Anti-psychiatry: Alive and Kicking In The Twenty-first Century

Prior to the publication of the DSM-5 in 2013, an article was published in Psychiatric Services bearing the heading The Antipsychiatry Movement: Dead, Diminishing, or Developing? The Abstract to this article concludes with following paragraph.

It has been argued recently that the antipsychiatry movement has transmogrified into a patient-based consumer movement. Instead, the author suggests, various activities and ideas that legitimately could be described as antipsychiatry, or, at least, as highly critical of psychiatry, are burgeoning. These activities include the works of intellectual scholars, such as disgruntled psychiatrists, critical social scientists, and humanistic psychologists; the analyses and writings of high-profile and prominent investigative journalists; blogs, Web sites, and social media that communicate a disdain for psychiatry among citizen Internet activists; and the ongoing, well-documented critique of followers of Scientology. The author concludes that a renewed yet amorphous critique of psychiatry is emerging, even though the tarnished name of antipsychiatry is studiously avoided by all. This critique may intensify, given the likely media and public interest surrounding the upcoming release of DSM-5.

In point of fact the word anti-psychiatry has never been avoided by some mental health practitioners, former patients, activists, and critics of psychiatry and the mental health system. The word has been embraced as reflecting themselves and their opposition to the harm perpetuated by the profession of psychiatry.

This brings us to that question one may be asking if one hasn’t been informed. Just what do we mean by anti-psychiatry? The Wikipedia page on the subject, in terms of definition, is over elaborate, and perhaps a little confusing.

Anti-psychiatry has been active for almost two centuries, and is the view that many psychiatric treatments are ultimately more damaging than helpful to patients. Psychiatry is seen by proponents of anti-psychiatry as a coercive instrument of oppression. According to anti-psychiatry, psychiatry involves an unequal power relationship between doctor and patient, and a highly subjective diagnostic process, leaving too much room for opinions and interpretations.

Scratching the history as irrelevant to a definition, how about this:

Anti-psychiatry is the view that many psychiatric treatments are ultimately more damaging than helpful to patients.

Alright. Back to history, we’re dealing with procedures that have involved sterilization, surgical brain mutilation, induced seizures, and brain damaging health destroying chemicals, up to and including mass murder. No harm there, right?

If the treatment is worse than the disease, and if the disease itself could be said to be dubious to begin with, perhaps you can see why people would get up in arms over these matters. Harming people you claim to be “helping” is not what legitimate medicine is, nor should be, about. Duh.

There have been struggles and disagreements among people associated with what was once termed the anti-psychiatry movement. I would suggest that this movement is changing, and that it can’t be said to be the same movement that it once was. Many of the people involved in these disagreements would not have the term anti-psychiatry used to describe themselves. Some proponents of biological psychiatry have used the term to try to discredit and silence all criticism, but doing so certainly isn’t conducive to the free thought and discussion encouraged in democratic societies.

First, there is the matter of the psychiatrist David Cooper coining the term to describe the non-medical model non-biological form of psychiatry that he and his associates advanced. Both David Cooper, and the more celebrated R. D. Laing, have been deceased for more than 20 years. Laing himself ultimately came to object to the term. More recently, the sort of psychiatry of which both Cooper and Laing professed could be more properly contained under the less, to practicing psychiatrists and their apologists anyway, offensive expression Critical Psychiatry.

Second, Thomas Szasz, another psychiatrist associated with anti-psychiatry, disavowed the term. He did so mainly to disassociate himself from the sort of psychiatry that Laing and his associates practiced, and additionally to spare himself the abuse to which the term was being put by more conventional and biological psychiatrists. R. D. Laing, despite having managed an experimental therapeutic community at Kingsley Hall in London, a “residence” inhabited by both psychiatrists and people in crisis, in which force was not imposed the way it was in traditional psychiatric facilities, would not go as far as did Thomas Szasz, who actually publicly advocated for the abolition of forced psychiatric intervention. Most of those calling themselves anti-psychiatry activists today would take the side of Szasz on this issue.

Among survivors of psychiatric maltreatment, anti-psychiatric sentiments and actions had been pronounced long before the word was coined and the official movement launched. Elizabeth Ware Packard, for instance, founded an Anti-Insane Asylum Society in 19th century America. In England, near the same time period, there was the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society. The psychiatric survivor movement, beginning in the 1970s, reflected this same stance of militant resistance to the psychiatric horror system, and there is no doubt in my mind that victims of psychiatry in times ahead will find the whole system more than questionable, but entirely dispensable.

There is, to illustrate this point, and to prove again that it is way too soon to consign anti-psychiatry to the junk-heap of antiquity The Antipsychiatry Coalition website on the internet. On this website can be found what has been described as a list of lawyers who have successfully opposed psychiatric oppression as well as a list of mental health professionals who oppose involuntary mental health treatment. Dialogue and debate has also taken place at the Mad In America website around the subject of anti-psychiatry. As you can see, far from being kaput, anti-psychiatry continues to exert an influence on people today, and if I have anything to do with it, it will continue to do so in the decades and centuries to come.


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