Anti-Psychiatry Bold and Profane

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Let me make a simple bold and somewhat profane statement about anti-psychiatry. Which I take to mean, really, anti-medical-pharmaceutical-psychiatry.

When I entered medical school and later psychiatry, I would have been content to believe that all these psychiatric illnesses were entirely “psychological” in origin and form. It was the 1960’s so I was even quite ready to believe that all this insanity was really a sane response to an insane world.

Insanity is fascinating. I have spent hours talking with, listening to people who believe the CIA is watching them, their phones are bugged, the television sends them messages, they are emissaries of God, the voices tell them they must kill someone, they are controlled by radar, Xrays, Radio waves, microchips, which in turn are controlled by the police, shadowy evil figures, particular races, the CIA, the Mafia, Martians and Venusians. The devil has figured in many of these conversations. God in many others.

I have talked with people who fear to leave the house, who keep the blinds down lest the watchers watch them, people who can’t cross an open patch of land, people who must count the ceiling tiles, who must pray every time they think a bad thought, people who must have every sequence of action and thought end in an even number.

I have talked with people too depressed to talk, to move, to shit, to piss. I have talked with people too agitated, too distraught, too full of dread to sit. I have talked to people who assumed I came from either God or The Devil or both or either. I have talked to people who could not complete a single sentence without it wandering elsewhere. I have written questions on paper for people who feared to talk at all. I have talked with people who keep their eyes on the door, or on the ground.

I write fiction and plays. Dreaming up historic, family, life event, and even intrauterine causes for mental illness is fascinating. I have entered a patient’s delusions. I have explained to a woman who thought her self to be Queen that I was the Prime Minister and therefore, in our parliamentary democracy, someone she could listen to. I have talked to “the illegitimate son of Adolf Hitler”, to a man who could “whistle up the wind”, and to women who set themselves on fire. I have talked with a man who killed two children and then their mother.

I would actually be content (but for the suffering from depression of my own mother) to have these people in humane mental hospitals, fed and clothed and active and cared for and available for me to talk with, explore, dialogue with, interpret, help to find a psychological cause, a trauma, a series of adverse childhood experiences that might explain their perceptions of reality. In fact I have done all of these. I have sat next to a manic with arm on her chair to comfort without touching, on a mattress on the floor with a man wanting to kill somebody, in parking lots and back porches. I have talked with a “King of Kings.”

It is fascinating. It is human. It is dramatic. It is sometimes comedic. It can provide me with wonderful fodder for my fiction, my plays.

But I am also a doctor. And as much as I romantically like the idea of being an Alienist, living in the manor house of the large Asylum and dining with the “lunatics”, or setting them free to roam a Grecian Isle, I must try my best to relieve their suffering. And, it seems, that from the mid 1960’s, just when I entered this field of psychiatry, we began to develop pharmaceutical agents that actually work, that relieve suffering, that restore functioning, that control these terrible illnesses.

My patients want their suffering relieved. They want their function restored. They want their illnesses controlled.

So, my anti-psychiatry friends, I must continue to prescribe drugs, relieve suffering, help restore functioning, and forgo the psychoanalytic pleasures, the philosophical, poetic explorations, the mad interpretations, just as I must insist on vaccinations for all children, and forgo all the wonderful and fanciful spiritual and moral interpretations of spots, and fevers, and delirium of the early 19th century.

7 thoughts on “Anti-Psychiatry Bold and Profane

  1. Based on my more than 50 years of experience with my own serious mental illness and the experiences of the many fellow sufferers I know and have known, for most of us to function effectively and relatively painlessly in this world some medication is essential. I know of some exceptions but these people live extremely disciplined, regimented lives to be able to function without meds. Most of us couldn’t do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. you have said it all.

    In the early sixties after becoming an SRN (UK) I began training as a Registered mental Nurse RMN and just like you I thought that people were driven mad from life’s circumstances. It seems to me Shakespeare struggled with the notion of what caused madness.

    However gradually I began to tease apart the notion that some mental dysfunction might be a result of a mal function of the brain with a biological underpinning. This became clearer to me as the years went by. Medicines often make these illnesses bearable and manageable and they work pretty well for some. Certainly some of the antics of the pharmaceuticals need to be held in check, but like the need for insulin in diabetes, the need for antipsychotics and antidepressants etc are realities that cannot be ignored.

    Having battled painfully with the antipsychiatry people for more than three decades in Ontario , I can only say that they avoid some facts. They trot out words like choice whereas a person trapped by torturing delusions is not exactly a free agent or able to advocate for themselves. I could go on.

    I trained in the early sixties and there were older patients in the hospitals, who had been very insane for years who had more recently regained some sanity because of the new pharmaceutical intervention. Older staff were often amazed at these new tools. Some of these staff were impatient with me because I tried to philosophize about madness. Eventually I cottoned on, but it took a bit of time to break through my nonsense. I even bought Thomas S. book “the myth of mental illness” sitting in the upscale book store. near I might add the upscale Asylum at Virginia Water. I had also noted that madness afflicts the rich and poor in the same way. Though that fact I resisted for a while.

    Thank you again Dr Dawson. Patricia Forsdyke.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I, having been on both sides of the proverbial glass, in large part agree with your assertion that medications are most often the FIRST step in recovery from psychiatric symptoms. I too have sat with many who were experiencing similar distortions of reality providing support, a listening ear, encouragement when needed… all of which I needed during my episodes psychoses. Having had paranoid delusions, the fixated belief of the military implanting a microchip in my body, having heard persecutory voices, believing wholeheartedly that the government was trying to kill me, I have experienced the devastating realization that these were manifestations of my own mind. After such a revelation, I have spiraled. to the depths of shame induced, suicidal depression. While medications have the efficacy to clear our minds just enough to all but diminish these symptoms, I can also attest to the heart of healing and change occurring in psychotherapy. I stand firm, through both professional observation and personal suffering and continued healing, that medications without counseling is about as ineffective as therapy without medications in cases of true psychosis, paralyzing anxiety attacks, devastating depression. I agree in full that we have an innate desire to heal and be free from such debilitating agony, and true healing happens in such cases when psychiatry and therapy are seen as and implemented as equal components to the path of recovery. Thank you for the thought provoking article, as well as your work as a prescribing provider. Your services make a difference beyond articulation. Many blessings.


  4. With respect I believe that what mentally ill folks (and their families)really want is confirmation that their governments understand and depend on scientific research into the human brain diseases that beset humanity. Let’s fund this research with sufficient resources to find a cure for chronic diseases that have bedeviled teens and early “twenties” for centuries–and still do.

    They want their lives back, not just a mini-reduction of their symptoms via unscientific social studies. Just as with other dread biological diseases, only science can free them from a life devastated by the so-far unchallenged microbes, prions, misfolded proteins, parasites that destroy their brains by creating schizophrenia, depression, autism, clinical anxiety and the myriad of other chronic brain infections.

    Still hoping.


  5. As a patient, an activist, a support worker, consultant and advisor, I support psychiatry totally. Do I believe it infallible. Of course not. Our ignorance of the the brain, it;s neuropsychology, it’s complex interactions are barely being understood. I have expressed tto my own treating psychiatrist (of the last 14 years) that I consider it a science backed art.
    This does not diminish it’s value or it’s legitimacy.
    I am tired of these screaming witchfinders who try so hard to scepticise the only real tool we currently have for managing simple and complex mental illness. Many of these ill informed groupies of Scientology say that mental illness is a fraud. There is apparently no such thing.
    Well my own illness has been causing me distress for nigh on 35 years. It is real. And it is indescribably horrific in it’s effect and it’s affect.

    It’s not ok to call these people ignorant? Deluded? please excuse this- fuckknuckles?

    Reactionarism is a powerful voice. So continue , good doctor, continue to speak of realities.
    If it means anything at all, I support your voice in thhis matter.



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