Book Review: This is Depression

What do we do when we’re not working on finishing up our book? Yes of course, check out other books! Both of us had an opportunity to examine this new book from Dr. Diane McIntosh. Our review(s) follow.

This Is Depression: A Comprehensive, Compassionate Guide for Anyone Who Wants to Understand DepressionThis Is Depression: A Comprehensive, Compassionate Guide for Anyone Who Wants to Understand Depression by Diane McIntosh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark’s thoughts…

An empathetic and optimistic hands-on tour through the world of depression.

Book titles can be obscure and misleading… not this one! Dr. McIntosh’s book fully delivers on its promise, giving patients and others most everything they need to know about depression. Definitely comprehensive, she covers a wide range of subjects: what depression is, what it looks like in all its diversity, how it’s diagnosed, what causes it, how to talk to people about it, where to find help, myths, and information on a broad range of treatments. The book covers talk therapy, supplements, electroconvulsive therapy, exercise and many others (kale enemas, incidentally, are not recommended). She extensively covers the confusing and misunderstood universe of medications. She tackles the real questions people have about how they work, what to expect, how to deal with side effects, and more.

The other keyword in the subtitle is “compassionate,” and this is the real strength of the book. It’s refreshingly positive, hopeful, and, most of all, human. Her explanations, intermixed with patient vignettes, treat the reader with respect and serve to empower. They normalize what can be a frightening and lonely illness for many people. Readers will also find actionable advice throughout the book. This includes specific recommendations and suggestions around where to go to find help, how to approach appointments, and talk to others, whether caregivers, family and friends, or someone that you’re concerned about. It’s clear that nurturing informed and fully engaged patients is her mission, unlike some doctors who are threatened or intolerant when patients step up.

While well-referenced, this is far from a dry and monolithic academic text. The writing is very accessible. It’s broken up into small sections and chapters, which makes it very easy to follow. Readers can skim through topics of less interest and take a deeper dive into others (budding genetics and neuroscience geeks will rejoice!). I especially like the extensive glossary. It helps not only when encountering an unfamiliar term in the text, but also helps when deciphering jargon from doctors or others. Items in the glossary are bold-faced throughout the book, which again makes it easier to skim through.

This is a very practical book, delving into medical evidence and standards when they’re useful, but not being constrained by their limits. She’s not shy about offering real-world advice based on her experiences with patients, which mostly works. At times though, it’s a challenge. There are great benefits in sharing what too rarely ends up written down, but some risks of over-generalizing with such diversity in patients and illnesses. For example, when briefly describing specific medications, she suggests “other SSRI options are better.” This may be a bit heavyweight and could shut down rather than open up a conversation with a prescriber. Limited space makes this difficult to pull off perfectly, though appropriate caveats are usually close by.

‘This is Depression’ covers a lot of ground in an approachable and relevant way. Anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of this illness and how to recover from it will benefit. Dr. McIntosh has done a superb job bundling everything together in one comprehensive, compassionate package.

Pauline’s thoughts…

A great resource for patients and families

So far, I’ve only had a chance to briefly flip through it, but I’m excited to have a book like this to recommend to my patients and their families. Like Diane, patients in my own psychiatry practice are always looking for more information about their illness. Too often, they end up finding a few things here, a few things there, not all of it reliable or easy to digest. She’s put together a great collection of solid and easy to read information on a very diverse range of topics. Most importantly, patients will be able to find answers to nearly all their questions in one place. I like that she doesn’t shy away from specific biological details for the many patients who are eager to learn more. I’m looking forward to going through this in more detail, and I’m sure will learn a few new things myself.

View all my reviews

One Month to Launch!

It’s now only one month until the launch of Your Mental Health Repair Manual, which will be available November 25th!

We’re busy working through some of the last details, and cannot wait to finally get this done celebrate its release.

Both the paperback and ebook versions are already starting to percolate out to various bookseller websites for pre-order.

To read more or check out an excerpt, visit

Announcing: Your Mental Health Repair Manual!

Mental health awareness week is normally focused on stigma, but we can’t forget that access to quality treatment matters too… and there’s lots more work to be done on that front!

With that in mind, we’re excited to announce the upcoming launch of:

Your Mental Health Repair Manual:

An Empowering, No-Nonsense Guide to Navigating Mental Health Care and Finding Treatments That Work for You.

Pauline Lysak MD and Mark Roseman

This is the answer for all the patients, families, and healthcare providers who’ve been frustrated trying to access mental health services. Finally, the practical, real-world solutions to getting your care on track, in one easy-to-follow guide.

The book will be officially released in late November. To pre-order a copy, or to check out an excerpt, visit

Blog Reboot

As we get ready to launch our new book, it’s time to restart this blog. You’ll see a great deal of new information posted here over the coming weeks and months.

Put another way, note that everything prior to this posting was from 2014-2015, and likely somewhat out of date. We’ll keep them around, and some, like the article on ferritin and B12, are still quite popular. We don’t plan on updating them though.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Evidence

Scientific evidence is treated as holy gospel by some people, and entirely discounted by others. When it comes to evidence for mental health, living at either end of this spectrum is a mistake. This article explains everything you need to know to understand mental health evidence, including its limitations.

This started out as a chapter in the book, but was eventually removed both because of length and complexity. It was replaced by a brief teaser in the “Paging Dr. Google” chapter, but we wanted to keep the original available for those who want the details.

Before proceeding, we’ll let you in on a secret about evidence. People tell you a treatment they want you to use has evidence. Doctors and other professionals may use an evidence-based approach. Science gives us objective confidence through evidence.

Evidence is important. However, hearing that there is evidence for a treatment often does not mean what you think it means.

Let’s say you’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). You hear a statement like “There is strong evidence to support the use of HappyNow™ for treatment of MDD” or “HappyNow™ was shown to be significantly better than placebo (a sugar pill) at treating MDD.”

Most people would hear these phrases and think to themselves: “I have MDD. So if I take HappyNow™ it will help me! I’ll be better!” Unfortunately, most people would be wrong. This is not at all what they mean. We’ll explain, but here’s the bottom line:

 If someone tells you that ‘X’ will treat your mental illness and that there is evidence or proof that it works, there is a high probability that will be of little help to you.

Most people need to try several different treatments before they find one or more that fully treats their illness. People are often surprised that science doesn’t provide the level of certainty they expect. Why?

  • Evidence isn’t an absolute. There are different levels of evidence, some stronger than others. This is true in all areas of medicine.
  • Mental health research is tricky because mental illness is so complicated. Illnesses are made up of many possible symptoms, each which may have a multitude of different causes.*
  • The stronger the evidence, the more uniform the test subjects. Stronger evidence results from limiting variability. To reduce variability, experiments may exclude people who have other physical or mental illnesses, people of certain ages, social backgrounds, etc. But mental health symptoms are affected by many factors, often intertwined. Limiting variability may produce stronger evidence, but it may apply to very few people.

* The understanding of what causes certain symptoms is still unclear compared with more established areas of medicine, e.g. cardiology. People used to think depression was all about serotonin, but now think many other factors contribute, e.g. inflammation. A faulty understanding of causation can make data that is collected less relevant.

Thorough testing that takes into account the variability found in the real world is practically impossible. Tools to examine and measure results are also limited. Evidence in mental health, therefore, has more caveats. Evidence cannot reliably predict what will or won’t work for someone. It’s not like evidence in chemistry class where all you’re checking is if adding A to B turns B purple.

Evidence in mental health is no guarantee. If you’re comfortable with that conclusion, please feel free to skip to the next chapter. If you want a deeper understanding of why evidence in mental health is less clear-cut, keep reading. This will also help if you need to argue with people about treatments. Compelled to justify why you’re not drinking 10 cups of tea each day made from a stinky plant that a persistent relative pulled from their garden? Read on. Or get them to read it. While they’re drinking their tea.

Levels of Evidence

In medicine, people look for proof that a treatment will work. What they mean by proof is scientific evidence supporting the conclusion. The best treatments are evidence-based.

However, evidence-based is not a simple yes or no concept. The quality of evidence affects how much you should trust its conclusions. Determining the quality of evidence can be extremely challenging.

Evidence comes in different forms. You’ve likely heard of some, like randomized control trials (RCT’s). Medical evidence usually falls into one of the categories shown below.

1aSystematic review of randomized control trials
1b Individual randomized control trial
1cAll or none
2aSystematic review of cohort studies
2bIndividual cohort study
2c“Outcomes” research; ecological studies
3aSystematic review of case-control studies
3bIndividual case-control study
5Expert opinion

Some levels of evidence.

Adapted from Oxford Centre for Evidence-based Medicine—Levels of Evidence (March 2009). Their website provides an excellent set of resources to learn more about how evidence can be used and misused in medicine.

Evidence has the potential to be stronger the higher up it is on the list. Be skeptical when someone tells you that a treatment will work because it’s “evidence-based.” This is not an unqualified endorsement.

We’ll describe a few of these levels below. Let’s say you are a researcher who is interested in whether a new medication helps treat a specific illness.

At the lowest (weakest) level of evidence, you might follow one or more people who took the medication and describe what happens. This is called a case report or case series.

A case-control study tries to identify the cause of an illness. It’s not about treatment so wouldn’t help you with the new medication. It takes one group of people who have the illness and another who doesn’t have the illness. Researchers look at the medical histories of both groups. They try to identify any differences that might explain why one group has the illness.

In cohort studies, you gather a pool of research subjects. Those who are already taking the medication go in one group, and those not already taking the medication go in another group. You follow both groups over time and identify the differences between them.

Randomized control trials are the most well-known evidence-based clinical studies. You gather a group of patients who all have the illness. Half of the people in the group, picked randomly, are given the medication, while the other half aren’t given the medication. You follow everyone over time and compare the outcomes of both groups. In a double-blind RCT, neither the patients nor the researchers that measure the results know which patients were given the medication.

Systematic reviews (SR’s) or meta-analyses start with a literature search identifying previous studies. These include RCT’s, case-control, or others. The similarities and differences between individual studies are analyzed and conclusions are drawn. These “studies of studies” can vary in quality depending on how the individual studies are selected, their quality, and their methodologies.

If you have ten studies using the same methodology, the same patient restrictions, etc., the meta-analysis can’t draw broader conclusions than the individual studies. But a meta-analysis could include many studies that varied greatly in overall study design. For example, it could include different medication doses, lengths of time, ages, genders, people with multiple physical and mental health conditions, and so on. A review of many large and varied studies that all show the same result is strong evidence.

Quality of Evidence

Before trusting a study, you must review its methodology and quality. The size of the study, patient selection criterion, constraints, outcome measures, duration, dropouts, and many other factors of the study design have a significant impact on how results are interpreted. Have other researchers been able to take the same study design and replicate the results?

You may have a great study providing a low level of evidence. Or you may have a very flawed study which aims to provide a very high level of evidence. Neither are likely much help to you. How do you know if a study is comprehensive and methodologically sound or deeply flawed? Read articles that reference the published study and see if they support it or denounce it and why.

As you can see from even this very superficial overview, the reality of medical evidence is not straightforward. We’re not suggesting you need to be an expert in experimental design or statistics. Instead, recognize that evidence can mean many things and can evolve over time. You should look for strong evidence, ideally many large, long-term, independent, and well-designed RCT’s. Be cautious when relying on small observational studies or anecdotal reports, especially from only a single source.

Is Significant Always Significant?

When people claim that treatments are evidence-based, they aren’t lying to you. They’re not trying to deceive or mislead you. They’re just speaking a different language. The word significant is a perfect example. Significant has a technical meaning in statistics, which is something along the lines of “much more likely.” As in, we’re pretty sure the medication is better than nothing. How much better? That we don’t know. It could make you feel 0.1% better (i.e. who really cares) or 95% better (wow!). We’d refer to the latter as clinically significant, which is a completely different concept from statistical significance.

Here’s a silly example. Gather 5000 people. Give half of them, chosen at random, a placebo pill and the other half the medication you’re studying. Give them all a test of some kind. Let’s say that every single person who took the placebo scored 61/1000, while everyone who took your medication scored 62/1000. That is (statistically) significant because the likelihood the pill improved their score (vs. it being a random fluke) is very high.

Despite that, the result is likely not clinically significant. If someone offered you a 0.1% improvement in your mental illness, it’s not going to make a big difference in your life. Also, in real life, it would involve more than a single pill. To complicate matters even further, there are even different levels of statistical significance, e.g. “we’re confident it will be better 19 times out of 20” (ok, but not great) vs. “… better 999 times out of 1000” (very good).

What Did the Studies Measure?

Mental health studies follow one or more groups of people for a period of time. They then evaluate some aspect of their mental health, e.g. are people more or less depressed? It is these outcomes or results that provide the conclusions for the study. The question you have to ask yourself is if the outcomes matter to you. In other words, are the symptoms that improved the same symptoms you have? In many cases, the answer is either a clear “no” or the study doesn’t provide enough information for you to know.

Again, let’s assume you have MDD. If someone told you they had a cure for all mental illness (and an RCT to prove it!), you’d be thinking snake oil. If they said instead it was shown to be effective for mood problems, you might not completely ignore them. If they said (and you believe) there was statistically and clinically strong evidence their treatment helped with MDD? Now they’ve probably got your attention. Does it apply to you? Maybe.

Two people can have two completely different sets of symptoms, presenting in two completely different ways, and be diagnosed with the same mental illness. How different can they be?

  • Being diagnosed with a mental illness usually means meeting a certain number of criteria (for MDD, it’s at least five from a list of nine). One person could meet criterion 1-5 and another criterion 5-9. They have only one in common.
  • Each criterion has countless alternatives, e.g. “depressed or irritable mood.” Compare this to some physical illnesses where the diagnosis is based on a blood test. Positive or negative? There’s far more variability in mental illness.
  • Severity can be completely different.

Even a specific mental illness like MDD can be astronomically diverse. Studies that fully recognize this are inordinately expensive and complicated to run. Most studies can’t do that, so their reported outcomes are very general. At best, they can offer possibility and future promise.

Most studies use rating scales to measure symptoms before and after. A common one for depression (HAM-D) has 17 questions about different symptoms. Someone interviews you to determine a rating for each symptom. They give you a score between zero (you don’t have that symptom at all) and either two or four (you’re greatly suffering from that symptom). They add up all the questions and get a total score for how severe your depression is, as shown below.

8-13Mild Depression
14-18Moderate Depression
19-22Severe Depression
≥23Very Severe Depression

Interpreting scores on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D).

Imagine a study showed that a medication reduced MDD from severe to normal. This sounds spectacular! But if they measure it according to the total HAM-D score, that can happen by improving as few as three symptoms (out of 17).

By looking only at the total score, you have no idea which symptoms it improved or by how much. Errors in sampling may have led to more study participants with one set of symptoms. Even with a very large sample size, a medication that works really well on only a few symptoms would show a statistically significant effect. All this is great unless you have some of the symptoms that didn’t improve in the study. The medication has a much smaller chance of helping you than the overall result suggests. But you have no way of knowing because the study didn’t report individual symptoms, just the total HAM-D score.

Using a single number as a proxy for multiple individual measures is common. You ideally would like to see the effect on individual measures. That will help you determine if it’s (more) relevant to you. But if a study wants to look at many results, it needs to be much larger and more expensive. Achieving the same statistical significance as one with a single result increases the size and expense even further. There are other reasons why researchers like to report on a single measure. Saying “this medication is an effective treatment for depression” is a much better sound bite than “this medication effectively reduces feelings of guilt in patients with depression.” While the first has a better ring to it, it’s just not as useful when you’re making treatment decisions.

Who Did the Studies Include?

Encapsulating many symptoms behind a single score can hide a lot about what the study is actually measuring, as you just saw. But it’s not only the outcomes that you need to be concerned about. It’s also the inputs, otherwise known as the people who participated in the study. How varied was that “random sample” of subjects? Does it provide a true representation of the overall population? Most importantly, does it represent you?

It’s now generally recognized that for decades, medical studies had a very strong gender bias. Most studies used men as test subjects. There are statistical benefits of tightly controlling the pool of subjects. This helps strengthen the result, even though it applies to fewer people. It’s a stretch to broaden the conclusions without the data to back them up. Claiming that 70% of men who have a heart attack experience chest pain before based on evidence. Because nobody was studying women, everyone assumed they too had chest pain 70% of the time. When the studies were done, chest pain was much less common (around 58%). Other differences were even more pronounced.

A single study doesn’t need to cover every variation. But the more variations covered by multiple studies, the better. Other factors can include:

  • age (consider physical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, now diagnosed at a younger age, and not commonly studied in that age group previously)
  • race and ethnicity (certain genetic traits are more common in some groups, including factors that affect how medications are metabolized; people of some races are far less likely to respond to some medications)
  • socio-economics (research has shown clear connections between economic status and patterns of diet, exercise, weight, sleep, and other factors that not only may affect the presentation of mental illness but also influence the effectiveness of treatments)
  • gender diversity (you would find few older studies, that did not automatically exclude those who did not fit the binary male/female model, leaving many intersex and transgender patients with data that may or may not apply to them)
  • health status (are people with certain physical illnesses well represented or excluded, e.g. heart disease, COPD, colitis, migraine, and is there any difference between how the treatments affect those with these illnesses than those without)

The list goes on. Do vegans react to a medication differently than carnivores? Is exposure to certain types of pollution a factor? Hair colouring? People can make educated guesses about what factors make a difference, but without the data, they don’t know for sure. They can only be 100% sure of the effect on everyone if they test everyone.

Even a large study with great variation can be tricky. Like with outcome measures, statistics can hide important variations in the subject population if not used well. If improvements were seen in the group as a whole, was it just one particular subset of test subjects that saw an improvement? Do they share something in common? Do you share that common factor? It could even be a different cause for their illness. This is something we neither understand well or can reliably measure. A treatment that affects MDD due to one cause may not touch MDD caused by something different.

Mental illness is diverse, complex, and rooted in multiple causes. All of these make reliable and informative statistical sampling more challenging.

So… Give Up?

We are not saying that evidence doesn’t matter—far from it. But it’s important to recognize there are limitations to the evidence available. More importantly, don’t be manipulated by deceptive language. You want to choose the treatments that have the best chance of helping you and treating your illness. Try to have realistic expectations. You don’t need more disappointment.

Some treatments are supported by strong evidence. This includes larger studies, broader sampling, and better outcome measures. Studies that can be independently replicated and high-quality meta-analyses are also important.

Evaluating the quality and applicability of research is something you should be doing with your doctor or other health professionals. Don’t just bring some paper and say you’re convinced the treatment it describes is credible and applicable to you, so you’re going to try it. Discuss with them which studies and treatments best apply to your illness. Remember that they have extensive expertise in interpreting medical literature. Use that to your (and their) advantage.

Accept that high-quality evidence isn’t available to answer every question. Sometimes doctors have to rely on gut instinct or clinical intuition. They’ve seen that “certain types” of people do well on one medication but not another, and that’s why they recommend it to you. They’re filling gaps in the evidence with (ad hoc, informal, and subconscious) observational studies of their own.

What we hope is to lower your expectations to match reality. Finding the right treatment for you may not be a quick or easy process. You will likely have to try several different things, some may partly work, some won’t work at all. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary part of treating your illness.


  • An evidence-based treatment is not a guarantee. Evidence is not absolute. This is particularly true in mental health, where one illness can have different symptoms and different causes.
  • Stronger evidence is obtained by reducing variability and the scope of investigations. That decreases the chance that the evidence will apply to you.
  • There are many different types of evidence-producing studies. Some are more convincing than others, as is others replicating the studies and getting the same results.
  • Interpreting evidence is incredibly difficult and terms like “significant” are often used in a technical manner which can be misleading to casual readers. Doctors, in particular, have the background that can help you interpret evidence.


Mental Illness Isn’t Real

One of the core arguments in PBM is that mental illness isn’t a real illness, because it has no observable physical pathology. Or in other words, if you can’t point to something physical, it’s not an illness, and thus outside the scope of medicine.

This claim is used to bootstrap further arguments, e.g. if it’s not an illness, all these things you’re putting in the DSM are meaningless, and given that medications are designed to correct something physical, and by definition there’s nothing physical going on in mental not-really-an-illness, these medications are by definition not addressing any illness. And so on.

The Argument

The base argument is most pointedly made in Chapter 2 of PBM, in the section “Medical Advances, Professionalization, and the State,” in discussing the evolution of medicine at the point in the late 1800’s where studying of corpses allowed for a better understanding of human anatomy and disease. If I may quote extensively from PBM:

Continuing to study anatomy and inventing more and more instruments to extend its observation, it [medicine] further progressed as a science. What was particularly important—and the significance of this cannot be overstated—as Szasz (1976/1988) points out, it progressively conceptualized like a science. Most especially it put aside impressionistic concepts of what constituted a disease, adopting in their stead concrete criteria based on observation. Instrumental in this regard was physician Rudolf Virchow, who introduced a standard henceforth embraced by the medical community.

According to this new understanding, pain or discomfort per se no longer sufficed for something to qualify as a disease. Real lesion, real cellular pathology observable directly or by tests was to be the standard. While disease might be hypothesized and temporarily entertained in the absence of pathology, to be clear, it was discoveries of pathology alone which confirmed them. With Virchow criterion, medicine had essentially crossed the science threshold and found its “gold standard.”

The end of that passage concludes with a footnote reading “For highly informed commentary on the Virchow criterion and its significance, see Ackerknecht (1953) and Szasz (1976/1988).”

Sound convincing?

A lot seems to reside on that definition of “disease” and by implication whether the scope of medicine (and hence psychiatry) is determined by “disease” or not. And is “illness” the same thing as “disease”? And does medicine deal with illness or just disease? But isn’t illness something we all understand, and… well, the above thing about lesions and such sounds reasonable, and if that is the gold standard…

Definition Controversies

In the quoted passage, BB makes two claims supporting her position, “a standard henceforth embraced by the medical community” and “crossed the science threshold and found it’s ‘gold standard’.” These are her words.

These claims that Virchow’s ‘physical’ standard was then and continues to be the definition of disease, and that presence or absence of disease defines what is or is not medicine, is supported by references to “highly informed commentary” by Szasz, an early pioneer of psychiatric criticism referenced by most antipsychiatry works, but nothing else (selective reference).

Virchow was a pioneer for his time, though some of his positions didn’t work out so well over time (he was anti-evolution and did not believe in the germ theory of disease). How did this standard hold out?

Not well either unfortunately. In both medical practice and common usage, there is a lot of overlap between the terms “disease” and “illness,” sometimes used interchangeably. Some medical texts simply define “illness” as “disease.” Many dictionaries define illness as “being unhealthy in body or mind.”

The actual definition of “illness” has been an occasional matter of debate to this date. There were a lot of short back-and-forth letters and articles during the 80’s in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), including the ones by Szasz. The definitional debates continue more sporadically to this day in various professional medical journals, including CMAJ.

The Gold Standard?

Even taking “mental illness” out of the equation, does medicine today deal with illnesses or diseases that would not be identified by “real lesion, real cellular pathology”?

Has medicine evolved since the late 1800’s?

Our understanding today of germs, viruses and bacteria go beyond what Virchow proposed. Think of all the illnesses and diseases associated with those.

There have been thousands of medical discoveries between then and now which identified causes and treatments for various illnesses. Before the discoveries, were they not illnesses, managed or treated by doctors, even though the cause, physical or otherwise, was unknown? Absolutely.

Are there illnesses today, treated by doctors, for which we do not know the cause? Here are a few:

  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • lupus
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Bell’s palsy
  • interstitial cystitis
  • fibromyalgia

I could go on. But nobody would dispute that these illnesses are within the purview of medicine. Medicine even has a term for these: diseases (or illnesses, or ailments) of “unknown etiology.”

The bottom line is that medical doctors treat many illnesses and diseases in terms of their symptoms, as a regular and standard part of their practice. And to experts and the public alike, it’s not a question of whether they are real or not.


Defining a concept in a particular, narrow way is a common technique used in debating circles. Choosing a definition (“illnesses have physical causes”) that is so close to the conclusion you want to draw (“mental illnesses have no known physical causes so are not real illnesses”), is an example of a logical fallacy called “begging the question.”

The use of only selective references here, showcases an “appeal to improper/biased authority” fallacy. Yes, Virchow and Szasz have important contributions to make with regards to medicine and psychiatry. Yet, while the claims attributed to them carry some weight, they are not generally accepted in common practice today.

For this argument to work, you need to agree to a particular definition of a term that is at best controversial and at worse false in light of common practice.

A large chunk of the remainder of that chapter in PBM is dedicated to examples where psychiatry has assumed causes and adopted terminology suggestive of specific etiologies, without proper evidence of such. As suggested in a previous section, I agree with BB that psychiatry did itself no favours here.

The flawed notion that mental illnesses have no known etiology and therefore aren’t real illnesses is a foundation on which several other major arguments in PBM rest. We will also see the same attempts to persuade the reader to a false conclusion in other arguments shortly.

But really, if at some point in the future, a definitive underlying physical/biological cause for mental illness was discovered, do you really think the antipsychiatry community would admit that mental illness is real?

Biological Psychiatry

As you read through PBM, you’re left with the impression that psychiatry consists of extracting a diagnosis from a patient, and based on that diagnosis, psychotropic medications are then prescribed, or if they’re feeling particularly nasty, ECT is delivered. This is the model that is implied through repeated, disparaging use of the phrase “biological psychiatry.”

If you buy this conception of what psychiatrists do, and you believe that mental illness isn’t real, diagnoses are a sham, and psychiatric medications are by definition harmful, it seems pretty obvious that giving psychiatry the boot is a logical and necessary step.

We’ve addressed the latter three issues previously. Let’s consider how accurate “biological psychiatry” and all that it implies actually takes into account theory, training and practice.

The Psychiatric Perspective

One word you will find exactly once in the entirety of PBM is “biopsychosocial.”

It’s an interesting omission, as the biopsychosocial model is the fundamental approach taken in modern psychiatry. It tells us that our health (in this case, mental health) is based on a wide range of different factors that interact in various ways. These factors include biological ones (which includes genetics, other illnesses, nutritional or other deficiencies, and the behaviour of neurotransmitters), psychological ones (broadly speaking, the coping styles you’ve learned to think about and deal with stressors), and social ones (including such things as family issues, community pressures, socioeconomic status).

This sounds like it encompasses a lot more than just diagnosing and prescribing, but what does it all really mean?

It means that when we talk about assigning a diagnosis, it’s rarely about diagnosing one particular disorder, and effectively saying “you patient are XYZ disorder.” That would fit the reductive antipsychiatry narrative of “biological psychiatry” but is inaccurate.

Instead, when asked to assess a patient, a psychiatric diagnosis is more likely to look something like this (until recently; more on that shortly):

Axis I:     Major Depressive Disorder, moderate
            Generalized Anxiety Disorder
            rule-out Social Anxiety Disorder
Axis II:    Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
Axis III:   iron deficiency
            Coronary Artery Disease
Axis IV:    financial strain
            limited supports
Axis V:     GAF 60

Each “axis” consists of one or more diagnoses or factors that are impacting the patient’s mental health. Axis I is what we’ll tongue-in-cheek refer to as the “chemical imbalance” disorders. Axis II is the “personality disorders” (more on this shortly). Axis III includes other non-psychiatric medical issues. Axis IV is factors in their social situation affecting their illness. Axis V consists of something called a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) which is a rough measure of in general how well a person is doing in their daily life. If there are no relevant problems on a particular axis, it is labelled as “non-contributory,” while if it hasn’t really been examined yet, it is marked as “deferred.” Particular factors to be considered later are noted as “rule-out”.

That is a lot more than just pushing pills. Let’s elaborate further.

What Psychiatrists Actually Do

Let’s start with the biological side of things (Axis I and III).

A big part is certainly what is implied by the term “biological psychiatry.” That is, determining if the patient meets diagnostic criteria for one of the mental illnesses in the DSM where medications can play a role. When it comes to suggesting medications, a psychiatrist is more likely to look at symptoms rather than a particular diagnosis. This is because, as we described earlier, certain symptoms tend to be influenced by certain neurotransmitters.

Psychiatrists also look for a range of physical health problems that can be affecting a patient’s mental health, and have nothing to do with neurotransmitters. The sorts of things that are considered are based on the patient’s physical and family health history as well as mental health symptoms. For example, an iron deficiency can present as poor concentration, low energy, and memory problems. So psychiatrists order and review a wide range of blood tests (e.g. looking at vitamin deficiencies, hormone levels, electrolytes, etc.) as these can all pay a role in mental health.

They may also, again based on physical history and symptoms, order more complex tests like EEG’s (electroencephalograms, which can pick up types of epilepsy) or CT scans (which might pick up a tumour or other brain lesion). It’s not uncommon for behaviour changes to be the first indication of some of these illnesses. Psychiatrists, as medical doctors, are particularly trained at recognizing the signs of different physical health disorders that can appear as mental illnesses. Even if patients intend to seek treatment elsewhere, seeing a psychiatrist to rule-out some of these physical causes can be valuable. Brain tumours and vitamin deficiencies don’t generally respond well to psychotherapy.

So contrary to the reductive suggestions sprinkled throughout PBM, a crucial aspect of psychiatry is being aware of the impact of physical illnesses on mental health.

On the psychological side, psychiatrists are mostly dealing with Axis II, the “personality disorders.” To grossly over-simplify, we all learn to cope with stressors in different ways. An unhealthy coping strategy is one that causes you a lot of difficulties, or doesn’t deal very well with the stress. Someone who feels no control in their life may cope by trying to take strict control of the few things they can control, and spend hours each day devoted to this; this would be an example of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. Personality disorders are not about passing judgment on “right” ways to deal with things, but if a coping style is causing significant distress to you, the framework of personality disorders helps to better understand what isn’t working for you.

On the treatment side, addressing personality disorders usually involves psychotherapy of some sort. This is a normal part of psychiatric practice, to varying degrees (some people, usually in private practice, do more). Often psychotherapy is delegated to psychologists or other professionals, but is part of the required skill set of any psychiatrist. When my wife was doing her psychiatry residency, she was required to learn the theory of over a dozen therapeutic modalities, as well as use each one over a number of weeks with a particular patient, while being supervised by someone expert in that modality.

On the social side (Axis IV), psychiatrists are more likely to defer handling of many issues to social workers or other professionals, but issues raised certainly affect treatment decisions. As an obvious example, if they prescribe a particular medication, will the patient be able to afford it?

So, it seems psychiatrists do a bit more than just pushing pills.

A Retreat to Biology?

You may hear various things about the biopsychosocial model no longer being used, or falling out of favour. Does this mean the critics are right, and psychiatry is admitting it is really just about biology (and specifically neurotransmitters)?

Not at all. What’s actually happening is that everyone recognizes that all the different biological, psychological and social factors overlap and interact with other in complicated ways. By separating things out too much (e.g. putting things on a different axis), things felt too compartmentalized and simplistic, and didn’t take into account this complexity.

So the “end” of biopsychosocial is really just the end of assigning each illness to a category and thinking of each category as a separate type of thing, e.g. that an Axis I disorder was very different from an Axis II disorder. In fact, the latest version of the DSM, DSM-5, dispenses with the whole “Axis” form of diagnoses altogether.

Incidentally, that one mention of “biopsychosocial”? It’s used to summarily dismiss it—without evidence, mind you—as “essentially the biological model with add-ons.” The way the text is written also implies that the biopsychosocial model is a component of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), as opposed to a fundamental part of psychiatry as a whole. For readers not in Canada, the CMHA is a voluntary organization that “promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing mental illness.” Or as BB puts it, the CMHA is one of the “seemingly more benign organizations … [that] receive huge funding from the state to do its bidding, and as such, constitute an integral part of the ruling regime.”

For what it’s worth, I was expecting “biopsychosocial” to not appear in PBM at all.

Psychiatry has Much to Critique

Antipsychiatry writings, pretty much by definition, contain a lot of examples of harmful, abusive practices and behaviours in psychiatry. Sometimes these examples are exaggerated or even made up, but quite frankly there’s little reason to do so given the myriad of verifiable, well-documented examples. PBM documents many of these, most of which can be backed up by a variety of sources.

In this section, I’ll very briefly highlight just a few of what I feel are the legitimate concerns raised by PBM and similar writings.

The Past

I’ll restrict myself to issues that I feel are still relevant to present day psychiatry (the last decade or so), well after the “purge” of patients from asylums into the community that occurred in the 60’s and 70’s. This is not to ignore the past, and certainly not to deny the horrific nature of practice. Don’t worry, I’m not going to pull any kind of “yes the past was bad, but it’s all butterflies and sunshine now.” Let’s all just for the sake of argument agree that the period in the past was equivalent to the “dark ages,” and argue instead about whether that period continues to the current day or not.

Scientific Foundations

In terms of the underlying science, psychiatry trails far back of other areas of medicine. Given the complexity of the brain and its various mechanisms, it’s not too hard to imagine why. That leaves a lot more that’s unknown in psychiatry. My wife told me once about a cardiologist who addressed her medical school class. He told them that if they were interested in research and innovations that they should go into psychiatry, as that’s where all the opportunities will be.

Despite its limitations, psychiatry has too often adopted terminology implying a definitive understanding of underlying mechanisms of illness. Doctors may be at the top of the status and power ladder in clinical settings, but amongst doctors, psychiatrists have lower status than for example surgeons. Whether due to insecurity, competition, etc., they too quickly emulated practices and language of other medical disciplines to better fit in. PBM provides many examples of this. Similarly, while there have been incremental advances in the science, they are too often portrayed as more significant. We’ve been hearing for a long time that the big breakthrough will be coming “any day now.”

This is, alas, unfortunately common not only in psychiatry and neurosciences, but across medicine and in fact science as a whole. Science is, and has always been, a highly political endeavour, where what is important at a given time is based as much on personality and power as specific evidence. Intimately tied up in this dynamic are issues of career advancement, tenure, competition for grant money, etc. The defunding of basic research by governments, leaving the private sector to fill the void, has exacerbated this problem.

Unlike PBM, I don’t believe that psychiatry’s incomplete understanding of the underlying etiology of illness is a fatal flaw, and does not invalidate either lower-level or outcome-based research. Over-selling and under-delivering, however, is rarely a formula to engender much trust.


As PBM suggests, and none but the most idealistic psychiatrist would dispute, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which defines a precise taxonomy of mental illnesses, is very much influenced by political and organizational considerations and laden with conflicts of interest. The evolution of this tome is not guided by disinterested parties, and many “school of thought” differences play out with each revision. Having your particular slant on how we categorize certain illnesses “blessed” by its inclusion in the DSM can come with great influence, prestige, grant money, career advancement, and all the other things mentioned previously.

The involvement of pharmaceutical companies is more troubling, in that they can twist the definition of an illness a certain way (or create other illnesses) and get their products approved for its treatment. Particularly in the USA, insurance companies are more likely to pay out for drugs approved to treat a given condition, rather than pay for drugs being used “off-label.” Thus what does and does not count as a particular illness matters a great deal to them.

For someone seeking mental health treatment, while changing criteria may result in a different diagnosis, as I’ll discuss later, it’s not likely to change things very much in terms of actual treatment.

Involuntary admission and treatment

When it comes to the rights of people being admitted or treated against their will, the law has improved significantly over time. Some jurisdictions in Canada, notably British Columbia, lag behind other provinces who updated their Mental Health Acts over the last ten or so years. Notably, in BC if someone is involuntarily admitted, no further justification is needed if a psychiatrist feels it necessary to treat them against their will. Elsewhere, the issue of capacity to consent to treatment is separate from admission. A challenge currently (2016) before the courts will likely fix this.

Practice unfortunately often lags behind the law. Truly informed consent (vs. signing a form) is an issue throughout all of medicine, but more so in psychiatry. Too many inpatients feel belittled and disrespected by doctors and nurses, coerced to accept treatment, or feel treated like prisoners. Mechanisms to ensure appeals exist but often have no resources behind them, making them ineffective in practice.

While the situation is slowly improving, and such abuses of patients are far from universal in today’s ER’s and psych wards, they are distressingly not uncommon either. The system does not yet have the safeguards or culture that would prevent it from being so open to abuse. We’ll discuss the impact of this on mental health patients in general later as well.

Limited and varied psychiatric resources

Suffice it to say, PBM does not call for an increase in psychiatric treatment resources, but I feel this is a big concern in today’s system. The supply of psychiatrists does not begin to meet the demand for their services, leading to long waiting lists, and an inability to get appropriate treatment in a timely manner.

Some of the secondary effects are picked up on in PBM. For example, practitioners pushed by a mental health system to see more and more patients can lead to all-too-short one-off consultations, with premature diagnosis based on the scantiest of evidence. For new patients especially, who may not know what to expect, being suddenly faced with blunt, machine-gun questioning about the most personal aspects of their life does not normally promote forthcoming responses.

The quality of psychiatrists varies greatly, it seems more so than in other areas of medicine. Overt paternalism remains widespread. Opportunities for oversight and accountability are few, given the lack of choice and often-onerous process to lodge a complaint through the provincial medical colleges.


I’ve touched on some of the areas where I feel significant improvement is warranted.

There’s more than enough in these issues to argue for a major overhaul to how psychiatry is practiced, or at the very least fight to get in place more effective safeguards.

But that isn’t what antipsychiatry is arguing for. They want nothing less than the complete elimination of psychiatry and all its trappings. This goes way beyond even the most grandiose improvements. We’re left to answer two questions: how are they going to accomplish this, and perhaps more importantly, why?

Deconstructing Antipsychiatry (Intro)

Seen some antipsychiatry writings and feel you’re not being told the whole truth? You’re right! I’ll show you what’s true, where the lies are, and what’s missing. Time to end the misinformation and conspiracy theories (on both sides).

Update Aug/2020: I’ve moved this extended article, originally from Oct/2016, from it’s previous home at my personal website.

Of note, Dr. Burstow died Jan. 4th, 2020.

Critique of psychiatric practice is a long tradition that has led to significant improvements in the field. Antipsychiatry, however, is a more radical movement, that does not seek to improve psychiatry, but to destroy it. Through carefully selected examples, it spins a one-sided tale, trying to persuade us that mental illness isn’t real, psychiatric drugs cannot work, and that all treatment is coercive and damaging. This is all for the benefit of corrupt pharmaceutical giants and governments.

This article examines the arguments advanced in Burstow’s 2015 book Psychiatry and the Business of Madness, a wide-ranging analysis that exemplifies the antipsychiatry genre. Beneath a carefully constructed veneer of credibility, we will find a series of ill-constructed “proofs” that have their basis in trickery and logical fallacy. Yet, far from engaging intellectually with a wider audience, antipsychiatry’s “good vs. evil” narrative aims primarily to recruit devotees to their cause.

Antipsychiatry raises fear, uncertainty, and doubt among those at their most vulnerable. Yet it offers no practical alternatives to those who are suffering, only ideology.

If you’re reading this, you likely already have some idea what antipsychiatry is about. You may be currently under the care of a psychiatrist, or considering whether to take medications to help with some mental health difficulties, or you may have had a bad experience with the mental health system, or know someone else who has.

You may have read some persuasive antipsychiatry writings that introduce you to many troubling aspects of psychiatry. Perhaps you have a nagging feeling that, while you believe a lot of what you read, you’re not being told the entire truth. Or perhaps you’re here to defend antipsychiatry from another Big Pharma funded smear campaign trying to cover up the truth so as to ensure continued profits.

Most of all, you probably want to do the right thing to help yourself, a family member, or friend. You’ve probably got plenty of questions about what that right thing is, and not a lot of good answers.

You’re not going to find passionate cheerleading on behalf of psychiatry here. Psychiatry is far from perfect, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either delusional or trying to deliberately manipulate you. But the picture that antipsychiatrists paint goes to the other extreme.

To misappropriate the quote about democracy and government often attributed to Winston Churchill:

No one pretends that psychiatry is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that psychiatry is the worst practice for dealing with significant mental health concerns except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Those who have courageously shared their stories and experiences have helped bring to light issues that could have too easily remained hidden. I greatly support those who want to engage in serious discussions about psychiatry’s strengths and weaknesses, flaws and fixes, with the goal of making things better for people suffering from mental health issues.

But that isn’t what antipsychiatry is about. Antipsychiatry is a position that psychiatry is 100% flawed, has no redeeming features, is built on a stack of lies, necessarily does harm to all who encounter it, and must be abolished in its entirety. Moreover, the real proponents of antipsychiatry do not want to seriously engage in discussion with the broader community. They are not interested in critique, or divergent opinions, but only discouraging those seeking treatment, and attracting new followers to their movement.

To me, this all sounds a bit extreme. And while I’d seen some antipsychiatry Internet trolls with pretty extreme viewpoints, I was more surprised to see this from some fairly intelligent people, including a few journalists and university professors. That seemed odd to me, because someone saying “X is 100% flawed, false, and is of no benefit to anyone,” where “X” is any large, complex practice (e.g. capitalism, socialism, democracy, or as here, psychiatry) doesn’t seem the sort of thing intelligent people say, or at least not on a regular and consistent basis.

I was curious to know more. I’m sympathetic to people who may have criticisms of psychiatry, but this “all or nothing” stuff seemed way over the top. What was behind that? What were they really telling people? What kind of arguments were they trying to use to justify such an extreme perspective? And why?

Psychiatry and the Business of Madness

One of the people who’s published frequently in the area of antipsychiatry is Dr. Bonnie Burstow (BB), who has for the last 20+ years been working at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), part of the University of Toronto (UofT) in Canada; she’s currently an associate professor.

I first came across her work via a blog she writes for a left-wing website I frequent ( She’s written a number of substantial articles and books on antipsychiatry. As she’s in Canada, her work includes a good amount of material based on mental health in the Canadian system, which I’m more familiar with than the American one.

The impetus for starting this article came when I read about a new antipsychiatry scholarship at OISE. I was somewhat astonished that a generally respectable university was supporting an antipsychiatry scholarship. Again, it’s not the critique of psychiatry I find objectionable. Antipsychiatry appeared to me to reject critique of its own work, which seems out of place for a secular, Canadian university. To get a flavour of this, check out the comments, many by her students, to this article.

When I tried to ask more about aspects of her perspective, she suggested reading her recent book, whose full title is “Psychiatry and the Business of Madness: An Ethical and Epistemological Accounting” (PBM). This certainly sounds like a quite serious academic title, and at 300 pages, quite weighty (no comment on the latter, as I bought the ebook).

Like many such tomes in the antipsychiatry genre, it goes into considerable detail, providing well-referenced evidence and logical arguments, all making the case that psychiatry is in its entirety a lie, conspiracy, threat, and must be replaced. Sounds like some good light reading.

I would add that while to me PBM appears to be a good representative of antipsychiatry writings, contains many arguments and references commonly seen in such writings, and covers a broader range of topics than most, it doesn’t have any special status within the community (it’s not a “Boss text,” as BB would say).

Who am I and Why am I doing this?

To start with, I’m not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on the internet. Nor do I work for Big Psychiatry, Big Pharma, or Big Government, nor are any of them (or anyone else) paying me to do this. I have no special qualifications or insider status here (beyond, as will surely be pointed out, white male privilege).

My interest in psychiatry is twofold. First, I’ve had ongoing, mild-moderate problems with depression, and have been on psychiatric medications (via family doctors) for around 15 years. Second, my wife is a psychiatrist, and we’ve been together since she was in medical school, through her psychiatry residency, and about a dozen years of practicing in various clinical settings in Ontario, Alberta and BC. I’ve also helped her out with the administrative side of a couple of private practices she’s had, getting to know a lot of her patients, etc.

As a frequent internet user, I’ve read and commented on many things related to this interest in psychiatry and mental health. I’ve seen the good (and some bad) that psychiatry can do. I believe that antipsychiatrists denying mental illness exists, denying that psychiatry can in any way help, etc. and trying to scare people away from getting medical help for mental health problems is not only misdirected but incredibly dangerous.

I’m generally sympathetic to non-extreme activist movements, including those associated with environmental, human rights, and social justice causes. Yet, I think that social activists (or for that matter, practitioners of science) that eschew logic or evidence (from all perspectives) can be dangerous, crossing the line from activism to extremism.

Alice Dreger, a science historian writes eloquently about this in her book “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science.” It chronicles the vicious repercussions that can come when confronting either a highly invested scientific establishment or an intransigent activist group (a cautionary tale as I write this article!). One quote:

Science and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom… I have come to understand that the pursuit of evidence is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time. All of our work as scholars, activists, and citizens of democracy depends on it.

So yes, I’m coming into this with a distinct bias and point of view, which I think is important for readers to recognize. BB also is very open in PBM about her antipsychiatry activism, and extensive work with people who have had extremely negative experiences with psychiatry. She doesn’t try to pretend she’s going into her investigations as a neutral observer.

I’ll also add that I’m not big on conspiracy theories. I generally assume that most people within the antipsychiatry movement are doing what they’re doing because they truly think it’s the right thing to do to help people (or prevent further hurt). If overt persuasion is being consciously used, it’s in their minds to serve that larger purpose.

My academic background is actually in computer science, which beyond some foundational material in logic and proofs doesn’t seem to give me a whole lot of credibility when it comes to writing about this topic. As noted, I’m no expert when it comes to psychiatry, psychology or neurosciences.

Only slightly more relevant is that my undergrad minor was in philosophy (ethics, epistemology, existentialism, etc.) and my work in grad school was in a field that had techies intermix quite a lot with sociologists and anthropologists working on ethnographic studies of work practices. These are areas where I’ve continued to read “for fun” (my Kindle library is a bit eclectic), and also happen to be some of the methodological and intellectual foundations used by PBM.

I’ve also written and reviewed enough academic papers to know the difference between a sound and convincing argument and someone trying to pull a fast one.

There have been a number of critical responses and refutations of many antipsychiatry works, including of PBM. Most take the form of relatively short blog posts or book reviews. To be honest, most practitioners are too busy to devote time to even reading 300 pages from what they perceive as a lunatic fringe.

I wasn’t aware of anyone that had more thoroughly deconstructed the arguments and fallacies used in a substantial work of modern antipsychiatry. And I also still didn’t fully appreciate why antipsychiatry was so completely uncompromising in its stance.

So why take this on? It sounded like something intellectually interesting to work on, that I hope may actually help people. I hope it highlights the difference between constructive critique and extremism. I hope it encourages some people to think about psychiatry from multiple perspectives. And I hope it dulls some of the scaremongering that discourages too many people from considering helpful treatments.

Topics to be Addressed

This article is not going to be a review of every argument used by antipsychiatry, or every argument in PBM. For one thing, this is an unpaid side project and I definitely don’t have the time for a more comprehensive review or critique.

For another, I don’t have enough knowledge and familiarity with certain practices in psychiatry to be able to intelligently comment on them. So I will try to restrict myself to topics that I feel confident to be able to address. This includes both arguments from PBM that I feel are flawed, but also deficiencies in psychiatry, many raised in PBM, that appear to me to need serious improvement.

I will, however, be addressing some of the key arguments used in PBM to claim that psychiatry is 100% flawed. So while this will be far from complete, I think it touches on some (but not all) of the major, overarching issues.

Moving forward in this article, I’ll start by enumerating many of the topics in PBM that I agree with (and a few others). I think the work that psychiatric survivors and other movements have done in terms of bringing critical flaws and abuses in psychiatry to light is incredibly valuable. It is also a viewpoint that I wish was better integrated into a more honest, open discussion with psychiatry practitioners. This appears to be a point of departure with antipsychiatry.

The next section will argue that despite its rigorous, academic appearance, PBM is written with the primary goal of persuading, and not informing the reader. The form, style and content of the writing is designed to remove any doubts from the minds of readers about its claims. The overpowering use of selective, one-sided references primes the reader so that they are more likely to believe the more error-prone and hyperbolic arguments. And attracting fervent believers is exactly what this book is trying to accomplish.

The next several sections tackle a number of the key arguments, used in PBM to discredit psychiatry in its entirety. These include arguments about mental illness having no basis in reality and being arbitrarily created, that psychotropic medications are necessarily harmful, and the exaggerated reductionism expressed as biological psychiatry. I will outline the arguments used, and explain the errors and misrepresentations inherent in them. I will also delve briefly into the practical concerns around involuntary commitment and treatment and how it does (or does not) affect people today.

I will then turn to the preliminary solution to the psychiatry problem that PBM proposes. A lack of alternative solutions has long been a criticism of antipsychiatry, so it is notable that PBM offers one. However, as we explore the proposal, we will see that while explicitly utopian in nature, it rests on problematic and highly unlikely foundations. We will understand better, however, the reasoning behind antipsychiatry’s “all or nothing” approach.

An Invitation to the Reader

Unlike those in the antipsychiatry community, I would explicitly welcome comments, suggestions, corrections and criticisms of this article. I see it now as being in a preliminary form, and expect to revise it over time with your feedback.

Legalized Coercion

PBM, and antipsychiatry in general, chooses to focus most of its energy on involuntary (“forced”) inpatient psychiatric commitment and treatment, and how psychiatry is empowered by the state to lock up those who are “different.”

What they omit, however, is situating that mode of psychiatric care within the context of psychiatric care in general. Given the goal of discrediting psychiatry as a whole, it seems a curious oversight if they were trying to provide an accurate portrayal.

Acknowledging that this omission is actually being used for persuasive purposes, I assume that PBM is trying to leave the impression that most psychiatric care is (or will necessarily become, after you’ve been diagnosed) involuntary. The argument is made that everything associated with involuntary commitment and treatment is bad, though as we’ve seen elsewhere, what is actually backed up by evidence is the existence of multiple negative examples.

Even if it were true (which it isn’t), does that mean that psychiatry as a whole bears the sins of involuntary treatment? Logically it does not; that would be an example of the fallacy of composition.

Involuntary Admission

How about in practice? For how many people today will involuntary commitment be an issue at all? It’s hard to find good data here, but let’s try to break things down a bit. We know that the vast majority of psychiatric care (in the neighbourhood of 80%) is provided by family physicians, with somewhere between 30–70% of people never seeing anyone except their family doctor. So clearly, admission of any kind isn’t an issue for them.

Similarly, most people who go to an ER for mental health reasons aren’t admitted. And for a good proportion of people who see a psychiatrist at all, it will be for a one-time consult or a few short visits. Most psychiatric care is provided on a (voluntary) outpatient basis, rather than inpatient. And in terms of inpatient admissions, somewhere between 25-40% are involuntary.

In terms of involuntary admissions, they’re most prevalent for people with psychotic disorders (e.g. schizophrenia) or bipolar disorder (during either an acute manic or acute suicidal phase), much less so for unipolar depression (acute suicidality), and fairly rare for anxiety, personality disorders, etc.

Keep in mind also that the number of inpatient psychiatric beds continues to shrink (starting with the whole deinstitutionalization movement, but still continuing). We know that its more difficult for a patient to arrange a voluntary admission due to bed shortage; they typically need to be acutely suicidal. Similarly, people are discharged earlier than they have been previously (hence the “revolving door”).

For any given person then who seeks mental health care, what are the odds they will ever in their lifetime be involuntarily admitted and mistreated? Without the data, it’s hard to say, but based on the above rough analysis, for the vast majority of people who tend to be primarily diagnosed with a form of depression or anxiety, not very high.

Having said all that, one person who has their rights violated is one too many. But to imply that it’s almost a virtual certainty is plainly ridiculous.

Pathologizing the Atypical

Is the real goal of “inventing” mental illness, as PBM and antipsychiatrists often claim, to identify and punish societally unacceptable behaviour, to discourage the dissident or free-thinker?

It is certainly true that in the past, asylums were a convenient place for wealthy and powerful families to permanently relocate their more “embarrassing” relatives. Those days are, along with most of the asylums, long gone.

As just noted, involuntary treatment is one relatively small (but important) piece of psychiatry today. Being “different” or just having a psychiatric diagnosis, does not meet the threshold.

For the majority of people who are seen or treated, it is on a voluntary basis. As we’ve already discussed, to receive a diagnosis in the first place, it is not enough to be “different,” but that the symptoms demonstrate “clinically significant distress or impairment.”

And even if a diagnosis is given, the decision to agree to treatment (often choosing among several offered) is a matter of individual choice. As is the decision to later terminate treatment. Many people receive a diagnosis, yet decide the likely negative consequences of the treatment outweighs the likely benefits. Yet others will choose to look for non-pharmacological treatments, both those that might be recommended by psychiatrists (e.g. therapy, exercise, nutrition, meditation) and those that would not be (e.g. homeopathy). These are all rational decisions that most individuals are free to pursue.

For others, some perhaps who have tried some alternatives, realize the terrible cost that their symptoms are putting on their life, and feel that this outweighs the potential negative consequences of treatment. These are rational decisions, freely made.