What Is Anti-Psychiatry?

Debra Barnhart

Controversy about the treatment of mental illness has existed for centuries. The anti-psychiatry movement advances the notion that mental illness is not biologically based as some mental health experts believe. Many members of this movement also suggest that psychiatric labels can be harmful to the patient, and some proponents of anti-psychiatry do not advocate the use of medication to treat mental problems.

The most commonly diagnosed mental problem is depression.
The most commonly diagnosed mental problem is depression.

Over time theories of mental illness treatment have swung from recommendations of rest and enjoyment of nature and the arts, to confrontation and struggle with mental illness in order to overcome it. According to some, the notion that mental illness could be managed and subdued gave rise to the institution of mental hospitals. Anti-psychiatry coalesced as a backlash against accepted psychiatric theory in the 1960s when Michel Foucault, R.D. Laing, David Cooper and Thomas Szasz spearheaded a movement that questioned the motives of the psychiatric establishment. They claimed that psychiatric treatments were faulty at best and that patients suffered from being unfairly categorized.

Proponents of anti-psychiatry often point to the relatively recent spike in the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among children.
Proponents of anti-psychiatry often point to the relatively recent spike in the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among children.

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The most commonly diagnosed mental problem is depression, and while most mental health experts would argue that this disease has a biochemical basis, there are those in the anti-psychiatry movement who claim there is no substantial evidence to support the claim of a biological cause for depression. According to them, a biological foundation for depression cannot be proven by blood tests and brain scans. Some in the anti-psychiatry movement believe that depression is merely the result of a reaction to negative life experiences.

Many people argue that drugs used to treat mental disorders have helped them live more happy and productive lives.
Many people argue that drugs used to treat mental disorders have helped them live more happy and productive lives.

Proponents of the anti-psychiatry movement believe that a diagnosis of mental disease can actually be harmful to the patient. Indeed, they believe that labeling someone as mentally ill can have a devastating effect on the person’s well-being. They are particularly critical of the prevalence of the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among children and claim that it causes damage to mental health and self-esteem. Some members of the anti-psychiatry movemement even propose that schizophrenia is not a real disease.

Those who believe in anti-psychiatry may tout talk therapy over treatment of mental conditions with medication.
Those who believe in anti-psychiatry may tout talk therapy over treatment of mental conditions with medication.

The anti-psychiatry movement appears to be skeptical of the medical establishment. Not only are mental institutions scrutinized by this group, but pharmaceutical companies that develop drugs to treat mental illness are also looked at warily. Despite this movement's skepticism of the medical establishment and drugs used to treat mental illness, there are probably many people who would argue that antidepressants and other drugs used to treat mental disorders have helped them live more happy and productive lives.

In the 1960's, Michel Foucault helped spearhead a campaign questioning the motives of the psychiatric establishment.
In the 1960's, Michel Foucault helped spearhead a campaign questioning the motives of the psychiatric establishment.

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