One of the most interesting sessions of this year’s Uncivilisation Festival will be Unpsychology, run by Steve Thorp. Back in early DM days Steve introduced his ideas about unpsychology on the online forum. I’m delighted that he has finally been given some space on the programme to share his ideas; it is one of the talks I will be sorry to miss.
His voice is one of many now challenging the status quo in the mental health profession. In May, the Division of Clinical Psychology of the British Psychological Society issued a Statement calling for “a paradigm shift in psychiatric diagnosis”. The Statement coincided with the publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) – the hallmark reference volume for those working in the field of mental health.
In his book Madness Explained, Richard P. Bentall describes the history of DSM, and its origins in the formative period of psychiatry in which the incipient field was establishing itself as a branch of the scientific community. DSM is essentially a compendium of conditions and symptoms, attempting to organise these in a taxonomy of illness which satisfies our cultural need to identify, analyse, quantify and solve through treatment the problem of ‘abnormal’ thoughts or behaviour. The approach fits squarely within the premise that our mental state can become afflicted with an illness – a condition imposed upon it.
Coinciding with this paradigm of mental illness is the phenomenal growth of the pharmaceutical industry, and the widespread use of medication as the primary tool of psychiatry. Bentall contends that mental health exists along a spectrum that cannot be categorised so neatly, “classifying people like plants.”
Clearly people who suffer from psychiatric problems vary in their experiences. The taxonomists have attempted to accommodate this fact by dividing the geography of psychological distress into separate territories, but their efforts have been neither successful nor consistent….Kraepelin’s paradigm…assumed a non-arbitrary division between sanity and madness, an assumption that was explicitly embraced by the designers of DSM….
You may have come across this division before now: some people are people, and other people are nutters. Our casual language reinforces the fears surrounding this foreign “other” person. That’s crazy; it’s totally insane; he’s nuts; she’s mental. Stop and listen sometime: we continually season our conversation with oblique references to our greatest fears, death and insanity.
The voice of the “other” – silenced by our fears and condemned to a separate realm.
Forbidden anger, women could find no voice in which publicly to complain: they took refuge in depression or madness. (Caroline Heilbrun)
Am I straying yet again into a feminist analysis? Perhaps this is because my own experience of madness abided so closely to Heilbrun’s description. It is impossible to separate our mental state from our environment and circumstances.
The idea is nothing new. In 1955, Erich Fromm published a critique of Western civilisation called The Sane Society. in it, he described our society’s values and norms as an entrenched form of collective insanity.
Whether or not the individual is healthy, is primarily not an individual matter, but depends on the structure of his [or her] society. A healthy society furthers man’s [and woman’s] capacity to love his [or her] fellow men [or women], to work creatively, to develop his [or her] reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of his [or her] own productive powers. An unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms man [or woman] into an instrument of use or exploitation for others, which deprives him [or her] of a sense of self, except inasmuch as he [or she] submits to others or becomes an automaton.
Inevitably I return to a person’s capacity for both voice and relationship, set so badly out of balance in our patriarchal culture, and the need to reconcile the imbalance in the lives of both men and women.
Our Western culture… constitutes a relatively pure form of patriarchal culture, built upon the power of the father in the family, of the priest and king in society, and of a fatherly God in Heaven.
Neither men nor women can enjoy full mental health or the fruition of their capacities in a patriarchal society. I hope that Steve’s Unpsychology considers this line of thought.