Sunday, October 02, 2016

Psychiatry as a cultural system

Gary Sidley expresses his frustration in a blog recently reposted on Mad in America that it "seems unrealistic – even na├»ve – to expect that radical change away from bio-medical approaches to human suffering can be achieved organically". Nonetheless, he remains "optimistic that, in the next decade or so, we will witness a radical change in the way we as a society respond to human suffering" (see recent post on Tales from the Madhouse).

I do understand his frustration and I think we may need to understand better why there is such reluctance for psychiatry to change. To do this, it may be helpful to look at the work of Clifford Geertz, who I have mentioned before (see previous post). Geertz saw religion as a cultural system (see his paper). In the same way, psychiatry can also be understood as a cultural system. 

The biomedical model that mental illness is brain disease is both a model of "reality" and for "reality", to use Geertz's terms. Note the use or the word "reality" in inverted commas. A model does not necessarily describe the real world, which is what critical psychiatry would say about the biomedical model, that it does not. The biomedical model is a model for "reality" because it justifies treatments such as physical interventions, including medication.

The biomedical model gives a sense of direction to psychiatry. It induces certain dispositions in psychiatrists to treat people in a particular way. It provides a worldview, which if psychiatrists did not believe it would make their practice uncertain, too uncertain for most. To quote from Geertz, "Man depends upon symbols and symbol systems with a dependence so great as to be decisive for his creatural viability and, as a result, his sensitivity to even the remotest indication that they may prove unable to cope with one or another aspect of experience raises within him the gravest sort of anxiety". The biomedical assumption is clothed with an aura of factuality by people having faith in it. It is sustained by professional institutions. 

Viewed in this way, it's not surprising that people don't want to give up the biomedical model. To do so is like giving up one's religion.


Mark p.s.2 said...

Giving up a Religion? NO I would say giving up a privilege. Like the idea of WHITE and BLACK people. Racist WHITE people would use their power to own and control the BLACK slave.
Or a legal DRUG dealer would not want to give up dealing drugs his clients need.

Anonymous said...

Both Sidley and you are human rights abusers who should hang your heads in shame. You both disgust me. Your analysis is sophomoric.

Anonymous said...

Ridicule and shaming? What about discussing your point of contention instead?

Deirdre Oliver said...

You're describing cognitive dissonance - surely we can expect those entrusted with understanding the psychological difficulties of others to understand their own. The 3 core values essential in the `helping' professions, insight, humility and empathy. Where are they in psychiatry as we know it? Also religion traditionally excuses all kinds of persecution in order to maintain its power base including destroying those who don't believe. This is psychiatry today.