Posted by jeremy on February 13, 2011 12:32 am.
The label of mental illness is a powerful public relations ploy - to be used against a targeted person by authorities who feel threatened by him, or his words. Claims of mental illness have, conveniently, justified punitive measures against political dissidents in the Soviet Union and China.1,2,3
In open societies like the United States and Canada, many psychiatrists have performed government-sanctioned, nonconsensual experiments on human subjects in living memory, without a single experimenter ever being put on trial4 – while the experiments continued uninterrupted for decades. Part of the reason the experiments could proceed for so long without being uncovered is that the experimental subjects were portrayed as ‘patients’ and mentally ill; their testimony was discounted.
Psychiatry has a built-in ability for abuse which is “greater than any other field of medicine”5, and indeed, it has been abused as a tool of political repression and as a cover-up mechanism for human experimentation. Given the history of psychiatry, it’s reasonable to ask whether psychiatrists have any more credibility than the targets of state-sanctioned terror campaigns they label as mentally ill.
As we’ll see, psychiatrists suffer from some of the mental flaws they attribute to their patients. The biggest such flaw is confirmation bias - being predisposed to find certain answers, and finding ‘evidence’ of those answers in everything one sees.
In 1968, Maurice Temerlin tested 25 psychiatrists for evidence of bias.6 An actor was filmed talking about his life (actually a made-up life), without knowing what the purpose of the experiment was. His script led him to avoid subjects associated with schizophrenia (he was portrayed as uninterested in ESP, the occult, or religion) as well as to demonstrate the absence of self-obsession (by talking a little about current affairs).
Three groups were presented with the footage of the actor, one group (A) being told he “was a very interesting man because he looked neurotic, but actually was quite psychotic” – a control group (B) was told nothing about him - and a third group (C) was told he was mentally healthy.
The resulting diagnoses:
|A (psychiatrists) (25)||15||10||0|
|A (clinical psychologists) (25)||7||15||3|
|A (psychology students) (45)||5||35||5|
Interestingly, the most experienced group (A, psychiatrists) was the most likely to give a diagnosis of psychosis if told the actor was psychotic, with a false diagnosis rate of 60%. Meanwhile, the group told he was mentally healthy uniformly gave him a clean bill of mental health.
Race/gender bias experiment
In 1988, Loring and Powell presented 290 psychiatrists with two case studies. The studies, otherwise identically worded, were presented as being that of either a black male, a white male, a black female, a white female, or an unidentified subject, with 20% allocated to each case. The researchers concluded, “Clinicians appear to ascribe violence, suspiciousness, and dangerousness to black clients even though the case studies are the same as the case studies for the white clients”.7
The pseudopatient experiment
Questioning whether the diagnosis of patients depended on “the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them”, David L. Rosenhan performed secret experiments on psychiatrists in the 1970’s. Several ‘pseudopatients’ pre-screened for mental healthfulness went to 12 different psychiatric hospitals complaining of auditory disturbances; aside from certain personally identifying information (name, profession, and place of residence), they were instructed to be truthful about everything. The goal was to gain admission, and then stop pretending to be mentally ill, to convince the staff that they were actually mentally healthy and deserved to be let go.
With only one exception, every pseudopatient was diagnosed with schizophrenia. While the stays averaged 19 days, not one was ever proven sane; the alleged schizophrenics were released with “schizophrenia in remission”. Fascinatingly, it was “quite common” for the mentally ill residents in the hospital to pick up on the fraud. As Rosenhan observed, “The fact that the patients often recognized normality when staff did not raises important questions.”8
There were criticisms of Rosenhan’s findings. One psychiatrist noted that the conditions of the experiment were manifestly unfair; if a patient were to enter a hospital vomiting blood without revealing that he had drank a quart of blood prior to admission, he could hardly lay blame on the medical profession for jumping to conclusions.9 (However, the ease with which fellow patients recognized the imposters casts doubt on this argument.)
How mad are you?
In a 2008 BBC television program, “How Mad Are You?”, psychiatrists were presented with footage of 10 people, being informed (correctly) that five of them had been previously diagnosed as mentally ill, and asked to identify the 5 mentally ill people. They correctly identified two mentally ill people, and misidentified two of the others as mentally ill.10,11
Targeted individuals (TI’s) are often portrayed as being delusional. Two common accusations are that while the sorts of things the target are complaining about may be happening to some people, the TI hasn’t proved that they’re happening to him; or that the target is reading too much into improbable occurrences. Psychiatrists – whether they’re licensed professionals, or armchair psychiatrists offering criticism on the Internet – need to be held to the same standard.
Observers may complain the studies above are unfair, or unscientific. But that’s exactly the point: real-world encounters with the psychiatric profession aren’t under scientific or fair conditions, either.
Even if a psychiatrist is conscientiously evaluating his patient’s behavior12, the patient’s current mental state is not necessarily a symptom of mental illness; there will be scientifically uncontrolled factors which invalidate the resulting diagnosis. For example, a patient who was being harassed by local police forces, and whose complaints were being dismissed by the very people harassing him, would have feelings of persecution and distrust of the authorities - with good reason.
Individuals who are being persecuted or experimented on by a government may have psychiatric black marks on their records. The high likelihood of confirmation bias means these psychiatric judgements must be discounted.
- ^ "Dangerous minds: political psychiatry in China today and its origins in the Mao era"; Human Rights Watch. ISBN 1564322785.
- ^ Richard Bonnie, 2002. Political Abuse of Psychiatry in the Soviet Union and in China: Complexities and Controversies; Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, pp.136-144, 2002, issue 30. PMID: 11931362.
- ^ On dissidents and madness: from the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev to the “Soviet Union” of Vladimir Putin; Amsterdam—New York: Rodopi. pp. 242. ISBN 9789042025851.
- ^ Medicine betrayed: the participation of doctors in human rights abuses; Zed Books, 1992. pp. 65. ISBN 1856491048.
- ^ Temerlin, 1968. "Suggestion Effects in Psychiatric Diagnosis"; Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease: October 1968 - Volume 147 - Issue 4 - ppg 349-353.
- ^ Loring, Powell (1988). "Gender, race, and DSM-III: a study of the objectivity of psychiatric diagnostic behavior". Journal of health and social behavior 29 (1): 1–22. doi:10.2307/2137177. PMID 3367027.
- ^ Rosenhan DL (January 1973). "On being sane in insane places". Science (New York, N.Y.) 179 (70): 250–8. doi:10.1126/science.179.4070.250
- ^ Spitzer. On pseudoscience in science, logic in remission, and psychiatric diagnosis: a critique of Rosenhan's "On being sane in insane places"; Journal of abnormal psychology, volume 84, issue 5 (October 1975), pp. 442-452. doi:10.1037/h0077124
- ^ "How mad are you?"; audio and transcript at spotlight radio.
- ^ Description of the show on BBC's site
- ^ In the Project MKULTRA experiments, only one person was ever charged: Donald Ewen Cameron. He died before he could be put on trial.
- ^ In "The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee" (ISBN: 1609118588. 336 pp), the author (a targeted psychiatrist) describes how a fellow psychotherapist - whether through malice or carelessness - labeled her as mentally ill, basing his diagnosis on “tangential speech”. As the author writes: “This was a technical term for rambling speech that included a lot of unnecessary detail. I saw my error in even mentioning my political activism to the psychopharmacologist. The subject bored him, so he decided it was irrelevant…”