Cracks in the Biopsychiatric Armor: Redefining Mental Illness Together

Earlier this week we had visitors to New York City from the British Psychology Society come to share their most recent publication: Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia. The NYC Icarus Project invited Anne Cooke and Peter Kinderman to Bluestockings Bookstore and Cafe to give a well received presentation. The video is below, but some context is in order so you can fully grasp how amazing this event was.

Back in January, The New York Times Published an article called Redefining Mental Illness that was both a profile of Understanding Psychosis and a well articulated critique of the current mental health system. The author, T. M. Luhrmann, has a great synopsis of the publication:

Its authors say that hearing voices and feeling paranoid are common experiences, and are often a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation: “Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.”

The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: “Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without.”

The report adds that antipsychotic medications are sometimes helpful, but that “there is no evidence that it corrects an underlying biological abnormality.” It then warns about the risk of taking these drugs for years.”

This is a radically different vision of severe mental illness from the one held by most Americans, and indeed many American psychiatrists. Americans think of schizophrenia as a brain disorder that can be treated only with medication. Yet there is plenty of scientific evidence for the report’s claims.”

So the next thing that happened in this spectacular David and Goliath story we’re all living through was that a former head of the American Psychiatric Association, Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, goes on the attack and makes a public video where he’s wearing a white lab coat (!), defending the biopsychiatric model, and condemning the authors of the publication, the author of the article, and The New York Times itself for being irresponsible and not taking psychiatry seriously as a science.

All of this is happening with a larger backdrop of the NIMH publicly pulling its support for the DSM-V , then seeming to retract its statements but not really, and all this confusion as the mainstream medical model loses its footing. The hardcore biopsychiatrists like Liberman are freaking out because their model is sinking and it’s a pleasure to watch the inevitability of it.

Unfortunately the biopsychiatric model still has a firm grip on power and it’s going to take a lot more than some well written publications from overseas to really change it. Last night a group of 10 NYC Icarus folks went up to Harlem to an event called BREAKING POINT: NEW YORK’S MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS and all the talking was painfully full of the logic of biological brain disease without questioning. When are we going to have public conversations abut the role of racism and poverty on people’s mental health? When are we going to acknowledge that the diagnostic system we currently use is fundamentally flawed on multiple levels and does way more harm than good? It’s not going to happen without a fight. We need to work extra hard to carve more space for alternative visions and speaking truth to power. There are cracks in the armor and its time take advantage of them. If you’re in NYC come out to the monthly NYC Icarus event at Bluestockings next Wednesday April first because we’ll be talking about it face to face. Mad love

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