If you spend as much time as I do on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the meme that shows a picture of a forest with the words, “This is an antidepressant” and a picture of Prozac with the words, “This is shit.” The meme comes to us from the folks at TruthTheory.com, which “offers alternative news, documentaries and much more.” It sounds interesting at first, until you look at some of their other memes, which include 9/11 conspiracies, anti-GMO memes and a claim that the government is using Snapchat filters to create a database. Naturally the anti-Prozac meme met with a large amount of backlash, and for a good reason: claiming psychiatry is a “pseudoscience” is deadly.
But where did this idea come from? The main source is psychiatrist Thomas Szasz’s 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness, where he argued mental illness is just a “metaphor,” and that psychiatry is no more legitimate than alchemy. The book became an instant classic, and the American Humanist Association named Szasz Humanist of the Year in 1973. And to be fair, Szasz was right about a few things, like the overuse of electroshock therapy. However, his main argument—that mental illness is just a metaphor—is just plain wrong.
A decade ago, Dr. Steven Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast debated Dr. Fred Baughman over whether or not psychiatry is a pseudoscience. According to Baughman, because mental illness has no pathology, it’s not a real thing. Novella responded to Baughman’s arguments in a five-part series on his blog, but some readers didn’t like what he had to say, including one person named Dirk. Novella finally addressed Dirk’s claims in a 2012 blog post where he explained, while Szasz did raise legitimate concerns in the 1960s, science has since given us a better understanding of mental illness. Novella writes:
Dirk begins with the “mental illness is just a metaphor” argument. This is a non sequitur. The neuroscientific model of the mind (and psychiatry is part of neuroscience) is that the mind is what the brain does. When we are talking about mental illness we are therefore talking about a brain disorder … Also, the lines between neurology and psychiatry have blurred over the years as we have learned more and more about brain function and how it relates to illnesses. Psychiatry is now more of a clinical emphasis than a distinct discipline from neurology. Psychiatry still deals with brain disorders, but focuses on those that primarily manifest as disorders of mood, thought, and behavior. These are not fundamentally different from brain disorders that manifest as abnormal movements, pain, language or cognitive problems, but those are treated by neurologists. Psychiatrists have also been steadily moving toward biological treatments of psychiatric disorders, as we learn more about their neurological causes, increasingly leaving therapy to other mental health professions, such as counselors and psychologists.
Indeed, most people are familiar with the Mayo Clinic PET scan images comparing the brain of a person with depression to a person without depression. There are also studies that suggest “mentally ill people have abnormal limbic system responses to various tasks, irrespective of diagnosis,” although it’s still too early to know if neuroimaging can diagnose mental illnesses. However, using Szasz’s arguments against psychiatry nowadays not only overlooks the tremendous progress psychiatry has made since the 1960s, but also perpetuates the idea that taking psychiatric medication is shameful.
Katie Klabusich wrote about the dangers of the “Big Pharma is overmedicating our society for profit” myth in The Establishment last year. While she acknowledged serious flaws with the pharmaceutical industry—specifically medication prices—Klabusich criticized how the anti-Big Pharma conspiracies shame people who seriously need medical help for mental illness, including her. “I didn’t need commercials or a pharmaceutical rep camped out in my doctor’s waiting room to convince me I needed help,” she wrote. “I’d been self-medicating for years; it had almost killed me, and it certainly hadn’t made me feel any better … I didn’t want medication to numb me out or make me feel less; I wanted medication so I could engage more fully with my life and the people in it. I wanted to be able to work, to play, to volunteer, to enjoy leisure time. I’m only partway to my first effective medication protocol, but I’m already able to do some of those things.”
So despite what Tom Cruise might say, psychiatry is not a pseudoscience. It may not be perfect (anyone who’s struggled to find the right medication can attest to this), but it’s not enough evidence to say the entire field is bunk. Also, by using flaws with the system as “proof” the entire field is bunk it perpetuates the idea that taking psychiatric meds is shameful. So whatever you do, stop sharing that damn “This is an anti-depressant/This is shit” meme!
Trav Mamone is a queer trans blogger who writes about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means Podcast and co-host the Biskeptical Podcast.