I stumbled across a fascinating talk by Bruce Levine, a clinical psychologist who has articulated a convincing anti-authoritarian critique of the mainstream American mental health system. In the presentation (called “The Anti-Authoritarian Movement to Rehumanize Mental Health“), Levine defines authoritarian as “an unquestioning obedience to authority, regardless of the merits of authority,” and he laments the fact that so many of his fellow mental health professionals seem to accept the legitimacy of “establishment psychiatry” despite the last several years of fairly damning media coverage. I too have recently lamented the tendency of my peers, graduate students in mental health counseling, to acquiesce–with very little critical pushback–in the face of whatever prevailing points of view are presented by professors, in textbooks, or through representatives of professional organizations. Levine calls for an anti-authoritarian attitude toward establishment perspectives of mental health, whereby we assess the legitimacy of authority and actively resist any authority that is determined to be illegitimate.
Remember, back in 2007 or 2008, when Senator Chuck Grassley led a congressional inquiry that exposed the undeniable fact that many of the nation’s most influential psychiatrists and “thought leaders” were being scandalously influenced by the pharmaceutical industry? Well, it was all over the mainstream media. We also learned how Dr. Joseph Biederman, the main psychiatric “thought leader” responsible for the 40-fold increase in kids being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was exposed as a shill for Big Pharma. Then we saw top establishment psychiatrists–from Allen Frances to Thomas Insel–take a subversive turn by either distancing themselves from or flat-out rejecting the validity of the DSM-5.
Levine, in this presentation and in his writing, also reminds us that the effectiveness of some commonly used psychiatric drugs has been seriously called into question by researchers, and that the “biochemical brain imbalance theory” of mental illness has been effectively and repeatedly debunked by many thoughtful commenters in recent years. And yet so many of us in the field of mental health continue to acquiesce to the dictates of establishment psychiatry, even as we pay lip-service to perspectives based on wellness models and integrative perspectives. Why? Why does establishment psychiatry continue to wield its authority so hegemonically despite the loss of credibility?
Levine answers that “drug company money” is just the tip of the iceberg. He points to a broader, more insidious function of establishment psychiatry, whereby it is used to cover up the adverse, dehumanizing, oppressive, alienating aspects of society. In this view, establishment psychiatry serves to discount, invalidate, and marginalize people who don’t conform or adjust to society, or who rebel against it. For instance, schools can often be oppressive and dehumanizing to children, dampening their inherent curiosity and ebullience. For too many kids, failure to adjust to this situation can result in a psychiatric diagnosis and a central nervous system dulled by drugs. For adults, many jobs pound the humanity out of us through daily routines characterized by dullness and disconnection, and too many of us adapt to this state of affairs with a “helping” hand from psychiatry. Psychiatry, according to Levine, has become a tool to cover all of this up, a tool that is put to use in maintaining the status quo. Especially when the general population is fearful, which seems to be the case in our current political and social climate, people are more likely to comply with authority without critical assessment.
And so there you have it, and that’s why it’s important, I think, to support people like Levine who have the guts to “speak truth to power.”