"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 14, 2019

Horrors in the Annals of Psychiatry

In the late 1990s, when I was living with other grad students in the magnificent Somerset House in Ottawa, one of my house-mates was in medical school. I've never forgotten something he said with reference to chemotherapy: in a hundred years time, he argued, people will look back on what is today cutting-edge treatment of cancer and be utterly horrified by the barbarity of it all. Chemotherapy, he said, is in many ways a terribly destructive way to treat cancer, but in some cases it's all we've got.

The same thing could equally be said about psychiatry. I continue to read the lives of psychoanalysts in the United Kingdom, and recently finished R.D. Laing's Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist. Laing seems to have been no moral exemplar, at least in his family life, and some of his ideas are rather farouche. But his basic sense of humanity and decency, and his willingness to buck the consensus (e.g., against putting so-called schizophrenics into insulin-induced comas from which not all of them returned alive) of the time in favour of trying to reach people written off by the medical establishment, must be counted unto him as righteousness.

Wisdom, Madness, and Folly is a short but harrowing set of memoirs especially of immediate post-war psychiatry in Glasgow and beyond. It is, among other things, a reminder that so-called scientists are as much herd animals as anybody else, and "scientific consensus" often comes at the expense of science properly so called, one of whose most crucial practices must surely remain that of verifying, and if necessary falsifying, conclusions taken for granted. Otherwise we end up doing horrible things to people we have written off as "unreachable" or "unworthy."

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