Regular followers of my stuff might be forgiven for thinking that I’m opposed to psychiatry and the biological model. After all I regularly complain about the standard medical approach with its reliance upon medication to treat mental disorder – especially relating to antipsychotics for people diagnosed with disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But that doesn’t mean I’m ‘antipsychiatry’ – just that I’m cautious. This is especially true where medications are concerned.
The list of side effects (otherwise known as undesirable consequences) that accompany psychotropic drugs can be a major problem but the same is (and has always been) true of all medications from AZT to aspirin. If a particular person suffers side effects from a particular drug then there’s a case for trying a different drug or even a different dose but that, in itself, isn’t really a case for scrapping all antipsychotic medication. All we can really say is that we need to be cautious about medication and avoid the ‘hammer to crack a nut’ approaches of the past.
Medications are biological tools. They are chemical preparations designed to make chemical changes in the physical body. This is because of an assumption that mental disorders are caused by physical (specifically chemical) problems. But is this always true?
Combat veterans are known to develop psychotic disorders as a result of their experiences spending time in active service. It seems ridiculous to assume that all these men and women (who had passed psychological evaluation before entering the battlefield) suffer from organic brain disorders. Yet their symptoms are similar, if not identical to those experienced by many of their civilian counterparts who are diagnosed with major psychotic disorders and treated with chemicals.
Combat veterans suffer a form of psychosis that is
caused not by biology but by stress.
For these people I think that there is an excellent case for using medication to treat their distress and to provide a degree of respite from their symptoms but that’s not the same as cure. That’s one thing I do disagree with traditional psychiatry about. I believe that recovery is attainable for many more people than the drug companies would have us believe. Happily though, so do many modern psychiatrists. People like me who advocate recovery aren’t so much joining the mainstream as the mainstream is catching up. That’s a nice feeling.
There are, of course many people who argue vehemently that psychiatry is flawed and that medication should never be ‘used on’ mentally ill people. However, sincere though I’m sure these people are, they may well fall into the same trap as the overly zealous arguments in favour of using too much medication. They may be too general.
Just as not all cases of psychosis seem likely to be chemical, so not all cases need necessarily be purely stress related. Whether the argument is in favour of medication or against it there is a real problem with polarisation and over-generalisation in mental health care. The disadvantage of these ‘black or white’ arguments is that they assume that everyone is the same and that everyone needs the same sort of intervention.
This sort of one-sidedness can feel easy and comfortable for those doing the arguing but there’s a price to be paid for superficial reasoning. The price is poor treatment because of flawed assumptions that compare chalk and cheese and assume that they are the same thing.
And that price is not generally paid by the individuals doing the arguing. It’s paid by the mental health service-user whose options for recovery are limited not by lack of knowledge but by stubborn refusal on both sides of the argument to look beyond their own, pet theories.
If I seem a little hard-nosed about this it’s for good reason. I was trained in the traditional way where medication and unquestioning acceptance of the biological hypothesis were everything. I was at the extreme ‘medical’ end of the continuum.
Then I was lucky enough to be selected by the NHS for further training at the Post Graduate level. I spent two years part time being exposed to the other side of the argument and, like many of my peers, became just as rabid in my defence of social and psychological perspectives instead. I was for a while the typical antipsychiatrist (or more accurately ‘antipsychiatric nurse’). And that felt good.
Today I’ve moved on a little from either of those two positions. Now I am able to see past the partisan posturing of either side and I try to walk the middle line. It seems to me that balance is everything. Isn’t that usually the case in the real world?
I no longer see much of a place for extremism in mental health care – especially when those who pay the price are not the ones making the arguments.
Please don’t misunderstand me though. I am far from an apologist for the biomedical status quo. I believe that medicine may well have something very positive to offer in relation to symptom management but in most cases that’s about all. I think that true recovery is generally achievable in other ways. But that’s for a later video.