In a groundbreaking move that has already prompted a fierce backlash from psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology (DCP) will on Monday issue a statement declaring that, given the lack of evidence, it is time for a “paradigm shift” in how the issues of mental health are understood. The statement effectively casts doubt on psychiatry’s predominantly biomedical model of mental distress – the idea that people are suffering from illnesses that are treatable by doctors using drugs. The DCP said its decision to speak out “reflects fundamental concerns about the development, personal impact and core assumptions of the (diagnosis) systems”, used by psychiatry.
Dr Lucy Johnstone, a consultant clinical psychologist who helped draw up the DCP’s statement, said it was unhelpful to see mental health issues as illnesses with biological causes.
“On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that people break down as a result of a complex mix of social and psychological circumstances – bereavement and loss, poverty and discrimination, trauma and abuse,” Johnstone said. The provocative statement by the DCP has been timed to come out shortly before the release of DSM-5, the fifth edition of the American Psychiatry Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The manual has been attacked for expanding the range of mental health issues that are classified as disorders. For example, the fifth edition of the book, the first for two decades, will classify manifestations of grief, temper tantrums and worrying about physical ill-health as the mental illnesses of major depressive disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and somatic symptom disorder, respectively.
Some of the manual’s omissions are just as controversial as the manual’s inclusions. The term “Asperger’s disorder” will not appear in the new manual, and instead its symptoms will come under the newly added “autism spectrum disorder”.
The DSM is used in a number of countries to varying degrees. Britain uses an alternative manual, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) published by the World Health Organisation, but the DSM is still hugely influential – and controversial.
The writer Oliver James, who trained as a clinical psychologist, welcomed the DCP’s decision to speak out against psychiatric diagnosis and stressed the need to move away from a biomedical model of mental distress to one that examined societal and personal factors.
A student friend of mine once started claiming that she was being controlled by electrical impulses beamed across the city by “authoritarian capitalists”. She spent hours in the bath, cleaning herself.
Following her removal to an asylum, her parents arrived to collect her possessions. Nearly all of her (mostly clean) clothes were deemed so “soiled” they would need to be burnt. The room was obsessively cleaned. Her father was a health inspector.
Within the medical model of mental illness, she had inherited genes predisposing her to obsessive rituals and to psychosis. The model does not entertain the possibility that the health inspector’s intrusiveness distressed her or, as it turned out, that he had sexually abused her.
Yet 13 studies find that more than half of schizophrenics suffered childhood abuse. Another review of 23 studies shows that schizophrenics are at least three times more likely to have been abused than non-schizophrenics. It is becoming apparent that abuse is the major cause of psychoses. It is also all too clear that the medical model is bust.
In the press release accompanying publication of DSM-5, David Kupfer, who oversaw its creation, states: “We’ve been telling patients for several decades that we are waiting for biomarkers. We’re still waiting.” This is an astonishing admission that there are no reliable genetic or neurological measurements that distinguish a person with mental illness.
While there is some evidence that the electro-chemistry of distressed people can be different from the undistressed, the Human Genome Project seems to be proving that genes play almost no part in causing this. Eleven years of careful study of our DNA shows that differences in it do not explain mental illness, hardly at all. If one sibling is anxious or depressed and another is not, at most, differences in DNA can only explain 1 – 5% of why it is one and not the other.
Of course, some researchers maintain that, given more time (and money), they will still come up with significant results. But off the record, nearly all molecular geneticists admit that it now really does look as if differences in DNA will explain very little.
By contrast, there is a huge body of evidence that our early childhood experiences combined with subsequent exposure to adversity explain a very great deal. This is dose dependent: the more maltreatment, the earlier you suffer it and the worse it is, the greater your risk of adult emotional distress. These experiences set our electro-chemical thermostats.
So does subsequent adult adversity. For instance, a person with six or more personal debts is six times more likely to be mentally ill than someone with none, regardless of their social class: the more debts, the greater the risk.
We need fundamental changes in how our society is organised to give parents the best chance of meeting the needs of children and to prevent the amount of adult adversity.
Britons and Americans have exactly twice the amount of mental illness of mainland western Europeans (23% versus 11.5%). Thirty years of Thatcher and “Blatcher” turned us into a nation of “affluenza”-stricken, shop-till-you-drop, “it could be you”, credit-fuelled consumer junkies. Personal debt – a major stressor for adults – rose from £200bn in 1980 to £1,400bn in 2006. After 1979, the amount of mental illness mushroomed.
Forget about genes. We would halve the amount of emotional distress in this country if we had the more equal, relatively cohesive, less debt-ridden political economics of our European neighbours.