The Illusions of Psychiatry

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United Artists/Photofest
Mimi Sarkisian, Louise Fletcher, and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975

In my article in the last issue, I focused mainly on the recent books by psychologist Irving Kirsch and journalist Robert Whitaker, and what they tell us about the epidemic of mental illness and the drugs used to treat it.1 Here I discuss the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—often referred to as the bible of psychiatry, and now heading for its fifth edition—and its extraordinary influence within American society. I also examine Unhinged, the recent book by Daniel Carlat, a psychiatrist, who provides a disillusioned insider’s view of the psychiatric profession. And I discuss the widespread use of psychoactive drugs in children, and the baleful influence of the pharmaceutical industry on the practice of psychiatry.

One of the leaders of modern psychiatry, Leon Eisenberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins and then Harvard Medical School, who was among the first to study the effects of stimulants on attention deficit disorder in children, wrote that American psychiatry in the late twentieth century moved from a state of “brainlessness” to one of “mindlessness.”2 By that he meant that before psychoactive drugs (drugs that affect the mental state) were introduced, the profession had little interest in neurotransmitters or any other aspect of the physical brain. Instead, it subscribed to the Freudian view that mental illness had its roots in unconscious conflicts, usually originating in childhood, that affected the mind as though it were separate from the brain.

But with the introduction of psychoactive drugs in the 1950s, and sharply accelerating in the 1980s, the focus shifted to the brain. Psychiatrists began to refer to themselves as psychopharmacologists, and they had less and less interest in exploring the life stories of their patients. Their main concern was to eliminate or reduce symptoms by treating sufferers with drugs that would alter brain function. An early advocate of this biological model of mental illness, Eisenberg in his later years became an outspoken critic of what he saw as the indiscriminate use of psychoactive drugs, driven largely by the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry.

When psychoactive drugs were first introduced, there was a brief period of optimism in the psychiatric profession, but by the 1970s, optimism gave way to a sense of threat. Serious side effects of the drugs were becoming apparent, and an antipsychiatry movement had taken root, as exemplified by the writings of Thomas Szasz and the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There was also growing competition for patients from psychologists and social workers. In addition, psychiatrists were plagued by internal divisions: some embraced the new biological model, some still clung to the Freudian model, and a few saw mental illness as an essentially sane response to an insane world. Moreover, within the larger medical profession, psychiatrists were regarded…


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