Returning to the contradictions of anti-stigma campaigning in psychiatry and medicine, I recently saw this article, which supports my notion that those who grasp at reductionist, anti-subjective explanations for psychiatric conditions inadvertently harm those they purport to defend. This paper is “evidence-based” (evidence here meaning statistics, for the most part, as it always does in psychology and psychiatry), but nonetheless supports what can be deduced from general principles:
Even commentators who continue to advocate for describing people as having a “brain disease” agree that “research has shown that disease explanations for mental illness reduced blame but provoked harsher behaviour toward an individual with mental illness”, that “biological explanations may also imply that people with mental illness are fundamentally diﬀerent or less human”, that “there is research evidence that biological arguments may actually strengthen dangerousness stereotypes” and that “in contrast to biological arguments, psychosocial explanations of mental illness have been found to effectively improve images of people with mental illness and to reduce fear”.
In short, the bioreductionist arguments are not merely false, but also unethical and harmful, even when peddled under the aegis of dubious anti-stigmatisation. A few short points are worth making here, and perhaps I can expand on them subsequently:
1. All medical and psychiatric practice necessarily involves interpretative, conceptual interpolations (i.e. ‘labelling’) to organise symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and this applies no less to a broken arm than to a case of melancholia.
2. To mistake the label/signifier/diagnosis for the thing itself betrays a fundamental bungling of diagnostics, as well as of basic linguistics.
3. Attempts to phrenologise psychiatric diagnosis in the name of a narrow ‘science’, whether by way of the NIMH’s biomarkers, or the correlative ‘traits’ of psychometricians, will continue to stumble over the inconvenient fact of subjectivity, and therefore continue impede, rather than clarify diagnosis.
4. There is no coherent definition of a mental disorder, and likewise, there can be no watertight notion of ‘mental health’. Even the likes of Jerome Wakefield (a contributor to the DSM) more or less concede this, despite heroic attempts at reconstituting a mythological disordered essence for clinicians to diagnose.
5. Suffering is no less real for being subjective and, in any case, as Freud puts it in Civilisation and its Discontents, pain is but a feeling.