Yes, We Need Psychiatric Labels

Recently I stumbled upon a Huffington Post article by one Dr. Peter Breggin, who lists himself on HuffPo as a “reformed psychiatrist.”

This should’ve told me everything I needed to know, but I read on.

The article is titled “Our Psychiatric Civilization” and tries to make the tired point that in this day and age, we are defining ourselves by our psychiatric diagnoses and not by anything else. It’s difficult to fully dissemble this argument because Breggin unceremoniously shoves so many unrelated arguments into the same sad little article, but his main points seem to be:

  • Psychotropic medication is overprescribed.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses (i.e. major depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc.) oversimplify the human condition.
  • Back in the good ol’ days, people apparently did a lot of spiritual soul-searching rather than resorting to all those damn pills.
  • The way people connect in our culture is through their psychiatric diagnoses.

I honestly don’t know which planet Breggin is living on, but it’s certainly not mine. I’ve addressed the overprescription crap elsewhere so I won’t talk about that now.

As for the second point, this is, to a certain extent, true. Psychiatric diagnoses DO oversimplify one’s psychological state, but that’s because you have to have a starting point. If you’re diagnosed with ADHD, you know that, some way–whether it’s through medication, therapy, or some combination of the two–you need to learn how to focus your attention better. If you’re diagnosed with major depression, you know that you need to somehow learn how to fix your cognitive distortions and become more active. If you’re diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, you know that you need to do things that counteract the shortening of the days–use a full-spectrum lamp, take vitamin D supplements, etc.

Just as knowing that I have, say, asthma or the flu doesn’t describe the full state of my entire body, a psychiatric diagnosis isn’t meant to describe my entire psychological condition. Breggin seems to think that we live in a world where all we know about each other is what pills we’re popping, and nothing else. This is ludicrous. In fact, that’s something we don’t often know, given the stigma that still exists regarding mental illness.

Breggin goes on to claim in a condescending way that there’s no reason for people to connect with each other based on psychiatric diagnoses at all:

Patients ask me, “Should I join a bipolar support group?” If I were flippant, which I never am with patients, I could respond, “Only if you want support in believing you’re bipolar and need to take psychiatric drugs.”

My first thought upon reading this drivel was, Thank G-d he doesn’t say this to patients. My second was more like, What the fuck?

The idea that seeking support from others who face similar issues as you is somehow disempowering and promotes seeing oneself as a victim is quite possibly the most batshit stupid thing I’ve ever heard from someone whose profession is helping the mentally disordered. Shockingly enough, people like to feel like they’re not the only ones with problems. Perhaps this has truly never occurred to Dr. Breggin.

Quite the contrary, I have benefited immensely from connecting to other people who have depression and other mental disorders. Many of my friends have one, and together we’ve formed a sort of support network. All of us can always count on having someone to talk to, and those of us who aren’t as far along in the process of recovery as others can ask friends for advice. I don’t know where I’d be right now without that.

(Maybe in a perfect world, we could just have support groups called “Fucked-up People Support Group,” but somehow this seems counterintuitive.)

Anyway, psychiatric diagnoses can also be immensely helpful in explaining to healthy friends and family what the deal is. While Breggin seems to think that “depressed” is some sort of insulting, disempowering label I ought to reject, let me tell you some of the labels that my close friends and family described me with before they knew I had depression:

  • overdramatic
  • overemotional
  • bitchy
  • attention whore
  • immature
  • insensitive
  • selfish
  • crazy
  • weird
  • fucked up

Yeah um, I’d take “depressed” over that any day.

Not surprisingly, you don’t make a particularly strong case for yourself when you try to insist to people that, no, it’s not that you’re really overdramatic, it’s just that you have this problem with, well, being overdramatic, and you’re trying to work on it, you promise!

Trust me, that doesn’t work. What does work is saying, “I have a disorder called depression that distorts my thinking and sometimes makes me act in a way that seems overdramatic. With therapy and medication, it’ll improve.”

Apparently, though, Dr. Breggin is much too intent on destroying his own profession to allow those with mental illnesses even that small comfort. After all, he makes it pretty obvious that the reason he hates psychiatric labels so much is because they make it possible to prescribe medication, and that, of course, is a big no-no.

If I got a dollar every time some well-meaning fool tried to inform me that the medication that saved my life is unnecessary, I would have enough money to actually afford a therapist.

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