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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Psychiatry as Pseudoscience

Okay...I am going to say it: Psychiatry is a pseudo-science and has been from day one. Psychiatric diagnoses of so-called mental illnesses are pretty much scientifically worthless as tools to identify human psychic-existential problems and the socio-economic factors that largely give rise to them.

The widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), on 'schizophrenia', 'bipolar disorder', 'depressive disorders', 'anxiety disorders' and 'trauma-related disorders' are abstract categorizations that really tell us very little about the human experience of those who suffer from various kinds of trauma--and even less about appropriate treatment, which is usually oriented around so-called 'drug therapies'.

Most of these diagnoses rely on very subjective and arbitrary judgements historically made by mostly men on the basis of internally inconsistent, confused, and contradictory patterns of human behaviour. They have an aura of legitimacy because they use medical-sounding labels--labels that do nothing to help us understand the complex causes of human stress and trauma.

If you really want to understand the human psyche and phenomena like anxiety or neurosis read John Russon's philosophical work 'Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis and the Elements of Everyday Life'. If you want to know how clinical perception is the result of a historically specific constellation of knowledge and power read Michel Foucault's 'Birth of the Clinic'. If you want a deeper understanding of human trauma visit a war zone, a psychiatric hospital, a prison--or just watch video's of police repression and violence. If you would like to know more about the social and economic factors involved in addiction read Gabor Maté's 'In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction'. The fact is that we have elevated the authority of psychiatrists to a level they simply do not deserve because they don't even grasp the extent to which the carceral, war-entrenched, violent unjust world we have created is a perfect breeding ground for psychic disorders.

In fact, what DSM psychiatric designations end up doing is not enlightening us about the human psyche, but, instead, creating stigma and prejudice around these ailments. They really do more harm than good. The perfect example of this is shockingly elaborated in a powerful new PBS documentary called 'Cured'. This documentary reveals the barbarity of psychiatry's “treatments” that promised to cure homosexuality. Not just talk therapies or psychoanalysis but everything from electroshock to “aversion" therapies, to castration and lobotomy.

Schizophrenia is another one of those psychiatric catch-all designations that tell us absolutely nothing about causes. It is a word that is liberally used to describe everything from chronic brain disease to hallucinations, delusions, confused thinking and depression. Psychiatrists might diagnose someone with symptoms of psychosis and paranoia as suffering from a 'schizoaffective disorder.' When these psychic symptoms disappear they then reclassify the illness as a bipolar disorder.

This ad hoc classification system simply disguises the fact that psychiatry and psychiatrists do not have a clue what is really going on--mostly because their focus is on brain neurochemistry and not the traumatic life experiences and environmental factors that actually give rise to chemical imbalances in the brain.

Once again, I think the problem here is that in our modern scientific-technological, carceral-driven world we don't really want to talk about psychic disorders as a function of broader systemic social, disciplinary and economic factors.

We would rather situate illnesses in individuals and talk about individual 'disorders' of the psyche--not things like war, systemic inequality, mass economic deprivation, police violence and all the prejudices, stigmas and pressures that give rise to anxiety, depression, loneliness and despair in modern life.

Instead, we allow the for-profit pharmaceutical industry to exert enormous influence over governments and psychiatrists and determine how we should treat mental health and mental illness.

What is really distrurbing, finally, is that after all the millions spent on drug therapies there have been zero decreases in the number of people with mental health issues. If anything, there are more people wandering the streets and populating, workplaces, schools, mental health facilities and prisons with debilitating psychic health issues. That reality is a testament to social, economic and political failure, not imbalances in brain chemistry.

If we were really interested in helping all of these people we might look again at all of the social, economic, legal and political problems that give rise to psychic suffering and stop giving the pharmaceutical industry the kind of authority and power they now wield.

As for the pseudo-scientific psychiatrists of the world...they might do better if they studied a bit more philosophy, history and sociology, and completely ignore the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as the sole and only means of classifying anxiety, psychic stress and trauma.

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