Minister's View on Mental Illness a Breath of Fresh Air

Adherents of the medical model of human misery were quickly out of their trenches to fight their cause following Tim O’Malley’s declaration in the Irish Medical News.  Mr O’Malley stated ‘that there’s a strong view with a lot of people that depression and mental illness is not a medical condition, that it’s part of life events that people get depressed or just unhappy.  Years ago people were unhappy, they weren’t depressed, they weren’t given the name of depressed.’  Whilst I agree that a label never accurately describes an individual’s deep distress, the reality is that individuals do experience considerable inner turmoil and urgently need help to resolve it. Each person’s turmoil is unique and it is for that reason in my own professional practice that each person receives a different therapy, uniquely tailored to their inner and outer circumstances.  Labelling loses sight of the individual, and furthermore, psychiatric labelling offers no hope to the individual.  Typically, the medical understanding of a person’s distressing psychological and social symptoms is that it is biological in nature and that life-time medication is the only answer.  This is patently untrue, but its effect is that persons so labelled and without hope attempt suicide, because what is the point in going on if there is no hope for the future.  Mr O’Malley’s declaration has thrown down the gauntlet to the psychiatric profession, but this challenge has been there for many decades.  Back in the 1970’s a psychiatrist called Thomas Saasz declared that ‘mental illness is a myth’ and that equating depression and paranoia with medical conditions such as cancer and diabetes had long outlived its usefulness.  Indeed, it is now being recognised within medicine itself that conditions like cancer, diabetes, heart disease are psycho-somatic in nature and that a holistic therapeutic response is required to restore the person’s wellbeing!  In America, fifty-one per cent of psychiatrists consider, what has been traditionally seen as mental illness, psycho-social conditions and that the primary treatment needs to be psycho-social in nature.  Peter Breggin, the author of Toxic Psychiatry, a recent guest lecturer in Ireland, has carried the torch for a holistic understanding of human distress for a number of decades.  In Ireland, there have been two strong voices that Mr O’Malley’s declaration echoes – Terry Lynch, General Medical Practitioner, Psychotherapist and author of Beyond Prozac and Michael Corry, Psychiatrist and Aine Tubridy, authors of Going Mad? Understanding Mental Illness.

In my own practice of thirty years, I have encountered every kind of human distress – depression, violence, paranoia, mood swings, hallucinations, delusions, chronic anxiety, anorexia nervosa, bulimia – and I never had any need to resort to a medical explanation for these individual conditions.  Contrary to what some people think, I have no difficulty with the prescription of medication; my difficulty lies with the proscription?? The recent study by Schizophrenia Ireland highlighted the debilitating side-effects of long-term medication and the fact that fifty per cent of people stopped taking their medication because of the limitations these drugs put on their living.  It is often the case that the physical straight-jacketing that was common in psychiatric hospitals has been replaced by chemical straight-jacketing.  Some psychiatrists will point to the University of Pittsburgh research on maintenance drug therapy, where in longitudinal studies, maintenance medication was ‘proven’ to be vital in preventing reoccurrence of depressive ‘episodes’ (what an odd word!).  In other words, according to this research, if people take the appropriate medication (the old dictum ‘take your medicine’), they have a far greater chance of not becoming depressed again!  There is a major flaw in that conclusion, apart from the fact that long-term medication considerably reduces quality of life.  The flaw is the notion that it is the failure to maintain one’s medication that leads to a reoccurrence of the depression, hallucinations and so on.  The reason why inner and outer turmoil reoccurs is that its causes and intentions have not been considered and resolved and, inevitably, inner conflicts will arise again.  Indeed, when conflicts are not truly resolved, an intensification will occur in order to awaken the person and the social system he or she is a member of to the resolutions that are required.  The derogatory term ‘talking therapies’ used by Professor Patricia Casey, leading adherent of the medical model, does no justice to the complexity and multiplicity of the interactions that arise in psychotherapy, dynamic psychoanalysis, family therapy, group therapy and therapeutic community initiatives.  What lies at the heart of non-medical approaches to human distress is relationship, arising from well-grounded research by Alfred Adler, who developed his own relationship approach (Adlerian psychotherapy) and many other researchers and psychotherapists, that the cause of all human misery is a lack of loving.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.