Mental Illness Literacy

By Marvin Ross

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Susan Inman (After Her Brain Broke: Helping My Daughter Recover Her Sanity), wrote about the need for greater literacy about mental illness. And, like me, Susan often gets inundated with comments from opponents. One was from John Read, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne.

Susan was arguing that we need greater understanding of the biological causes of serious mental illness and I agree. Read, however, commented that:

“The evidence is over 50 studies all showing that biological beliefs increase fear and stigma. I’m afraid you are swallowing drug company propaganda, there is no evidence that these drugs prevent violence.”

When challenged to provide sources, he countered with:

“If anyone is interested in what the reserch (sic) says on this issue……

READ, J. (2007). Why promulgating biological ideology increases prejudice against people labeled ‘schizophrenic’. Australian Psychologist, 42, 118-128.

READ, J., HASLAM, N., SAYCE, L., DAVIES, E. (2006).Prejudice and schizophrenia: A review of the ‘Mental illness is an Illness like any other’ approach. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica,114, 303-318.”

In an article  that I wrote for the World Fellowship for Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders in 2010, I mentioned the Read approach. Basically that approach states that we should ignore the illness in favour of viewing mental health problems as part of our shared humanity. One of the research papers by Read that I commented on was a 2002 paper which compared the biological explanation of mental illness to a psychosocial explanation. And while Read points out that the psychosocial explanation helped reduce stigma more that the biological, he admits there was no statistical difference between the two.

This is the link to his first article that he cited in his comments to Ms Inman. You can decide but note the lack of objectivity in his title. Biological explanations are cited as ideology that are promulgated and schizophrenia is in quotes. The second paper he cited deals mostly with surveys  asking people what they considered to be the causes of mental illness. Many of them believed that the causes were psychosocial which just proves that Susan Inman is correct in wanting to see greater literacy.

But again, to prove his point, he says that a study that showed a video of a person describing their psychotic experiences increased perceptions of dangerousness and unpredictability in viewers. However, a video explaining the same experiences in terms of adverse life events, led to a slight but non significant improvement in attitudes by those who viewed it.

Again with the non significance. It means there was no difference between the two. The responses were the exact same! Someone who acts scary and displays very abnormal and aberrant behaviour is going to be shunned regardless of the explanation for that behaviour. He does cite a number of papers but they date from 1955 to the latest in 2005.

In my 2010 article, I quoted Dr Heather Stuart, an expert in stigma at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario who said that there have only been six controlled studies of stigma. One of them by Patrick Corrigan found that education did lead to improved attitudes. I could not find a reference to that paper in the one by Read.

As an example, those with advanced symptoms of Hansen’s Disease looked very frightening and were isolated from society. The Leper Colonies existed because no one understood the disease and were afraid they might get it too. But then, modern medicine came along, discovered Leprosy was caused by a bacteria, learned to treat it early and we no longer have people disfigured when treated early. We might still cringe at the thought of leprosy but likely no one has ever seen an advanced case.

In a similar vein, the solution for schizophrenia stigma is not to pretend it isn’t what it is but to provide treatment. As Queen’s University psychiatrist Julio Arboleda-Flores said in his 2003 editorial in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, “the best approach is to limit the possibilities for people to become violent via proper and timely treatment and management of their symptoms and preventing social situations that might lead to contextual violence;” he writes that “this could be the single most important way to combat stigma.”

And one way to ensure that is to have greater mental illness literacy as Susan suggested.

Now I also have to comment on a post to Susan’s blog by someone who is continually criticizing both Susan and I for our writing on the medical model for schizophrenia. Suzanne Beachy did post a number of comments which you can see for yourself but my favourite is her announcement that another critic of the medical model, Rossa Forbes, has just announced that her son is cured of his schizophrenia.

It seems that his cure was delayed by their being “sidetracked by institutional psychiatry perpetrating the false belief that there was something gone horribly wrong with his brain and only they knew the magic formula to set things right again.” If you go to Ms Forbes blog, you will see her extolling how well her son now is which is wonderful. In fact, she says, he is so well that he has reduced his Abilify to half its dose and is planning to go completely off slowly over time. Abilify, of course, is an anti-psychotic used to treat schizophrenia and is prescribed by psychiatrists.

I am dumbstruck as I am with all the critics of modern science.

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4 thoughts on “Mental Illness Literacy

  1. You make an excellent point, and I commend you for denouncing methods that actually stand in the way of modern science and adequate treatment. Thank you!

    Like

  2. My son’s best chance in life is better medication that would target his delusional thinking that keeps him from having a job, social life and a reason for living. my son has schizophrenia.

    Like

  3. Were the biological explanations of HIV-Aids , ideology ?
    Mr.Read seems to be rather inconsistent, he should follow Susan’s advice and encrich his literacy. !

    Like

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