Let me tell you a story.
A couple of years ago, one of my patients was an elderly gentleman in his late seventies. He was living in a nursing home at the time, but because of his history of psychosis, he remained on a treatment order – a requirement by law that if he was to remain outside of a mental facility, he had to have regular anti-psychotic medication every few weeks.
This man was on a treatment order because his disease caused him to have delusions. He misinterpreted what was going on around him, and would not consider that he could be wrong. In his particular case, he was convinced that his next-door neighbour was a paedophile, and he was planning to ambush his neighbour and castrate him. Luckily the police had taken my patient into custody before he got the opportunity. With treatment, my patient had clear thoughts, although needed close supervision. Without his medication, he became confused and violent.
According to a post on the blog Mad in America and promoted by Dr Caroline Leaf, my patient’s diagnosis was spurious, and he was denied his basic human rights by being forced to take medications.
Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is also a self-declared expert in mental health, despite not having any professional training in medicine, psychiatry, psychology or even cognitive neuroscience for that matter.
Indeed, if she had any experience or expertise in mental health, she would have recognised the basic factual errors and logical fallacies that riddled the post she quoted from.
Take the quote that Dr Leaf posted on social media. The full quote from the Mad in America post is:
“Despite the fact that no one in history, not even the omnipotent American Psychiatric Association – which produces and profits mightily from the ‘Bible’ of mental disorders — has come up with a halfway good definition of “mental illness,” and despite the fact that the process of creating and applying the labels of mental illness is unscientific, any of those labels can be used to deprive the person so labeled of their human rights. This is terrifying. It ought to terrify those who are so labeled and those who are not, because deprivation of human rights on totally arbitrary grounds is inhumane and immoral.”
This is the same tired, emotionally laden and misleading rhetoric that’s so often barked in fervent paroxysms through the foaming lips of those opposed to modern psychiatric practice:
- There is no good definition of ‘mental illness’
- The American Psychiatric Association is just a profit-driven cabal
- The DSM5 (which the author alludes to as the ‘Bible’ of mental disorders) is unscientific
- Psychiatric diagnoses are unscientific
- Any psychiatric diagnosis can be used as a trigger to force people into unwanted treatments or incarceration
- Therefore psychiatric diagnosis and treatment is against basic humans rights and is inhumane and immoral.
Inhumane and immoral hey? Tell that to my patients neighbour who almost became a eunuch except for that “inhumane and immoral treatment” of my former patient.
Caplan claims just don’t stand up to any rational scrutiny.
- There are lots of good definitions of mental illness … modern psychiatry critics just don’t like them. But take the definition used by the CDC, “Mental illness is defined as … ‘health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.’” There’s nothing wrong with this definition. It describes mental illness and helps differentiate mental illness from variations of mood, thought and behaviour that are part of the everyday human experience.
- The American Psychiatric Association isn’t the only group to have created a classification of psychiatric illnesses. The World Health Organisation publishes the International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD, which is also used for psychiatric diagnosis. Is the WHO an evil profit-driven junta too?
- The DSM, the ICD, and any other system of diagnosis, are simply different classification systems. Over the last century, clinicians have noted clusters of symptoms and have tried to classify them into common groups. How is that unscientific? It’s no different to scientists looking at the different characteristics of various animals and creating a taxonomy, to provide a common system and language for clinicians and researchers across disciplines and across countries.The DSM system isn’t perfect, but what system ever is? As knowledge of neuroscience grows, the classifications are reviewed and tightened in an ongoing process of improvement. If those who oppose the DSM want to come up with something better, they’re welcome to put something forward.
- The old saying goes that medicine is an art and a science. Human beings, as nuanced as we are, often don’t fit into diagnostic criteria as easily as we would like. That doesn’t invalidate the diagnostic criteria or make the process unscientific as critics of modern psychiatry would have us believe, just like an unusual and hard-to-classify form of cancer doesn’t invalidate the other cancer classifications that are well defined. Psychiatry, by it’s nature, relies on verbal report from patients rather than a clean-cut blood test or piece of tissue under a microscope, so at this stage in history, it seems imprecise. That doesn’t make it any less scientific.
- The allegation that any psychiatric diagnosis can any be used to deprive the person so labeled of their human rights is utter nonsense. It’s a giant scarecrow – it seems really scary, but on closer inspection, it’s just a tarted-up mound of straw.People are never forced into treatments unless they really are “dangerous to themselves and/or others”. This rule can’t be invoked willy-nilly. There are multiple checks and balances, and a whole school of civil rights lawyers expectantly circling, ready for the whiff of blood in the water (http://www.mhrt.qld.gov.au/?page_id=2 is an example of the process in my home state, but each jurisdiction has their own version).
Caplan rightly pointed out that those with mental illness were less likely to be the perpetrators of violence and more likely to be the victims, but that doesn’t negate the need for protection of the community from those with mental illness who have shown violent intent and no capacity to control their behaviour.
If you want to find a group that really are suffering from inhumane and immoral deprivations of their human rights, then that would be Christians. Around the globe, millions of Christians are oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, raped, and murdered every year.
Time and space preclude a full analysis of Caplan’s post, but what’s really important is that both the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Civil Rights, an independent ombudsman, dismissed formal appeals by Caplan relating to her hysterical claims of inhumane forced psychiatric treatment. Dr Leaf conveniently left that out of her social media post.
Instead, Dr Leaf chose to publish one of the most alarming quotes from an article heavy on scaremongering, from a disaffected author on an extremist blog. If Dr Leaf was a real expert on mental health instead of being a self-declared one, she would have easily seen how nonsensical Caplan’s post was.
By posting this quote on social media today, it’s highly likely that Dr Leaf has caused harm to thousands of vulnerable Christians by unnecessarily increasing the stigma and fear of a mental health diagnosis. This, in turn, is likely to lead to these same vulnerable Christians missing out on (drug and non-drug) treatment which would help them rise to their true potential in God and in life, leaving them trapped and suffering in their mental destitution.
Dr Leaf has a track record of misinformation when it comes to mental health. Christians suffering mental illness need more support, not more stigma. It’s time Dr Leaf stepped aside, and stopped making things worse.