The Anti-psychiatry Movement

December 19, 2006

The Contemporary Moment: Psychiatry and its Critics II
Anti-psychiatry is a growing movement, which views modern psychiatry’s commitment to the biomedical model as dogmatic and harmful. The movement has attempted to brand psychiatry as pseudoscience for its perceived unwillingness to objectively consider the evidence against the biomedical model of mental illness. Anti-psychiatry has a bedrock of support in disillusioned psychologists, social workers, and psychiatric survivors who view contemporary psychiatry as “mindless and uncaring,” overly reliant on pharmaceuticals, and hostile to psychotherapy. Critics also claim that contemporary psychiatry is beholden to the pharmaceutical industry. They point to the conflicts of interest that are pervasive in the interactions between psychiatrists, scientific journals, and pharmaceutical industry. In addition to concerns about efficacy, the presence of serious side-effects causes detractors to question the safety and innocuousness of psychopharmaceuticals. Tardive dyskinesia and other extra-pyramidal side effects are significant contributors to the mistrust of psychiatry, and particularly psychopharmaceuticals. Further, the anti-psychiatric movement views psychopharmaceuticals as crude mood suppressors; “chemical lobotomies” that can eliminate outward manifestation of positive symptoms, but do little for negative symptoms or internal disturbances. Anti-psychiatry points to psychiatry’s inability to provide genetic or chemical tests for mental illness as an inability to apply its own paradigm to patients; in short, anti-psychiatry perceives contemporary psychiatry as built upon an unproven biological paradigm.
Dr. Thomas Keen describes the conflict between psychiatry and anti-psychiatry as part of the struggle of Moderninst psychiatry in adapting to an increasingly more post-modern world. He suggests that psychiatry is rooted in “the modernist dark ages of professional authority, clincal certainty” and can not survive in a “post-modern society where central, authoritarian discourses are increasingly collapsing und the challenge of pluralism.” His suggestion is that psychiatry must decentralize; it must acknowledge the criticism of anti-psychiatry and actively include patients or ‘end-users’ in the discursive process of framing pschiatric disorders. This transformation is not unique to pyschiatry, but post-modern assaults on the nature of the mind and consciousness are.
Psychiatrists sense that their discipline is becoming increasingly problematic and unwieldy. That less than 500 new residents join the profession annually demonstrates that the medical profession views the field as stagnant. Yet, for the most part psychiatry clings to essentialism and biological reductionism. It is not uncommon for research papers to end with supplications to future research: “It is hoped that [further] study…will provide new insights into the genetic basis of abnormal behaviour.” Psychiatry remains faithful to the promise that genetics will elucidate the basic molecular and genetic mechanisms behind mental illness disease processes and will provide elegant new targets for pharmacological intervention.

Influenced by

  • Thomas Keen. “Post-psychiatry: paradigm shift or wishful thinking? A speculative review of future possibles for psychiatry,” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2003: 32.
  • Philip Thomas and Patrick Bracken. “Critical psychiatry in Practice,”Advances in PsychiatricTreatment, 2004: 364.


  1. Being given a label of ‘manic depression at 17 years old in 1982 has ruined my life. If I had been told that I was coming to terms in an unusual way of growing up and becoming an adult I could have lived my life a different way. Without stigma, prejudice and fear, that will always exist as long as psychiatry exists. I am angry because at 40 years old and with my second husband about to leave me I know that it is a form of schizphrenia that I am now battling with (in greek where I now live it means ‘shattered mind) which describes exactly my state. When I was diagnosed with my first episode of manic depression and given Electric Shock treatment without my consent because I was catatonic, schizophrenia was seen as an incurable brain disease. Lucky they didn’t suggest I had that, wouldn’t have had much hope for the future perhaps!. They gave me the then better option of Manic Depression. I am glad I have discovered only by myself that I have had two episodes of schizophrenia accompanied by anxiety disorder and lots and lots of other peculiarities, most of which I was able to hide from everybody including two hospitalisations. I didn’t avoid Lithium and antipsychotic injections etc but at last I feel free and I”m not high. I am devastated. But nobody believes me. I have been medicated twice against my will for manic depression in the last 4 years – an illness or label that I no longer accept because I’m not stupid. I reject all drugs and all psychiatrists until I have chance to use all my inner resources to get well.

    • Dearest Susan, I am outraged by the world of pychiatric commitments and medication for false labels. It started for me when I was 18. I’m 30 now. Batteling off and on meds because I don’t think they are what we should be doing to ourselves, I had a baby in the Portland Oregon State Hospital. They would handcuff me and do prenatal checks with total strangers in the room. the little girl was born with seizures as I was lithium toxix and on Holdol among many other medications. I don’t know what to do. I haven’t done anything yet because I want to talk to someone who will listen and appreciate my side in person and tell my story. Three years ago I had a commitment in Salem, Or. I hit a nurse and ended up choosing an abortion because they threatened to take this one away and I couldnt go to my families. Why? I have a wonderful family. Well, after 13 years they want to do something about all this. But its taken years to heal myself on my own and I dont want to open old wounds now that every one is opening their eyes. I’ve been violated. We need these issues to come forth and be let back to freedom. I become very ill durring these “lock ups.” I you want to be kind and write (anyone) please respond to redsagebear@gmail.com

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