Wow. I can hardly believe he said the things he did. Dr. Jeffery Lieberman, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association and the Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, took umbrage at an op-ed article written in The New York Times on January 17, 2015 by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann, “Redefining Mental Illness.” Luhrmann referred in her article to a report by the British Psychological Society, “Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia,” that suggested interpreting paranoid feelings and hearing voices as symptoms of mental illness was only one way of thinking about them. She indicated the report said antipsychotic medications were sometimes helpful, but “there is no evidence that it corrects an underlying biological abnormality.” It went on to warn about the risks of taking these medications over the long term.
In a Medscape video “What Does The New York Times Have Against Psychiatry?” Lieberman referred to the NYT publication of her article as “journalistic opportunism.” He chided the editors for thinking that “providing a platform for this would be useful.” With regard to Luhrmann, he cited the title of her books, whose subject areas dealt with religion and God, witches, and psychiatry. Yes, they were eclectic topics, but how does that then lead him to this comment:
The equating of psychiatry with these other topics suggests that she thinks of psychiatry not as a hard science but as something that is either a philosophical or religious discipline, has a supernatural or religious dimension, or is in the realm of the supernatural.
I’ve read two of her books, Of Two Minds and When God Talks Back, and for the life of me I cannot follow how he can make that connection. There was not association of psychiatry with witchcraft or religion on Luhrmann’s part in her NYT article; I can only conclude the association was somehow in Lieberman’s mind, not Luhrmann’s article.
But she did comment how there was plenty of scientific evidence for the report’s claims. She then had the audacity to mention that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) announced in 2013 that it would no longer pursue diagnosis-driven research. Under a program called Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), all research would begin from a matrix of “functional dimensions, grouped into broad domains such as cognition and reward-related systems.” One example she gave from the RDoC site was how psychiatric researchers would no longer study people with anxiety. Rather they would study fear circuitry.
Lieberman went on to name some additional publications by Lurhmann, and said: “This hearkens back to the days when psychiatry had only fanciful theories about the mind and what caused mental illness in people.” Thankfully, he said we are well past that. Articles like Luhrmann’s, according to Lieberman, are a throwback to the days of ignorance and fear; and they spread stigma.
Why would The New York Times do this? It is very disturbing that we still live in an age when the stigma of mental illness and the lack of interest in trying to present medical science as it deserves and needs to be for an informed public, is still preyed upon by this kind of journalistic opportunism.
Then Lieberman was interviewed on CBC radio podcast, “The Sunday Edition” on April 26, 2015. He was there to promote his new book, Shrinks, a history of psychiatry for the general public. After playing an excerpt of an interview he did over a year ago with Robert Whitaker, the host asked Lieberman to comment on what Whitaker had said in the excerpt. Lieberman said: “What he says is preposterous. He’s a menace to society because he’s basically fomenting misinformation and misunderstanding about mental illness and the nature of treatment.”
But he wasn’t finished. Lieberman went on to say how Whitaker “ostensibly considers himself to have been a journalist.” Whitaker has won awards for his journalism and was even a finalist for a Pulitzer in Public Service. But Lieberman lamented: “God help the publication that employed him.” Lieberman also thought Whitaker’s comments that some unmedicated patients did better than medicated ones were absolutely wrong. If you did a randomized, controlled study of any of the various psychiatric illnesses, using whatever is state of the art in psychiatry, including medication, Lieberman said: “the outcomes will be extraordinarily superior in the treated group.”
This led to “A Challenge to Dr. Lieberman” by Whitaker on his website for Lieberman to provide a list of randomized studies that show how medicated patients have a much better long-term outcome than unmedicated patients. He noted how he had posted the abstracts of the studies he cited in his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic on his website, madinamerica.com. “So here is you chance to point to the studies I left out.”
1 Boring Old Man commented on this outburst by Dr. Lieberman and Whitaker’s reply, observing how Lieberman sees himself as the spokesman and champion for “Psychiatry.” His article also described the Lieberman rant against Lurhmann and also cited several articles written by Lieberman over the past few years with the same theme. I’d just finished reading Lieberman’s book and was struck in reading 1 Boring Old Man’s article by how it seemed Lieberman was casting himself in a role similar to the one he gave Robert Spitzer in Shrinks. Spitzer was portrayed there as an unlikely hero and a psychiatric revolutionary who, in effect, saved psychiatry from imploding during the 1970s. Psychiatry today seems to be in similar situation, with questions being raised about the current validity and reliability of DSM diagnosis, and the credibility of psychiatry itself.
So if Lieberman sees himself as a modern psychiatric hero, then Robert Whitaker would be a natural pick by Lieberman as an antipsychiatry foil, replacing David Rosenhan, who was a “foe” of psychiatry in the 1970s. In Shrinks, Lieberman discussed the controversies over the DSM-5, saying the APA hadn’t experienced that kind of public pressure since the early 1970s, “when the Rosenhan study, the homosexual controversy, and the antipsychiatry movement compelled the APA to move away from psychoanalysis and endorse a radically new paradigm for psychiatric diagnosis. See “A Censored Story of Psychiatry, Part 1, Part 2” and “The Quest for Psychiatric Dragons, Part 1, Part 2” for more on Spitzer, Rosenhan and these issues.
In his role as a “foe of psychiatry,” Whitaker has published three well-received books by both the general public and individuals within the mental health profession that are critical of the current state of psychiatry and mental healthcare. His most recent book, Psychiatry Under the Influence, was just released on April 23, 2015.
So we have these successive actions: Lurhmann’s article published in the NYT on January 17th. Three days later Lieberman recorded his Medscape response, which was published online on February 18, 2015. The release date for Lieberman’s book, Shrinks, was on March 10, 2015. Whitaker’s review of Shrinks appeared on his website, Mad in America on March 19th. The release date for Whitaker’s book, Psychiatry Under the Influence, was on April 23rd. Lieberman’s CBC interview was on April 26, 2015. Whitaker’s invitation to Lieberman was on April 26th as well.
I don’t think he’ll take Whitaker up on his challenge. He can’t. The science doesn’t support his position. Go to madinamerica.com and read through the abstracts mentioned above by Whitaker to confirm this. But why would one of the top psychiatrists of our time write and say such obvious drivel?
It’s all PR. In his review of Shrinks, Whitaker noted how Shrinks doesn’t tell a previously unknown tale. Rather, it “relates a story that the American Psychiatric Association has been telling the American public ever since it published DSM III in 1980.” Whitaker and Cosgrove noted in Psychiatry Under the Influence that by adopting a disease model and insisting psychiatric disorders were discrete illnesses in the 1970s, the APA simultaneously responded to its antipsychiatry critics and addressed its image problem by presenting itself to the public as a medical specialty. “Metaphorically speaking, psychiatry had donned a white coat.” Whitaker pointed out in his review how Lieberman wore a doctor’s white coat for a promotional video he did on YouTube, where he discusses his book. I noticed that he did the same thing for his Medscape video critique of Lurhmann and the NYT.
Whitaker said Shrinks provided a revealing self-portrait of psychiatry as an institution. Lieberman repeats the same story the APA has been telling the public since the publication of the DSM-III. “And it is this narrative, quite unmoored from science and history, that drives our societal understanding of mental disorders and how best to treat them.” He observed that Lieberman diagnosed the Freudians as extravagant, grandiose and having irrational faith in its world-changing powers. The same symptoms seemed to be present in Shrinks.