Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that is based on denying the existence of mental illness, rejecting the efficacy of mainstream science-based treatment and demonizing medical doctors who specialize in psychiatry. The anti-psychiatry movement is very diverse and include individuals with very different views on economy and liberty and not all anti-psychiatry proponents agree with all three core beliefs.
Some creationists reject the notion of psychiatric conditions because they think that mental illness is a form of satanic contamination of an immaterial soul and scoff at mainstream treatments do not involve a scriptural perspective on original sin. Some people who embrace alternative medicine or new age belief systems think that depression is just a result of too much negative energy and that if they just think positively or take homeopathy, they will attract good things in life. Even some secular atheists have jumped on the anti-psychiatry train, either by shrieking about “reductionism” or buying into irrational and evidence-free conspiracy theories about how psychiatrists supposedly regularly kidnap, torture and murder their patients.
Robert Whitaker is an anti-psychiatry journalist and author who has written many articles and books arguing against mainstream psychiatry, including a paper in the bottom-of-the-barrel quack journal Medical Hypotheses that was not peer-reviewed at the time. His general approach is to mischaracterize how modern psychiatry looks at the causes of mental illness and spread misinformation about psychiatric medications by misusing old studies while ignoring their flaws and ignoring hundreds of studies that contradicts him.
E. Fuller Torrey is an American psychiatrist with a special research focus on schizophrenia. He runs Stanley Medical Research Institute and founded Treatment Advocacy Center. A while back Torrey wrote a scathing review of the latest anti-psychiatry book written by Whitaker. That review, called Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic: How Robert Whitaker Got It Wrong, will be discussed in additional detail in this post, because it is one of the best refutations of anti-psychiatry claims available on the Internet.
What did Whitaker get right?
Despite being one of the most prominent anti-psychiatry proponents and activists in the world and promoting a ton of pseudoscientific nonsense, Whitaker does get some things right.
Pharmaceutical companies sometimes behave unethically and they have been convicted of many improprieties, lapses and even criminal offenses. There are reasons to have a critical discussion of expanding diagnostic criteria and the excessive treatment of children with psychopharmaceuticals.
However, Whitaker succumbs to irrational pseudoscience and the abuse of real science in his zealous attack on psychiatry and medical doctors. Let us look at a couple of examples.
How Whitaker abuses several schizophrenia outcome studies
Like many proponents of pseudoscience, Whitaker just takes the studies that he thinks support his position, mangle them until they appear to confirm his claims and ignores the broader scientific literature.
Whitaker cites a 1994 schizophrenia outcome study and suggest that the outcomes for people with schizophrenia has gotten worse despite ample access to antipsychotic medication. What he fails to take into account is that the clinical definition of schizophrenia has changed several times over time and that this is not adjusted for in the study and the paper itself never claims that outcomes have worsened. In fact:
A similar fate hits Whitaker’s discussion of the WHO outcomes studies that compare industrial to a developing nations. Whitaker claims that the apparent better outcomes in the developing nations (where there is little use of antipsychotics) over the industrialized nations (where antipsychotics are wildly used) shows that antipsychotics do not help and in fact hinder improvement. What Whitaker fails to understand is that the WHO center in developing countries in the study included many people (in some studies as many as 50% of patients in the study) who did not have true schizophrenia, but rather acute reactive psychosis, which have better outcome than schizophrenia. Furthermore, newer and more robust studies have discredited this claim:
The WHO has also retracted and altered their original claim.
Why does Whitaker ignore individuals with untreated schizophrenia?
Whitaker spends a lot of time discussing and misusing scientific studies on people with schizophrenia who have not been treated with antipsychotics. But he forgets one crucial aspect, namely the outcomes of people today who live with schizophrenia without medication. Torrey delivers yet another powerful blow to Whitaker:
Let us take that one more time: at any given day, one million people with schizophrenia are not receiving treatment with medication. Despite the beliefs of Whitaker, they are not doing so good. Quite the opposite, they are living extremely impoverished lives. That we, as a society, cannot offer them housing and medical help is astonishingly disgusting. Contrary to Whitaker, we need to expand and develop mental health services, including housing, medical treatment, antipsychotics and psychotherapy wherever possible.
Why did millions of people have schizophrenia prior to the discovery of antipsychotics?
Whitaker believes that schizophrenia is caused by antipsychotic medications. However, there have been millions of people with schizophrenia before the discovery of antipsychotics starting in the 1950s, so this effectively disproves the core premise of Whitaker’s anti-psychiatry nonsense. Here is how Torrey puts it:
So despite a weak attempt to explain those millions of people with schizophrenia before antipsychotics were ever used clinically, the pseudoscientific narrative of Whitaker ultimately goes down in flames. Antipsychotics are not the cause of schizophrenia and this is perhaps the ultimate coup de grâce of anti-psychiatry.
This critical review written by Torrey covers many more examples where Whitaker distorts and mischaracterizes psychological research on schizophrenia and is well worth a read for anyone interested in the dangers of anti-psychiatry. A cached version of this review is also available here.