Psychiatric Name Calling: Is it Helpful?
Today I offer a follow-up to my earlier post titled “Name Calling by Psychiatrists: Is it Time to Put a Stop to it?” Among the points that I had tried to make is that psychiatrists falsely claim that the names they use to describe patients are “diagnoses.” In actuality, all that they do is convert someone’s expressed concerns into medical jargon.
I received a great deal of positive and negative comments about the post from readers, but my focus today is on the negative ones. Most of them argue that in contrast to my position, they had personally found their psychiatric diagnosis very helpful.
Those who Found the Psychiatric Pathologizing Helpful
I just finished an excellent book on this topic by Lucy Johnstone titled, A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis. There we find several quotes from people who received a so-called diagnosis from psychiatrists and spoke of its positive personal impact. For example, some felt that it provided relief at knowing “what was wrong.”
I had something that I could firmly grasp, and, you know, I could find out more and try to resolve it…[I] felt relief that this whole jungle was going to be sorted out.
Another person wrote,
It gave me the comfort of explanation…. When I was told I was depressed it gave me a framework of understanding and a first grip on what was happening.
Some felt that it gave them hope for treatment and support.
Illness meant treatment and the possibility of cure.
Acceptance of my illness was a turning point…. By accepting treatment I could actively seek the right medication, access support, and turn my life around.
I think I prefer my illness having a name because it makes me feel less lonely, and I know that there are other people experiencing my kind of misery.
Then there were those who felt it provided them freedom from blame and guilt.
Diagnosis implied that this was an illness and not my fault—important for someone whose depression has always been riddled with guilt.
Although there are many, many people who feel this way, Ms. Johnstone points out that the relief that these people experience is based on their assumption that the diagnosis itself is valid. If it isn’t, they are simply being offered a circular explanation—“Why are my moods so up and down?” “Because you have bipolar disorder.” “How do you know I have bipolar disorder?” “Because your moods are so up and down.”
Keep in mind, as well, that these people came to view their so-called diagnosis as helpful without ever having an opportunity to compare the pathologizing approach to any alternative approaches. For example, what would be the reactions of these same people whom I have just quoted if they were provided an option that avoided simplistic, misleading terminology, while professional mental health providers and peer support groups assisted the person to find their own stories and provided a choice of treatment options?
Moreover, finding freedom from blame and guilt by playing the blaming-the-brain game may not be anywhere as helpful as the pharmaceutical companies would have us believe. Many of us have learned that we all, from time to time, do things that violate our image of our ideal self and spend some time suffering the consequences. We come to realize that we not only violated the image of the ideal self in the past, but we’ll no doubt do so again and again in the future. The experience of suffering over these lapses is the spur that, after a period of difficult reflection, eventually gets us off our butts, learn new skills and seek out the type of support that moves us to make improvements. It can take time for this to happen. It can take more time than we in our modern pressure pot world may feel we have any right to take, and our loved ones may lose their patience. However, in the long run, drugging these feelings away have always produced more harm than good.
Those who Found the Psychiatric Pathologizing Unhelpful
In contrast to those who tell of some positive reactions to psychiatric name calling, there are other people who tell a dramatically different story.
For a number of years, I accepted the medical model as a framework of understanding…. But I gradually came to appreciate drawbacks to the framework. My reading suggested the model might not stand up scientifically…. By the time I was entering my second decade of service use, the medical model, which I had initially found reassuring, seemed increasingly unsatisfactory, without the capacity to encompass the complexity of my interior or exterior life and give it positive value. As a result, I began to actively explore frameworks that better met my needs.
My diagnosis label promoted despair and threatened to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have been diagnosed with dysthymic disorder since I was thirteen. One kind of harm I suffered from receiving a diagnosis, in and of itself, was that it seemed so final and despairing to receive as a teenager. For me, having a diagnosis seemed so final. Like it wasn’t just a tempory issue that I was having, adjustment or adolescence or something, but this disorder that I was going to have for the rest of my life no matter what I did.
But the worse part of this, which I have only been able to shake within the last year…is the defectiveness I felt. Just kind of in some core way. Like I’m totally different.
I was so offended. I was really offended. I thought well, ‘F*** you! You’re attacking my personality; you’re attacking me. You’re attacking the very soul of me, you know; who I am, and what I am, that’s a disorder.
I no longer identify with my previous role as a severely ill psychiatric patient but a human being that is experiencing and surviving life in my own unique way… just like every other human being on this planet.
In her book, Ms. Johnstone summarizes what she has learned from these quotes:
It is understandable that service users, reaching desperately for an escape from anguish, confusion, guilt and blame, might see diagnosis (at least initially) as ‘salvation’. However, these benefits may be bought at the high price of taking on profoundly destructive messages of defect, dangerousness, damage and despair.
In my view, we can come up with a much better approach to the psychiatric pathologizing of people, an approach that doesn’t label anyone, but rather, classifies mental health concerns. For those who found the pathologizing approach helpful, this alternative approach would provide the professional and peer support that they value without misleading name calling. Psychiatric terms confuse questions of fact with questions of value, and superficially declare that a person’s experience is bad when it may have some pluses and minuses.
Undoubtedly, there are kind and decent folk who have a very different position than I on this subject. In no way do I mean to suggest that those who hold a different opinion are stupid, for I have met many who are as bright as a cloudless summer day. All that I seek, all that I hope for, is that we all take some time to think more deeply about the nature of melancholy, sadness and tears.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.