBP (People Betrayed By Psychiatry).
Psychiatrists own the power and have the authority to reel in patients, diagnose them and prescribe psychiatric drugs. Yet, is psychiatric intervention, are diagnosis and medication a benefit to patients? Is it what patients want and ask for?
When people feel melancholic or are in despair, they usually see a doctor. They may have no idea why they feel the way they do and they are extremely vulnerable. Doctors will prescribe antidepressants or if the condition is severe, patients will be referred to a psychiatrist who will make an official diagnosis of depression or some other so-called mental illness. The disease can be verified by checking the definition and symptoms in the psychiatrist’s bible (the DSM).
I contend that people need to be much more careful in seeking help because they have no idea what they are getting into when they are placed in the care of a psychiatrist. They naively expect to be helped in the best possible way which never does happen.
As doctors, psychiatrists betray the Hippocratic oath which they swear to honour because the treatment they utilize causes harm. People who hallucinate and get caught up in the clutches of psychiatry are immediately and forcibly treated with neuroleptics that can cause brain atrophy, premature death, and have other harmful side effects which then require other medications to be taken in order to deal with the many side effects. Also, these drugs are extremely difficult to taper off of. Most patients will be forced to take meds for life and because of their diagnosis they will experience feelings of shame and humiliation.
Why are psychiatrists perceived as all-knowing in regard to patients’ suffering?
We live in a culture that looks to experts for answers. We neglect our own abilities for critical thinking and we don’t trust our own experience. As young children we grow up believing that our parents know everything. As adults, we transfer this belief onto other experts. Transference is the psychological term for this process. It occurs when we transfer our unwavering belief in our parents’ omniscience onto other authority figures (such as omniscient psychiatrists).
However, the philosopher Wittgenstein said that there is no such thing as certainty. It is merely a tone of voice. There is no one to look up to. It is a mistake to put our trust in “experts.”
Why is a psychiatrist the best person to “help” patients who are in despair or who are disturbing to others? Why is it assumed that someone’s problems require medical intervention and that the problems originate from within the person?
Human existence encompasses various states of consciousness. We hallucinate every night when we sleep. We live in a social world and we are affected by our thoughts and emotions, past traumas, our families, and relationships with co-workers and others.
As human beings living our lives do we not struggle constantly with existential problems?
Could the environments we inhabit (or have been in) be causing our problems?
Much suffering in life is caused by a lack of personal power and being treated badly. Ethics and politics are generally ignored when we describe psychological suffering. Western medicine teaches us that the problem is within us, not between us. Yet when someone has power over us, we can easily be exploited and oppressed. This is absolutely the case in the psychiatrist/patient relationship.
Does it make sense to conclude that something is true because psychiatrists were taught in medical school to believe that a multitude of “abnormal” behaviours are indicative of mental illness and that the cause of these illnesses originates in the brain?
Is it not reductionistic to jump from the appearance of “symptoms” (the strange manner in which one acts in social settings) to the assumption of proof of a faulty working brain? Theories of chemical imbalances and brain disease have absolutely no scientific validity yet they still are the prominent theories provided by psychiatrists for explaining so-called depression and psychosis. A psychiatrist makes a diagnosis in a matter of minutes based on a patient’s behaviours and responses to probing questions. When a patient is being interrogated by a psychiatrist and his or her behaviour is being observed, isn’t it normal for one to get upset, to feel self-conscious, threatened or intimidated?
Existential despair, unhappiness, sadness, alienation, anxiety and powerlessness have mistakingly fallen into the category of illness and medicine. Psychiatrists have aligned themselves with pharmaceutical companies who ingeniously invented and marketed psychiatric drugs to treat diseases such as depression prior to the existence of the disease. It gave psychiatrists additional legitimacy and power since they are the only helping professionals who can legally write prescriptions.
Psychiatrists worldwide have also been supported by governments who created archaic mental health laws that ignore peoples’ basic freedoms and human rights. Due to this immense power that has been handed to psychiatrists over the years, they have gained disproportional status and have profited immensely. No wonder they do not want to give it up.
Psychiatry ignores research which refutes their own theories of mental illness and they refuse to acknowledge or legitimize alternative points of view. They even go as far as to ridicule opposing perspectives and prevent such voices from being heard. Psychiatrists are like kings — all-powerful rulers. They are used as expert witnesses in court cases and they have a monopoly in the care of patients who end up seeking help for despair.
As a result of the power of psychiatry and medicalization of despair, patients worldwide are constantly being bamboozled into believing that they are sick (lacking in mental health). And for the more sensitive souls who appear in public looking confused, agitated, angry, awkward, strange, or too quiet, god help them! If one walks into a hospital describing auditory hallucinations, he or she will not be allowed out. Within 15 minutes these poor souls will likely be labelled schizophrenic or something similar and be certified.
The psychiatrist may then determine that these patients need to be hospitalized for their own good in order to protect them from harm or to protect others. In a matter of minutes, people can be instantly stripped of their freedom, dignity and humanity and be branded a mental patient for life.
I believe that people would benefit much more by seeking the company of a good therapist rather than a psychiatrist or psychologist. A loving therapist keeps company with the patient. The relationship that develops between them is paramount. He or she is not in a hurry. As Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing once said, “the treatment is how we attend to and treat one another.” A good therapist takes patients seriously and sees them as unique. Patients have to teach the therapist about their lives and who they are. They are not objectified members of a particular group who all display the same symptoms and have the same mental illness.
Therapists can only get to know their patients over time and by developing safety and trust within the therapeutic relationship. They are present with their patients and they listen. Therapists do no harm, unlike psychiatrists, who immediately prescribe psychiatric drugs which alter patients’ nervous symptoms and sedate them in an attempt to diminish undesirable symptoms.
Unlike taking a pill, having a relationship with another is not efficient.
When we examine the outcomes of psychiatrists’ treatment of patients who display behaviours that are labelled psychotic, compared to alternative treatment methods, the results are very interesting. Psychiatrists believe that there is no cure for schizophrenia and that psychiatric drugs are necessary to prevent the disease from becoming worse. In contrast, there are several studies in which patients received either different types of treatments (including a tapering of meds) or no treatment at all, and either they made improvements over time or made a full recovery after a shortened period of illness.
As a psychiatric resident in 1969, Dr. Daniel Dorman (author of Dante’s Cure) came from a background in neurophysiology (brain research). From those years of studies he realized that brain research and the medical model were totally inadequate in attempting to explain the meaning behind a patient’s symptoms. He knew that one could only understand the “why” behind the so-called symptoms by discovering the person’s life story. And so began a more than 7 year adventure with Catherine Penney, a 19-year-old woman diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia (with a very poor prognosis which was confirmed by all the other psychiatrists on the ward). She had been hospitalized two times previously and was receiving psychotropic drugs to relieve her agony of hearing destructive voices, but to no avail.
Dorman took her off meds and met with her in his office for 60 minutes, six days a week. In the beginning she would rock back and forth with her eyes closed in silence. Not much changed in the first year. It was only during the third year of being together that Catherine felt safe and developed enough trust to start talking about her experience. After three and a half years she was discharged from the hospital and moved into her own apartment. She continued seeing Dr. Dorman for seven years, made a full recovery, returned to school and became a registered nurse. Dr. Dorman said afterwards that Catherine taught him how to become a therapist.
Similar positive results have occurred in other settings in which the only treatment utilized was to keep company, listen and talk. Guy Thompson (an American psychoanalyst) described his time working with Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing in England during the 1970’s. He described a residential setting (Portland Road, which was one of several houses Laing set up over a period of about ten years) in which therapists lived together with patients who had recently been in a mental hospital and were diagnosed with some variety of schizophrenia.They no longer took psychiatric medications when they came to live at Portland Road. They wanted to be free of medication. In the beginning some patients were exhibiting behaviours such as delusions or hallucinations, but within two weeks of living there with 14 other residents, the delusions disappeared completely and different persons emerged. They were very direct in their responses, communicable and authentic. They experienced a sense of community which was very beneficial for them.
Over a period of 10 years there were about 500 people who had lived in these houses. All the residents were tracked after they left and 90% of them never set foot in a mental hospital again.
In Sri Lanka, medical anthropologist Nancy Wexler conducted a five-year follow-up study of first admission patients with schizophrenia receiving traditional treatment vs. western psychiatric treatment. The results indicated that outcomes were very good for the patients who received traditional treatments and not good for those who received westernized treatment. The researchers attributed “good prognosis to cultural factors such as the traditional system of beliefs, structure of the belief system and family norms.” This study was consistent with other World Health Organization studies that showed patients in non-industrialized countries fared better than patients in industrialized countries.
In other words, culturally based self-fulfilling prophecies seemed to make the difference. Psychiatrists believe that schizophrenia is an incurable brain disease, whereas healers in Sri Lanka and other non-industrial countries have beliefs and practices that encourage short-term illness and people are expected to return to their normal lives quickly.
Other studies in countries such as Finland and Sweden have demonstrated that patients who taper off psychiatric drugs have much better long-term outcomes than patients who remain on neuroleptics. Although these studies clearly demonstrate that psychiatrists (who treat patients according to the medical model) are barking up the wrong tree, the sad reality is that not much has changed over the last 100 years. Much of what has been presented in recent years that challenges psychiatric practices has fallen on deaf ears and has failed to make an impact on society’s attitudes towards mental illness. There is still a strong push by governments and health authorities to promote “mental health.” Many published articles which have questioned the validity of “mental illness” as opposed to trauma-based suffering, studies which have challenged the so-called scientific evidence of brain disease causing “mental illness,” and articles which have detailed the harm caused by psychiatric medications, have not made much of an impact on how patients are treated.
After nine years of alienation and oppression, my son is still a certified patient in Vancouver, Canada. The high doses of various medications he has been forced to take over the years have done absolutely nothing to improve his overall well-being, his thoughts, emotions and experiences.
However, they have caused him to be strongly sedated, to sleep 15 hours a day, to gain 75 pounds, to put his heart and liver at risk, to make him feel demoralized, to believe that something is wrong with him, to feel a sense of hopelessness and shame, and perhaps to feel captured and tortured for life. If he doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting with the psychiatrist and he cannot be reached, they will call the police to have him picked up. In 2015 when I took him out of the country for a few months, when we returned he was arrested at the airport and hospitalized.
What can I do in protest other than attempt to make my voice heard and demand more humane treatment for my son and for so many others like him?
Why can’t they just let him be? He is no danger to himself or to anyone else.
I have become somewhat cynical and skeptical, partly due to my experiences talking with various psychiatrists over the years regarding my son’s dis-ease. Yet, in spite of my son’s treatment, I do want to acknowledge that there are psychiatrists and psychologists around the world who are not so closed-minded and who are doing work that is beneficial. R.D. Laing, a true psychiatrist, said decades ago that “in our culture we suffer from psychophobia (a fear of our own minds) and that there is no book that is more explicit about this than the DSM 3.” This indicates to me that those professionals who follow the DSM’s guidelines for defining normal behaviour have a very narrow view of what “normality” entails. My hope is that there are more people out there in the world (including psychiatrists and psychologists) who have open minds, and that this open-mindedness will eventually spread far and wide.
So, like the ancient Greek philosophers and healers who were the skeptics, I also ask questions for all psychiatrists to answer:
Are you sure that what you do for patients causes them no harm?
Is it possible that you are mistaken about your beliefs regarding mental illness?
Will you allow your eyes, ears and hearts to open more before it is too late?
On behalf of all patients around the world who are suffering due to current psychiatric treatment, I encourage you to do so. My son and countless others are depending on it.
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.