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Mental illness denial

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Not just a river in Egypt
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♫ We're not listening ♫
How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.
—Frank Herbert

Mental illness denial is the denial of the existence of mental disorders as real medical conditions, and the field of psychiatry (and possibly neurologyWikipedia's W.svg) as a legitimate science.

Jehovah's Witnesses[edit]

Jehovah's Witnesses avoid any form of mind manipulation, be it through psychoactive drugs (except alcohol) or hypnosis. They believe that subjecting oneself to hypnosis exposes the person to demons, or more generally, makes them more susceptible to the influence of Satan.

L. Ron Hubbard's batty crusade[edit]

In the 1950s, L. Ron Hubbard published his book, Dianetics, and repeatedly submitted papers on the subject to psychological and psychiatric journals. Of course, the editors of the journals thought the idea of the Reactive Mind and the state of Clear was bologna and they all rejected his submissions. Hubbard, however, continued to peddle his pseudopsychology and built up a cult following around Dianetics. He and his followers started up a bunch of schools and organizations to promote his bullshit. After one of them closed down due to lack of funding and the American Psychiatric Association criticized Dianetics, Hubbard went into uber-crank mode, denouncing it as a conspiracy by psychiatrists to destroy his precious Dianetics. Hubbard's butthurt over a perceived conspiracy by psychiatrists helped lay the foundations for one of the largest cults in US history: Scientology. In the early '50s, Hubbard and his followers began to call themselves Scientologists and started various chapters and associations of Scientology. It wasn't until 1959, though, when the Church of Scientology would take on its more familiar trappings by introducing E-Meters and such.[1] But we'll come back to Hubbard later.


See the pseudopsychology page for legitimate criticisms of psychiatric practice.


The anti-psychiatry movement was never really a unified movement in any way, more a collection of philosophers and activists who were vaguely interrelated and some who were not even totally opposed to psychiatry at all. The foundation of the movement was laid in the 1960s, when French philosopher Michel Foucault published his first book Madness and CivilizationWikipedia's W.svg and British psychiatrist R.D. LaingWikipedia's W.svg published a number of works critical of psychiatric practices. This was back in the days when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and lobotomies were still widely (mis)used for everything from depression to nymphomania,[2] so there was much to criticize. Laing and Foucault never denied mental illness, they simply pointed out the history of the concept and how it had been used as a means of oppression (though anti-psychiatric cranks often omit this part). Laing's view was that while mental illness may be real it is a natural human response to a sick society. Foucault and Laing's influence would later bring a radical leftist element into the anti-psychiatry camp.[3]

Changing public perception[edit]

Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest also came out around this time, which influenced popular perceptions of psychiatry. Later anti-psychiatry texts would draw on these works as a foundation even though they did not explicitly deny mental illness. Gay activists were heavily involved in anti-psychiatry protests, though most were simply opposed to the inclusion of homosexuality in the DSM and not psychiatry as a whole. Gay activists actually crashed a number of American Psychiatric Association meetings until they took the gay out of the DSM in 1973 as a result of the protests and new research into sexuality like that of Evelyn Hooker and (to a lesser extent) Alfred Kinsey.[4]

Thomas Szasz[edit]

The true godfather of mental illness denial was the American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, a contemporary of Foucault and Laing. Szasz was an ideologically motivated doctor with little real-world experience who used his post to attack the workings of the legal system. In fact, he admitted he was never really interested in psychiatry or psychology. Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961, which became the bedrock of mental illness denial.[5] He used his newfound platform to launch his crusade against the insanity defense and the practice of involuntary commitment. He argued that severely depressed people should not be prevented from committing suicide if that was their wish. Szasz's basic argument, which he repeated ad nauseam over tens of books throughout his life, was that 'mental illness' was a literalized metaphor because the mind was not a physical scientific object and therefore could not be subject to a biological disease. Szasz also argued for the legalization of drugs, the end of involuntary commitment, lobotomies, and the misuse of shock therapy on this basis, which demonstrates the old adage about the stopped clock. He was also a major critic of the idea that homosexuality was a disease. He did not advocate for the end of psychiatry as a discipline, though; he simply believed it to be a pseudoscience and argued that people should be allowed to see psychiatrists only if there was mutual consent.[3] It's worth noting that Szasz had a number of salient points to make about psychiatric practices at the time, but his work today is mostly used as a justification for quackery.

CCHR flyer. Beware of psychiatric conspiracy!

Again with Hubbard[edit]

This is where Hubbard comes back in. He saw an opportunity to further his crusade against psychiatry when he heard of Szasz's work and, in conjunction, the two formed the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). Szasz never was and never became a Scientologist (ironically, Szasz is known as a staunch atheist), but the CCHR essentially became the anti-psychiatry front of the Co$ and acts on their direct order. The CCHR has been peddling its bullshit ever since, spewing some really batshit conspiracy theories claiming that psychiatry was responsible for World War I, Hitler, Stalin, and 9/11. They were also responsible for that Psychiatry: Industry of Death tour recently.[6] Szasz himself never believed this nonsense, but acted as an enabler for the insanity coming out of the CCHR. Notable uber-quack Gary Null also has the CCHR to thank for his anti-medical anything position.[7]

Loss of common cause and fractioning[edit]

After the barbaric practice of lobotomy ended, along with the de-institutionalization of mental patients (more due to a lack of funding for mental hospitals than anything else), as well as a court ruling that protected those with mental illness under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the anti-psychiatry movement lost some of its traction. Growing tensions between secular anti-psychiatrists and Scientologists have also heavily weakened it — because of Scientologists' habit of infiltrating any organization that might further their cause, many anti-psychiatry groups have banned Scientologists from joining.[8]

Current status[edit]

Nowadays anti-psychiatry is limited to a smaller, but vocal, minority within the mental-health industry, the CCHR and Scientologists, and various woo-meisters, usually alties, New Agers, and other hippie types, who recycle their propaganda to hawk each their own brand of quackery. The movement itself, however, has been united in recent years with the advent of the Internet, thus making it seem larger than it actually is.[9] There is also a small strain of mental-illness denial among the nuttier libertarians due to Szasz's involvement in the Libertarian Party and the Soviet Union's use of the mental-health system to lock up dissidents.[10] A small minority of radical queer activists such as Gay Shame maintain an anti-psychiatry stance, a position that was otherwise dropped by most of the gay-rights movement long ago when the DSM de-listed homosexuality in 1973.

The big false argument[edit]

The most common argument by mental illness deniers is that there is no such thing as mental illness because there is no observable pathology. Szasz and others have been reformulating, repackaging, recycling, and regurgitating this argument since the '60s. This assumes that the brain works the same way as the heart or the liver. Some mental disorders may be defined as some point on the very extreme end of the bell curve where an individual is simply dysfunctional. Dyslexia, for example, may be defined as an extreme disability in reading skill. Thus, it is simply a category with which people may be labeled so they can receive extra help. This also precludes the fact that what was once purely a mental illness may later be found to have a biological basis. Senile dementia, for example, is being increasingly replaced with the diagnosis of Alzheimer's, which is now thought to be at least in part due to a build-up of neuritic plaque in the brain.[11] Yet another problem with this argument is that we currently do not have the technological means to view the chemical interactions of every synapse of every neuron at the same time, so there could be some dysfunction there that is unseen. There is also an example that everyone is familiar with: migraine headaches. This cannot be "seen" by current technology, but no one would deny that headaches exist.

The crank conspiracy theories about psychiatrists taking over the world or Big Pharma inventing mental illness require serious attention.


Advances in the research of neuroplasticity have made this even more silly. This discovery has shown that humans are able to add synaptic connections through their experiences.

This has been researched (with some good success) for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as well as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Subjects were given medication that interfered with memory recall and asked to read aloud their traumatic experience that would normally cause a flashback, or read aloud something that would normally trigger a maladaptive response. By exposure, and taking medication that interfered with the brain's ability to recall the memory with such vividness, several subjects were able to read their experience aloud without the same emotional response that would normally cause the unwanted behaviour or response. This is proof that while we can not actually "see" a mental disorder, we can treat it by physically interfering with how the brain recalls an event through use of medications that have been proven to interfere with the brain's ability to recall memory and make new neural connections.

ADHD and autism denial[edit]

While ADHD and autism are technically disabilities instead of illnesses, that doesn't stop their existence from attracting quacks.

Due to rising diagnoses of ADHD and autism, there has been increasing denial in the form of simply denying the existence of ADHD or autism, but not mental illness as a whole. Some wingnuts like Michael Savage have claimed that autistic kids are just brats who need more discipline or some similar bullshit. There is also some autism denial among anti-vaccination cranks who believe autism is simply mercury poisoning. Parents critical of the way ADHD is diagnosed and treated in children, while they do have legitimate criticisms, too often turn to ADHD denial and become peddlers of some alt-woo. Often, ADHD is believed to be "diagnosing childhood" and not an actual disorder by those who don't have the slightest idea what the clinical term "disorder" means. However, the existence of autism and ADHD do have solid empirical evidence backing them.[12]

One of the main problems with ADHD may perhaps be how vaguely the disability is defined. In West-Flanders, for instance, 20 individual doctors wrote 60% of Ritalin prescriptions. The minister of health found it so ridiculous that she spent €390.000 on experts that streamline the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD.[13][14] Of course, even if ADHD is overdiagnosed or poorly diagnosed, it is not inherently a false disease.

Autism denial should not be confused with the autism rights movement, which does not deny that autism exists or that autistic people need help, but does dispute calling it a disease or a life-ruining disaster. Proponents argue that autistic people should be supported and accepted in society, without being pressured to hide harmless autistic traits such as stimming (fidgeting). Critics of the movement regard this as another form of mental illness denial.

"Difference model"[edit]

The "difference model" offers a newer approach to mental illnesses and disabilities.[15] This, as contrasted with the "deficit model", varies from the other examples here in that it makes no factual denials. Promoters of the difference model, while acknowledging the symptoms of a person's mental illness, also look at the positives associated with some cognitive differences and take a more strengths-based approach.

In the most extreme form of the difference model, people believe that all people with mental illnesses should not be given treatment, and that society should be "restructured" instead to accommodate them. They argue that mental illness itself is a construct.[16]

Most proponents of the difference model take more moderate positions. They believe that while people with mental illnesses and disabilities should have access to any treatment they want (such as therapy and medication), society should also be more caring and accepting, and open to the positive parts of neurodiversity.

In the United States of America, cost-cutting "care in the community" initiatives partially prompted by these ideas have led to a low availability of long-term in-patient care for persons with mental illness. Most in-patient stays for mental-health complaints last only a few days in the United States, compared to several weeks in Sweden.[17] People with mental illness report beneficial effects from long-term in-patient care,[18] and due to the extremely high treatment drop-out rates for certain mental illnesses,[19] long-term in-patient care for these conditions may be medically needed. However, this kind of care is not routinely available in the United States, and when it is available it is extremely expensive. This lack of infrastructure is probably motivated more by the cost of public-health infrastructure and stigmatization of mental-health problems rather than pure mental-health denialism, but mental-health denialism may be used to justify the absence of adequate public treatment-programs.

In contrast to the "difference model," the idea that persons suffering debilitating psychiatric symptoms should be expected to conduct themselves identically to other people, viz. "snap out of it", is widespread. This is like asking a disabled person in a wheelchair to just get up and walk.

A rational person might conclude that both societal support and access to treatment are important, as some people suffer tremendously from their conditions, while others need only a few environmental adjustments in order to live well.

In their defense[edit]

There are several who complain about the scientific validity of Psychiatry (and mental illness from a psychological and neurological perspective as well) who take the position of Karl Popper on what is and what is not science. In their defense, a strict Popperist would be largely forced to come to the conclusion that psychiatry is a form of pseudoscience, if only because it is often difficult to the point of impossibility to prove in a strict experiment what causes mental illness. In theory, one could provide drugs which should replicate the neural conditions which cause a mental disorder to a person who does not have a mental illness, and see if they develop this condition. For example, a common theory of what causes Major Depression is that a neural transmitter (essentially, a chemical that tells your brain to do things) called serotonin is reabsorbed by the neuron which released it (a process called "reuptake"). Many Anti-Depressant Drugs are chemicals which prevent this from happening, thus treating the neurochemical cause of depression. In theory, a group could develop a drug which would cause this excessive serotonin reuptake, and see if this causes Major Depression in their patients. This is, however, considered hilariously unethical and thus very unlikely to happen.

The response to this point is threefold:

  1. Because we cannot ethically know that excess serotonin reuptake is the cause of Major Depression, but treating that seems to cure the symptoms, we can assume that it is the cause.
  2. This is essentially the problem faced by all medical professions, since none of them can ethically try to give their patients a disease to verify that (for example) HIV causes AIDS.
  3. There is a reason Mr. Popper, while highly respected, is no longer the king of Philosophy of science. A strict Popperist would be forced to conclude that the majority of science is, in fact, unscientific.

Psychiatry as a science has developed, which means that diagnoses have become more precise and better defined. Historically, diagnoses such as hysteria, idiotism or homosexuality were common. The underlying illness could be poorly understood, misdiagnosed or even nonexistent. Likewise, the treatments applied were historically often ineffective, not evidence-based and even harmful to the patient. A minority of mental illnesses have been dismissed in recent times as non-existent; most notably drapetomania and sluggish schizophrenia. Drapetomania was coined by physician Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851 to refer to the condition exhibited by slaves wanting to escape. Sluggish schizophrenia was coined by Andrei Snezhnevsky, who as one of the chief architects of Soviet psychiatry broadened the symptoms of schizophrenia to include any pesky political dissidents and even those indirectly affected by alcoholism. Snezhnevsky rose to a position of authority in the vacuum left after the purges of Soviet psychiatrists between the 30's and 50's.[20] Both these supposed disorders had obvious ideological motivations.

Along with the majority of the German medical community in the Nazi era, psychiatrists and physicians acted in accordance with the T4 euthanasia program designed to kill the mentally disabled and emotionally distraught. However this occurred in a vacuum of psychologists, as after the Nazis' rise to power in 1933 several prominent psychologists such as the Freudian school had left Germany, their works largely destroyed.

See Also[edit]

External links[edit]




  1. Hubbard timeline
  2. Oh noes! This woman is uppity, and enjoying her own sexuality! SHE MUST BE INSANE!!!
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mervat Nasser. The Rise and Fall of Anti-Psychiatry. Psychiatric Bulletin 1995, 19:743-746.
  4. Homosexuality and Mental Health, UC Davis
  5. Szasz's Myth of Mental Illness
  6. Collection of articles on the exhibit as well as general articles on CCHR at Xenu Directory.
  7. See this Wikipedia talk page on Null detailing CCHR contributions to his projects.Wikipedia's W.svg
  8. The homepage of the Anti-Psychiatry Coalition puts it bluntly: "No Scientologists, Please."
  9. Rissmiller and Rissmiller. Evolution of the Anti-psychiatry Movement into Mental Health Consumerism. Psychiatr Serv 57:863-866, June 2006. See also a letter to the editor concerning the paper.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Psychiatry in the Soviet Union.
  11. Neuritic (senile) plaques, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine
  12. Novella on ADHD denial and autism
  14. Note that this means that she actually believes that ADHD IS a real diagnosis.
  16. Five Broad Models of Mental Illness
  20. Lavretsky H; The Russian Concept of Schizophrenia: A Review of the Literature; Schizophrenia Bulletin 24 (4): 537–557