previous post), I bought Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman (see eg. another previous post) because I intended to blog on it, but after reading it I initially thought I wouldn't bother (see Robert's blog post). Lieberman makes claims about brain abnormalities associated with mental illness, which need challenging. However, it's difficult to do so, because there are no references in the book, although there is a list of sources and additional reading at the end. I'm also not sure what has been untold about his story of psychiatry, because there doesn't seem to be much new in the book. Perhaps he thinks that what he calls anti-psychiatry has the dominant narrative in the history of psychiatry and he needs to replace it with his own.
Like Robert, what grated on me was the messianic nature of the book. Lieberman needs to be more circumspect about his claims for psychiatric treatment effectiveness. His tale of psychiatry, as he himself says, is of the "dramatic transformation from profession of shrinks to profession of pill-pushers". Although he is "under no illusion that the specters of psychiatry's past have vanished, or that my profession has freed itself from suspicion and scorn", he believes in the "mind-boggling effectiveness of medication". Steady on! He describes what he calls the "accidental discoveries of miracle medications". The introduction of psychiatric medications may well have been serendipitous but was it miraculous? When chlorpromazine was first introduced in state-funded mental institutions in America, as far as he is concerned, "the results were breathtaking". His enthusiasm for psychiatric medication extends to ECT. This is because he's seen "patients nearly comatose with depression joyfully bound off their cot within minutes of completing their ECT". As Robert Whitaker says, this is "a modern-day story of Jesus, curing the lame, who could now throw away their crutches and walk".
At the beginning of the book, Lieberman gives the history of a psychotic patient he calls Elena Conway, the daughter of a well-known celebrity. Three weeks treatment with risperidone, "a very effective antipsychotic medication", as far as he is concerned, and care in hospital led to a "dramatic improvement". The trouble is that he doesn't say what happened to Elena long-term, apart from suggesting that if she had carried on with aftercare treatment she would have had a "good recovery". Shouldn't we be told if she had a poor long-term outcome?
The combination of psychiatrists' belief in their treatments and patients' faith in psychiatrists may produce a powerful placebo remedy. Psychiatrists, like Lieberman, may be deluded into believing that their prescribing is having specific effects. Lieberman suggests that "instead of Daniel Amen's unproven claims for SPECT-based diagnosis of mental illness [see previous post], we will have scientifically proven methods of diagnosis [in the future] using brain-imaging procedures". But such simplistic and biologically reductionist accounts of mental illness are no different from those of Amen or some of the historical treatment excesses Lieberman describes in the book. Such faith and self-deception still sustains modern pharmacotherapy. The wish-fulfilling claims of modern psychiatry need to be shrunk to more realistic proportions.