On Mental Illness: Responding to the Anti-Psychiatry Movement

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday April 26, 2011 - 10:26:00 AM

A man wrote in claiming that I am doing a disservice with my column because I am promoting psychiatry, which he claims is a fraud. 

I get the point that many people who have seen my column completely disagree with the practices and theories of psychiatry. I am not a psychiatrist. I have not always believed that I require medication. In my thirty years as a mental health consumer, I have seen some of the abuses perpetrated by the mental health treatment system. 

Being presumed and treated as incompetent, as less of a person, as a less intelligent person, and as a non-person are somewhat subtler abuses that continue to happen to us to this day. Many psychiatrists continue to prescribe electro convulsive therapy. While it may provide relief for some, for others it causes terror and partial amnesia. 

I am familiar with the abuse that happens to psychiatric patients. I would rather not describe my experiences in detail. I tolerate the mental health treatment system in spite of its many instances of unfairness because I have a disease that requires treatment; and I cannot afford to get this treatment on my terms—I am not a wealthy movie star. Many in the anti-psychiatry movement apparently believe that the human brain will automatically fix its own problems through the natural regulatory mechanisms that Mother Nature provided. They believe that intervening on an episode of mental illness with medication only prevents this restoration from naturally occurring, and actually worsens the problem. This argument seems to be the most important one in the anti psychiatry movement. Furthermore, there is the claim that in third world countries, where psychiatric treatment is unavailable, people don’t get mental illness. 

I have also heard that in India, before that country became modernized, catatonic people were often worshiped as enlightened beings. If so, it would dispute the idea that there are no mentally ill people outside the reach of psychiatry. Prior to the invention of Thorazine and other medications, mentally ill people were often kept chained up in prison-like asylums. Or, they became the town idiot, or the town drunk. My wife, who has traveled to Kenya, has seen for herself the untreated mentally ill. She says they wander around aimlessly, are very thin, and can barely, if at all, survive. 

Concerning a statistical study proving the theories of the anti-psychiatry movement, statistics can be deceptive depending on how the data is gathered and how it is processed. Multiple conclusions can be drawn from a given set of statistics. Untreated mental illness, perhaps not in every case, but much of the time, will continue to worsen, causing the inflicted person to suffer astronomically. 

Concerning the mental health treatment system being fraught with abuses, the anti-psychiatry movement is right on. Concerning there being no need for it because these illnesses don’t truly exist, this is not accurate. 

Asserting that mental illnesses don’t really exist is like saying that the Apollo Lunar Landings never took place. You can write as many books on the subject as you want, and you can argue the point until blue in the face. I will still believe the Lunar Landings took place, and mental illness exists. Everyone else is entitled to their own opinion. 

Readers are welcome, as always to contact me at with your stories or comments.