Psychiatric Huffing and Puffing

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For awhile now I’ve been aware of the ongoing dispute between mainline psychiatry and what is disparagingly referred to as the “anti-psychiatry” movement instead of the critical psychiatry movement.  Over time I have come to identify with the “anti-psychiatric” types. The term sets up a false dichotomy, implying you can only be “for” or “against” psychiatry. Critiques of psychiatric diagnosis or the use of psychiatric medications are regularly dismissed out-of-hand by mainline psychiatry. One of the ongoing dialogues of dispute occurs between the author and journalist Robert Whitaker and the eminent psychiatrist Ronald Pies.

Robert Whitaker is the author of three books that relentlessly drive their readers to question the narrative for mental illness and psychiatry verbalized by mainline psychiatrists like Ronald Pies. These books are: Mad in America, Anatomy of an Epidemic and Psychiatry Under the Influence.  His articles on the mentally ill and the drug industry have won several awards. A series he wrote for The Boston Globe was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1998. Anatomy was the 2010 winner for best investigative journalism by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Mad in America is also the name of a nonprofit organization and webzine, madinamerica.com, whose mission is “to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care in the United States (and abroad).”

Ronald Pies is a noted psychiatrist, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University and SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse NY. He is also Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times. A bit of a Renaissance man, he’s published poetry: The Heart Broken Open, a novel: The Director of the Minor Tragedies, nonfiction: Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone, as well as psychiatry: Psychiatry on the Edge, Handbook of Essential Psychopharmacology and psychotherapy: The Judaic Foundations of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.  He has authored or coauthored several other books as well.

Whitaker and Mad in America authors have disagreed with Pies on several issues. For example, they disagreed on whether psychiatrists widely promoted the chemical imbalance theory (see “Psychiatry DID Promote the Chemical Imbalance Theory” and “My Response to Dr. Pies” on madinamerica.com); or whether the long-term use of antipsychotics is helpful (see “Dr. Pies and Dr. Frances Make a Compelling Case that Their Profession is Doing Great Harm on madinamerica.com).

Into this mix Pies has written three articles for Psychiatric Times: “Is There Really an ‘Epidemic’ of Psychiatric Illness in the US?,” “The Bogus ‘Epidemic’ of Mental Illness in the US” and “The Astonishing Non-Epidemic of Mental Illness.” He’s clearly playing off of Whitaker’s book: Anatomy of an Epidemic. In his third article, “The Astonishing Non-Epidemic of Mental Illness,” Pies said that the epidemic of mental illness narrative is (with a few qualifications) “mostly fear-mongering drivel.” It sells books and makes for good online chatter, but “The so-called epidemic of mental illness among adults in the US proves largely illusory.”

He did some rhetorical sleight-of-hand, stating that by pulling out the bottom card of the epidemic narrative, the entire house of cards of the anti-psychiatry movement would collapse. In order to do this, he first quoted what he said was the CDC definition of epidemic: “ . . . an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area . . .” Pies then said the CDC definition of epidemic applied to actual cases of disease; not to changing rates of diagnosis, which are subject to many socio-cultural variables. The distinction was critical,

Since psychiatry’s critics do not claim merely that there is more diagnosis of schizophrenia or major depression; rather, they claim there are actually more people sick with these illnesses, owing to misguided or harmful psychiatric treatment.

Remember that in psychiatric diagnosis, there are relatively few diagnoses that can be confirmed by medical tests. The vast majority of psychiatric disorders are assessed by a diagnostic process alone. If you demonstrate to a clinician that you meet the diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric disorder, you are treated as if you actually have the disorder. So Pies seems to be splitting hairs with his distinction between actual cases and diagnoses. And I don’t think he really hasn’t made as telling a point as he thought.

It would seem he is suggesting that psychiatric diagnostic rates for a disorder are overstated from the actual cases because of the influence of socio-cultural variables.  Yet how can you distinguish the actual cases from the false positives due to socio-culturally influenced diagnosis? The same diagnostic criteria are used. Is there an unstated assumption that diagnostic inflation is due to factors beyond psychiatry? Namely, that if a trained psychiatrist follows the structured clinical interview process, only actual cases of a psychiatric disorder will be identified?

Pies also said the “epidemic” claim was largely based on the increasing US rates of psychiatric disability over the past 50 years. Here he cited an article by Whitaker without mentioning Whitaker’s name. He dismissed the validity of using disability determinations, saying they cannot be used as “a legitimate index of disease incidence or prevalence.” He then shifts the focus to affirm there is a growing population of “persons with serious psychiatric illness who are not receiving adequate treatment.” Here he named two well-known psychiatrists who have written of their concerns with the “epidemic” of neglect with our most severely impaired citizens. But one of the persons he mentioned, Dr. Fuller Torrey, wrote The Invisible Plague about the rise of mental illness from 1750 to the present.

In the Introduction to The Invisible Plague Torrey described what he saw as “the epidemic of insanity.”  He said a major impediment to understanding the epidemic of insanity was that its onset occurred over so many years. Few people fully appreciated what was happening. “Those who did raise an alarm were largely ignored.” He said the suggestion today that we are living in the midst of an epidemic of insanity strikes most people as unbelievable.

Insanity is an invisible plague. There are no body counts with which one can compare the present with the past. In most countries, there are remarkably few statistics that can be used to assess insanity’s prevalence over time. Professional textbooks assume that insanity has always been present in approximately the same numbers as now.

Fuller Torrey is a believer in insanity as an epidemic of brain dysfunction. And he blames the likes of Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz, Ronald Laing and others for emptying the insane asylums that have been “the mainstay for containing the epidemic for a century and a half,” without insuring these individuals received the treatment needed to control the symptoms of their illness.

When looking at the costs of this epidemic, Torrey said the combined costs in 1991 for the US were $110 billion. “And this included the single largest disease category for federal payments under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programs.” So in quantifying the cost of the epidemic of insanity, Torrey used the same statistic to make his point that Whitaker did. Pies either didn’t realize this, or ignored it in his critique of Whitaker. I wonder if Pies sees what Torrey said as fear-mongering drivel or one of the few qualifications?

Pies dismissively cited two articles written by Marcia Angell for The New York Review of Books in 2011 (“The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” and “The Illusions of Psychiatry”) in all three of his articles as an example of the promotion of the false narrative of “the raging epidemic of mental illness.” Her articles discussed three books and their implications for psychiatry: The Emperor’s New Drugs, Anatomy of an Epidemic, and Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry. Angell’s review of Whitaker’s book drew it to the attention of a wide audience; so it seems this may be at least partly why Pies is dismissive of it.

However, read her articles. They will give you a thumbnail sketch of issues Pies goes to great lengths to deny and minimize. Then read the books she discusses. Remember that Marcia Angell is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School and was the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Don’t be dismissive of what she has to say; she has great credibility.

There is one final point to be made with regard to Pies’ third article. In the conclusion, he references Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “paradigm,” saying it is misleading and unfair to suggest that psychiatry is laboring under a “failed paradigm.” This was, he said, because “there is no one paradigm the defines all of psychiatry or that dictates practice on the part of all psychiatrists.” But I wonder if he truly understood the implications to his comment. If you apply Kuhn’s notion of paradigm (“a paradigm is what members of a scientific community share”) with Pies’ application of the term to psychiatry, then you would have to conclude that psychiatry as it’s practiced, is NOT a science. Rather, it would either be what Kuhn called a “pseudoscience” or pre-scientific. He also seems to be oblivious to the possibility of an implicit paradigm generated in psychiatric practice with DSM diagnosis—that it classifies a real “illness” or “disease” of the brain.

I’m reminded of what Robert Whitaker pointed out in his review of Jeffrey Lieberman’s book Shrinks, “The Untold Story of Psychiatry.” Whitaker noted how speeches given by the presidents of the American Psychiatric Association at their annual meetings regularly sounded the same theme: “Psychiatrists are true heroes.” He said it struck him that Shrinks served as an institutional self-portrait of psychiatry. “What you hear in this book [Shrinks] is the story that the APA and its leaders have been telling to themselves for some time.” Similarly, it seems Pies is preaching to the psychiatric choir—a message that there really isn’t an epidemic increase in mental illness; the argument of the anti-psychiatry movement is just a house of cards. Yet it seems to me that house is still standing despite the huffing and puffing of Pies and others.


Psychiatry, Diagnose Thyself! Part 1

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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.


A Censored Story of Psychiatry, Part 2

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I was taken aback by Lieberman’s tone in describing Rosenhan as scornfully observing that no staff raised an issue of the apparent sanity of the pseudopatients in his famous study: “Being Sane in Insane Places.” Lieberman then said Rosenhan “saw another opportunity to inflict damage on psychiatry’s crumbling credibility.” Actually, a research and teaching hospital had been vocally saying that they doubted that such an error could occur in their hospital. So Rosenhan approached them and proposed that over a three month time period (not a year, as Lieberman claimed in what he indicated was a direct quote), “one or more pseudopatients would attempt to be admitted into the psychiatric hospital.” Here is what Lieberman wrote concerning what Rosenhan did:

He approached a large prestigious teaching hospital that had been especially vocal in contesting Rosenhan’s finding with a new challenge: “Over the coming year, I will send in another round of imposters to your hospital. You try to detect them, knowing full well that they will be coming, and at the end of the year we will see how many you catch.”

Rosenhan reported that the hospital staff members rated each patient on the likelihood of being a pseudopatient. Judgments were obtained on 193 patients admitted for psychiatric treatment. All staff members that had contact with the patients were asked to make judgments. Forty-one admissions were judged with high confidence to be pseudopatients. “Twenty-three were considered suspect by at least one psychiatrist. Nineteen were suspected by one psychiatrist and one other staff member.” Rosenhan then said: “Actually, no genuine pseudopatient (at least from my group) presented himself during this period.” Rosenhan encapsulated the question raised by his study in the provocative opening sentence of his article: “If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?”

Psychiatry was at a crucial time of its history in 1973. Rosenhan’s article was published in January of 1973. Lieberman reported that the Board of Trustees for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) called an emergency conference in February of 1973 “to consider how to address the crisis and counter the rampant criticism.” He said that the Board realized that the best way to counter the “tidal wave of reproof” was to produce a fundamental change in how mental illness was “conceptualized and diagnosed.” They authorized the creation of a third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM.

The APA eventually appointed Robert Spitzer to chair the revision process of the DSM-III, which was a radical change in how psychiatric diagnosis was done and how mental illness was conceptualized. As Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove reported in Psychiatry Under the Influence, the DSM-III was an instant success. “In the first six months following its publication, the APA sold more copies of its new manual than it had previously sold of its two prior DSM editions combined.” The DSM was adopted by insurance companies, the courts, governmental agencies, colleges and universities. It structured discussion in psychology textbooks. It was required to do research in the U.S. and eventually abroad as well. “DSM III became psychiatry’s new ‘Bible’ throughout much of the world.” Lieberman claimed:

The DSM-III turned psychiatry away from the task of curing social ills and refocused it on the medical treatment of severe mental illnesses. Spitzer’s diagnostic criteria could be used with impressive reliability by any psychiatrist from Wichita to Walla Walla.

What’s missing from this triumphal rhetoric is the battle waged by Spitzer against Rosenhan’s study and its implications as he and others worked to revise psychiatric diagnosis—and its reliability problems. In the 1980 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child [& Adolescent] Psychiatry, Michael Rutter and David Shaffer, both academic psychiatrists, were critical of the published reports of reliability studies done of the DSM-III field trials. Referring to two 1979 published reports by Spitzer, they commented that while the studies were useful, “as pieces of research they leave much to be desired.”

Both reports concern the reliability study which involved clinicians “from Maine to Hawaii.” Unfortunately this impression of spread is largely spurious in that the reliability concerned agreements only between close colleagues (each clinician chose his own partner in the study). . . . Of course, we are acutely aware of the difficulties involved in such field studies and it may well be that this was the best that could be done within the time and resources available. However, the findings do little to provide a scientific basis for DSM-III.

Note how Rutter and Shaffer’s comments about: “clinicians from Maine to Hawaii” applies equally to Lieberman’s rhetoric on: “any psychiatrist from Wichita to Walla Walla.” Both Psychiatry Under the Influence and The Selling of DSM have more comprehensive critiques of the claimed success in conquering reliability and validity problems with psychiatric diagnosis. But Lieberman’s “uncensored history” of psychiatry in Shrinks is completely silent on this well documented dispute. Ironically, in the same issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, Spitzer and Cantwell described how the DSM-III was “considerably more inclusive and more comprehensive,” than its predecessor, the DSM-II.

In a disclaimer paragraph on the page before the Shrinks Table of Contents, Lieberman said that bucking the convention in academics of using ellipses or brackets in quotations, he avoided them. “So as to not interrupt the narrative flow of the story.” But he assured us that he made sure that any extra or missing words did not change the original meaning of the speaker or the writer. So he did not use an author-date reference system that included endnotes with references and page numbers for the quotes he cited. But he did say the sources of the quotes are all listed in the Sources and Additional Reading section. And if you wanted to see the original versions of the quotations, they were available at: www.jeffreyliebermanmd.com. When I checked the website at the end of July 2015, they were not available for download or viewing on any page.

As I think I’ve demonstrated, Dr. Lieberman made some very specific claims about David Rosenhan’s professional background and expertise that were false. His presentation of the famous Rosenhan study appeared to be distinctly biased and inaccurate in places. He presented as a quote of David Rosenhan something that he did not say in “Being Sane in Insane Places.” Was it a quote from another source, perhaps someone else claiming the quoted material as what Rosenhan said? We don’t know and cannot know because Lieberman didn’t use conventional citations in presenting his storyline for Shrinks. He was tellingly silent on issues such as questions about the reliability of DSM-III diagnoses from the time of its publication.

Because of these and other problems with his version of psychiatric history, I did not find that Shrinks was “the uncensored story of how we [psychiatry] overcame our dubious past.” If anything, its dubiousness seems to be continuing into the present. But you won’t hear about those issues in Shrinks.

If you are interested in alternative views of psychiatric history, ones with endnotes and footnotes, I suggest you read Mad in America or Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker; Psychiatry Under the Influence, by Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove; or The Mad Among Us by Gerald Grob. Chapter two of Psychiatry Under the Influence, “Psychiatry Adopts a Disease Model,” gives a significantly more nuanced survey of psychiatric diagnostic history than Shrinks. Whitaker and Cosgrove’s use of the idea of guild interests of psychiatry was very helpful to me in putting Shrinks into perspective.

Be forewarned that Whitaker is not one of Lieberman’s favorite people. In a radio interview promoting his new book Shrinks, Dr Lieberman said that Whitaker was a “menace to society because he’s basically fomenting misinformation and misunderstanding about mental illness and the nature of treatment.” Here is a link to where this was reported on Whitaker’s website, Mad in America. There is also a link there to the original radio interview. Look around at the other material on the site, including further responses by Whitaker and others on Dr. Lieberman’s remarks.


A Censored Story of Psychiatry, Part 1

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© alexskopje | 123rf.com

Doctor Jeffrey Lieberman, the Chair of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a former president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), recently wrote a book, Shrinks. It purports to tell the true story of how psychiatry grew from a pseudoscience into “a science-driven profession that saves lives.” But for me, it reads more like a piece of APA propaganda. What follows is an illustration of why I believe Shrinks is not a credible historical account of the history of psychiatry.

In his Introduction, Dr. Lieberman wrote: “As I write this, psychiatry is finally taking its rightful place in the medical community after a long sojourn in the scientific wilderness.” He added that psychiatry has earned much of its “pervasive stigma.”

There’s good reason that so many people will do everything they can to avoid seeing a psychiatrist. I believe that the only way psychiatrists can demonstrate just how far we have hoisted ourselves from the murk is to first own up to our long history of missteps and share the uncensored story of how we overcame our dubious past.

He said that modern psychiatrist now possesses the tools (medications?) to lead anyone “out of a maze of mental chaos into a place of clarity, care and recovery.” He said he is fortunate to be living through the time in history when psychiatry matured from “a psychoanalytic cult of shrinks into a scientific medicine of the brain.” But in concluding his book, he said he was under no illusion that “the specters of psychiatry’s past have vanished,” or that psychiatry has “freed itself from suspicion and scorn.” Notice the implication that any current suspicion or scorn of psychiatry is illegitimate, as its missteps are in the past.

Lieberman is aware that others disagree with his sense how psychiatry has become “a scientific medicine of the brain.” Again in his Introduction, he said: “The profession to which I have dedicated my life remains the most distrusted, feared, and denigrated of all medical specialties.” He then quoted from some of the rude and abusive emails he’s received. His comment was that such skeptics don’t look to psychiatry to help solve mental health problems. Rather, they see psychiatry itself as a mental health problem. While not explicitly using the term at this point, Lieberman does seem to be referring to what he calls the “antipsychiatry” movement.

This is a term that has been applied to individuals critical of some aspect psychiatry, or even psychiatry as an institution, since the 1960s. And Lieberman touched on and dismissed many of the historically big names tied to “antipsychiatry”: Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, and David Rosenhan. Here, I want to look at Lieberman’s portrayal of Rosenhan and give you an alternate perspective to his to illustrate why I see Shrinks as APA propaganda.

In an aside, Lieberman seems to have neglected to mention Dr. E. F. Torrey’s 1974 contribution to the antipsychiatry movement, The Death of Psychiatry. Torrey maintained that most of the so-called mentally ill are suffering from problems in social adaptation, not from diseases of the mind. He would later become affiliated with The Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI), where he is now an Associate Director. SMRI has spent over $550 million researching “brain diseases” like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder since it began in 1989. It seems Torrey changed his tune. Perhaps that’s why his antipsychiatry work wasn’t mentioned. Lieberman also cited Torrey as providing anecdotal evidence (no references or footnotes) that both Laing and Szasz eventually believed that schizophrenia was a brain disease, but would not sat so publically.

In chapter three of Shrinks, Lieberman described the impact of the classic 1973 study done by David Rosenhan, “Being Sane in Insane Places.” Another copy of the article is available here on a link from Harvard University. Lieberman gave an inaccurate and unfair gloss of Rosenhan as “a little-known Stanford-trained lawyer who had recently obtained a psychology degree but lacked any clinical experience.” As a matter of fact, David Rosenhan had a BA in mathematics from Yeshiva College (1951), an MA in economics (1953) and a PhD in psychology (1958), from Columbia University—the same academic institution to which Lieberman would become affiliated in his own professional career.

In addition, Rosenhan was a psychologist for the Counseling Center at the Stevens Institute of technology from 1954 to 1956; a lecturer at Hunter College and the director of research in the Department of Psychiatry at City Hospital at Elmhurst from 1958 to 1960. He was an assistant professor for the Departments of Psychology and Sociology at Haverford College from 1960 to 1962; a lecturer for the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania from 1961 to 1964; a lecturer for the Department of Psychology at Princeton University from 1964 to 1968; a professor in the Department of Psychology and Education at Swarthmore College from 1968 to 1970; and a visiting professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University from 1970-1971. He was a professor of law and psychiatry at Stanford from 1971. The above biographical information on David Rosenhan was taken from a February 16, 2012 article from the Stanford Law School News announcing his death at 82 years old.

This information was readily available to anyone interested enough in David Rosenhan to do a simple online search. It certainly doesn’t agree with Lieberman’s dismissal of Rosenhan’s credibility. Here’s what David Rosenhan did in his study. He had eight “pseudopatients” (individuals with no history of serious psychiatric disorders) seek admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals. They complained of hearing voices say “empty,” “hollow,” and “thump.” They were all admitted to the various hospitals. The eight pseudopatients consisted of a psychology graduate student in his 20s, three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter and a housewife. Rosenhan was one of the three psychologists. Three pseudopatients were women and five were men.

Once admitted to the hospital, they stopped simulating any symptoms of abnormality and waited to see how long it took before they were released. Their length of stay at the hospitals ranged from 7 to 52 days, with an average of 19 days. None of the pseudopatients were indentified as such by hospital staff members. However, it was quite common for the patients to uncover the pseudopatients. Other patients in the hospitals were reported as saying things such as: “You’re not crazy. You’re a journalist, or a professor [referring to the continual notetaking]. You’re checking up on the hospital.” Rosenhan commented: “The fact that the patients often recognized normality when staff did not raises important questions.”

Lieberman said that claim was debatable, “since many nurses did record that the pseudopatients were behaving normally.” Actually, Lieberman’s comment is itself debateable. If nursing staff recognized the pseudopatients as normal, why was the average length of stay 19 days? If nursing staff recorded impressions that particular pseudopatients were behaving normally, it seems their observations were ignored or failed to result in speedy identification and release. Seven of the eight were admitted with diagnoses of schizophrenia and their discharge diagnoses were schizophrenia “in remission.”

What Rosenhan actually said was that the pseudopatients were to secure their own release from the hospital by convincing staff that they were sane. The psychological stressors associated with hospitalization were considerable and as a result, the pseudopatients were motivated to be discharged “almost immediately after being admitted.”

They were, therefore, motivated not only to behave sanely, but to be paragons of cooperation. That their behavior was in no way disruptive is confirmed by nursing reports, which have been obtained on most of the patients. These reports uniformly indicate that the patients were “friendly,” “cooperative,” and “exhibited no abnormal indications.”

Rosenhan’s study and its opening question, “If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?” remains today a powerful question of the legitimacy of psychiatric diagnosis. He noted how most mental health professionals would insist they are sympathetic toward the mentally ill. But it is more likely that “an exquisite ambivalence” characterizes their relationships with psychiatric patients. The mentally ill, said Rosenhan, are society’s current lepers. Negative attitudes are the natural offspring of the labels patients wear.

A psychiatric label has a life and influence of its own. Once the impression has been formed that the patient is schizophrenic, the expectation is that he will continue to be szhizophrenic. When a sufficient amount of time has passed, during which the patient has done nothing bizarre, he is considered to be in remission and available for discharge. But the label endures beyond discharge. . . . Such labels, conferred by mental health professionals, are as influential on the patients as they are on his relatives and friends, and it should not surprise anyone that the diagnosis acts on all of them as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Psychiatry had a guild interest at the time for revising psychiatric diagnosis. Citing an article by M. Wilson in their book, Psychiatry Under the Influence, Whitaker and Cosgrove noted where APA leaders felt psychiatry was under siege and worried that it could be headed for extinction.

Psychiatry in the 1970s faced a crisis of legitimacy and Rosenhan was one of its opponents who intensified the crisis.  Although the publication of the DSM-III would become an answer to that crisis, Rosenhan’s study threatened to discredit psychiatry before that makeover could be accomplished—to recast psychiatry as “a science-driven profession that saves lives.” The censored history of psychiatry presented by Lieberman attempts to present “an extreme makeover” of a profession that may still be more “pseudo” than science. Whitaker and Cosgrove’s comment seems to hit the mark:

Remaking psychiatric diagnoses could be part of a larger effort by psychiatry to put forth a new image, which metaphorically speaking, would emphasize that psychiatrists were doctors, and that they treat real ‘diseases.’