By Dr David Laing Dawson
The narratives from the proponents of Open Dialogue remind me of the narratives arising from the psychoanalysts working in private psychiatric hospitals in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Many case studies were available and even books written on the subject.
In the late 1960’s we were unlocking the doors of the mental hospital in Vancouver and applying therapeutic community principles. The principles and ideas of the therapeutic community can be found in the activities of the Open Dialogue program. And before that they can be found in the practices of small hospitals from the Moral Treatment Era of the 1850’s to 1890’s, and again, briefly, in some mental hospital reforms shortly after WW1 and before the Great Depression, albeit, in each case, within the language and pervasive philosophies of the time.
In the late 1960’s we had already discovered how wonderfully effective chlorpromazine could be in containing mania and reducing the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia.
So in this context, knowing the evidence, the clear evidence of chlorpromazine being the first and only actually effective treatment for psychosis, and lithium for mania (beyond containment, sedation, shelter, kindness, protection, food, routine grounding activities, time and care) it behooved us to look closely at the claims of the psychotherapists who were writing such elegant and positive case studies from the American private hospitals.
So I read them.
They were interesting reading, detailing the relationship of therapist and psychotic patient, interpreting the content of the psychosis, and the painstaking time consuming process of building a relationship, working to help the patient view the world in a different manner, and always, through the pages of these reports, it was said great progress was being made. And they all ended with something like (this is the one I remember best) “Unfortunately, despite showing so much progress, patient X assaulted a nurse and had to be transferred to the State facility.” Curiously, as with many “studies” I read today, despite the obviously bad outcome, a paragraph is added at the end extolling the progress made (before the unfortunate outcome) and recommending we stay the course.
There are many interesting explanations for the continuing anti-medication (for mental illness) philosophies. (Note that almost nobody objects to taking medication for other kinds of suffering and illness). Marvin and I have written about a few – the preciousness of the sense of self, the wish that there be an immortal mind that can outlive a brain, the fear of being controlled, distrust of Big Pharma, professional jealousies, and turf wars. But writing the above reminds me of another reason this irrationality persists.
It was clearer to me then (1960’s/1970’s) than it is now, because we really wanted to find ways of helping without medication: It is much more ego gratifying to mental health workers of all stripes when our patients get better simply because of our presence, our words, our care, ourselves, than if we just happen to prescribe the right medication.
I remember well a patient, a professional, a few years ago, thanking me for helping him overcome a severe depression. “Nah,” I said, “I just managed to prescribe the right medication for you.” “No, no,” he said. “It was more than that.”
All right. There are a few moments when I can be attentive, thoughtful, kind, and even find the right words. But to try doing that alone while withholding medication for severe mental illness would be malpractice, cruel, egotistical, even sadistic.