ABOUT 40 YEARS AGO, American psychiatry faced an escalating crisis of legitimacy. All sorts of evidence suggested that, when confronted with a particular patient, psychiatrists could not reliably agree as to what, if anything, was wrong. To be sure, the diagnostic process in all areas of medicine is far more murky and prone to error than we like to think, but in psychiatry the situation was — and indeed still is — a great deal more fraught, and the murkiness more visible. It didn’t help that psychiatry’s most prominent members purported to treat illness with talk therapy and stressed the central importance of early childhood sexuality for adult psychopathology. In this already less-than-tidy context, the basic uncertainty regarding how to diagnose what was wrong with a patient was potentially explosively destabilizing.
The modern psychopharmacological revolution began in 1954 with the introduction of Thorazine, hailed as the first “anti-psychotic.” It was followed in short order by so-called “minor tranquilizers:” Miltown, and then drugs like Valium and Librium. The Rolling Stones famously sang of “mother’s little helper,” which enabled the bored housewife to get through to her “busy dying day.” Mother’s helper had a huge potential market. Drug companies, however, were faced with a problem. As each company sought its own magic potion, it encountered a roadblock of sorts: its psychiatric consultants were unable to deliver homogeneous populations of test subjects suffering from the same diagnosed illness in the same way. Without breaking the amorphous catchall of “mental disturbance” into defensible sub-sets, the drug companies could not develop the data they needed to acquire licenses to market the new drugs.
In a Cold War context, much was being made about the way the Soviets were stretching the boundaries of mental illness to label dissidents as mad in order to incarcerate and forcibly medicate them. But Western critics also began to look askance at their own shrinks and to allege that the psychiatric emperor had no clothes. A renegade psychiatrist called Thomas Szasz published a best-selling broadside called The Myth of Mental Illness, suggesting that psychiatrists were pernicious agents of social control who locked up inconvenient people on behalf of a society anxious to be rid of them, invoking an illness label that had the same ontological status as the label “witch” employed some centuries before. Illness, he truculently insisted, was a purely biological thing, a demonstrable part of the natural world. Mental illness was a misplaced metaphor, a socially constructed way of permitting an ever-wider selection of behaviors to be forcibly controlled under the guise of helping people.
The problem was exacerbated when some psychiatrists sought to examine the diagnostic process. Their findings dramatically reinforced the growing suspicion that their profession’s claims to expertise were spurious. Prominent figures like Aaron Beck, Robert Spitzer, MG. Sandifer and Benjamin Pasamanick published systematic data that dramatized just how tenuous agreement was among psychiatrists, even the most prominent ones, regarding the nature of psychiatric pathology; consensus barely exceeded 50 percent whether the subjects were patients in state hospitals or out-patient settings. And in 1972, a systematic study of diagnostic practices in Britain and the United States found massive differe...read more