Another Betrayal by Psychiatry?

Seventeen years ago I attacked the World Psychiatric Association in these pages in “Betrayal by Psychiatry” for refusing to hear complaints from Soviet dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov, about the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. The WPA staged a repeat performance a few weeks ago at a regional meeting here in Washington.

The WPA leadership turned down a request from Western and Soviet activists to present a symposium on “Soviet Psychiatry in the Gorbachev Era.” The centerpiece of that symposium was to have been the poignant videotaped message by Alexander Podrabinek that was smuggled out of Moscow and published in the December 8 issue of The New York Review. The WPA leadership is anxious to get the official Soviet psychiatric organization back into the WPA. It is apparently willing to do so without first eliciting firm assurances from the Soviet authorities that past abuses will not recur.

A symposium on “Soviet Psychiatry in the Gorbachev Era” could have provided an opportunity to invite the Soviets to hear an independent assessment of recent changes, to clear the air of fresh complaints, to present their side of the story, and open the way for their readmission. That would be glasnost in action. But official Soviet psychiatrists and their Western allies are in no mood for such a cleansing dialectic. The Soviets want readmission on their own terms, without conditions.

As a result the delegates to the regional conference did not get a chance to hear for themselves what experts on Soviet psychiatry had to say. They were able to present their views only in an unofficial meeting arranged by the International Association on the Political Use of Psychiatry on a late Friday afternoon. Only a minority of the conference participants were present, and except for full coverage by West German television, it attracted meager attention in the press. The only story I saw about the symposium was in The New York Times (Sunday, October 16), which failed to report that the WPA leadership had refused to permit the discussion to be held at the regional meeting, when all the delegates could more easily have heard it.

Other participants in the symposium included Peter Reddaway of the Kennan Institute, Dr. Sidney Levine from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Great Britain, Robert van Voren from the International Association on the Political Abuse of Psychiatry with headquarters in Holland, Paul Chodoff of the American Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Anatoly Koryagin, the Soviet psychiatrist who dared to expose Soviet abuses and was first jailed and then expelled from the USSR. All expressed misgivings about the reluctant pace of Soviet reform and the refusal of the Soviet authorities to admit that the political abuse of psychiatry against political dissenters had ever occurred, let alone to condemn the practice. Their criticism was reinforced by Dr. Sakharov’s complaint on his recent visit to the US that dissidents were still being held in psychiatric hospitals.

In addition to the WPA’s foray into protective censorship …

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