Debunking Another Anti-Psych Myth and Worthwhile Anti-Stigma


By Marvin Ross

Another myth claimed by anti-psychiatry advocates is that people with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia have significantly shortened lives because of the pharmaceutical treatment they get. There is no doubt that psychiatric medications have bad side effects that result in greater susceptibility to physical ailments like diabetes and cardiovascular disease but there is another explanation that is largely overlooked – stigma by medical professionals.

Over the years, there have been a number of studies demonstrating that those with serious mental illness do not receive adequate physical health care. A 2018 study pointed out that There is evidence of inequitable access to and/or uptake of physical and dental health care by those with schizophrenia”.

A 2011 study suggested that there is sufficient evidence that people with SMI are less likely to receive standard levels of care for most of these diseases (Nutritional and metabolic diseases, cardiovascular diseases, viral diseases, respiratory tract diseases, musculoskeletal diseases, sexual dysfunction, pregnancy complications, stomatognathic diseases, and possibly obesity-related cancers) .

A cross sectional survey in 27 countries found that More than 17% of patients experienced discrimination when treated for physical health care problems. More than 38% of participants felt disrespected by mental health staff.”

the latest study published in January comes from Sweden where there exists an impressive database of patients to draw upon. What researchers did was to compare 4536 patients (cases) and 44,949 controls. Cases included patients with reported preventable harm in primary health care and emergency departments from January 1st, 2011 until December 31st, 2016.

What they found was that Psychiatric disease, including all psychiatric diagnoses regardless of severity, nearly doubled the risk of being a reported case of preventable harm. The authors pointed out that a significant reason for this is what is called diagnostic overshadowing. This is a process whereby physical symptoms are misattributed to mental illness and therefore ignored.

Most of us (and I suspect mainly women) have been told that our complaints are all in our heads when doctors cannot find a cause for the symptoms. When someone with schizophrenia reports symptoms, they are often overlooked because of the schizophrenia.

The most egregious example of that took place at the ER at St Joseph’s Health Centre in Hamilton Ontario in 2002. Rusty Potter, a 40 year old man with schizophrenia and asthma was sent to the ER by his family doctor because he had pneumonia. Randy was known to the ER staff because he volunteered at the hospital and his address was a group home for people with schizophrenia. As a result, they assumed his problems were psychiatric despite what he told them. When he was having increased difficulty breathing, a nurse handed him a paper bag to breathe into assuming he was having a panic attack.

Randy arrested and died in the waiting room.

I wrote about this in my book Schizophrenia Medicine’s Mystery Society’s Shame and quoted one of the patient advisors who wrote to the local paper and said that:

persons with mental illness do not obtain appropriate medical treatment. All too often, our clients don’t get access to medical services or their concerns go unrecognized because the symptoms are viewed as part of their illness or they are attention seeking by asking for help.

Dr Miriam Schuchman wrote in another Canadian paper (The Globe and Mail), that medical staff in doctor’s offices or in ER’s may be uncomfortable treating these people.

There goes another anti-psychiatry myth and a stigma that does need to be corrected.

And on another note, the world recently lost one of its key anti-psychiatry advocates in Toronto’s Bonnie Burstow who began an anti-psychiatry scholarship. Ms Brstow received numerous obituaries including the New York Tines 

3 thoughts on “Debunking Another Anti-Psych Myth and Worthwhile Anti-Stigma

  1. There is no doubt that people who are afflicted with serious psychiatric illnesses are discriminated against and often do not receive timely/adequate care for other illnesses that many have during the course of their lives.

    With regard to the Bonnie Burstow’s obituary in the Globe and Mail this morning, I blame her for many tragedies. Along with her cronies, she can be blamed for inflicting harm on people who have been seduced into thinking that they do not have a serious mental illness. Her anti- ECT pitch has caused endless misery and likely shortened numerous lives.

    Anarchy and dogma are a “toxic” mix. A man working for a prominent agency in Geneva walked across the Swiss Alps in the middle of winter, thus suffering horrible frost bite, when he was trapped in an acute psychotic episode. His father told me the following: “Don’t let anyone tell me that my son did not need life-saving treatment for his mental illness.”

    I am personally all for having checks and balances around inappropriate treatment, but to withhold life-saving treatment is outrageous. This wickedness persists in 2020 thanks to the anti-psychiatric folks.

    Burstow and followers have got away with so much guff. I came across many of them in the course of my advocacy since the nineteen eighties. They have wandered around this province (often with a bullhorn) doing much harm to vulnerable people. They have had access to many campuses to bend the truth, spew lies, thus causing loads of misery to families and their ill loved ones.


  2. The relentless pushing that individuals with schizophrenia have no insight is the major stigma being pushed onto individuals with schizophrenia. Very frequently individuals with schizophrenia do have valid points of view on a wide range of issues and secondly civility demands that harmless and eccentric views of individuals with schizophrenia be treated respectfully. A patient walks into a psychiatrist’s office thinking ‘She holds i have absolutely no insight. There is no reason to talk to her at all.’ and then there is no therapeutic interview. Not all family situations of individuals with schizophrenia are perfect. Others members of the family can be very difficult to get along with. Problems in families may not all lie with the individual with schizophrenia though the ‘schizophrenics have no insight’ mantra pushes that. When nothing that is said will be listened to respectfully all too frequently nothing will be said and patients will refuse treatment.


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