August 16, 2017


23° C, Partly cloudy

Full Forecast


Advertise With Us

Psychiatry a much-maligned, misunderstood field

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2015 (851 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman is out to set the record straight. An experienced clinician and former president of the American Psychiatric Association, he's well aware that his profession has its critics -- likely due to their complicated relationships with their mothers.

But there's a fascinating history here. And the good doctor wants to share psychiatry's triumphs as well as its blunders, so long as the reader understands that the medical specialty is older and wiser, its worst sins a thing of the past. It's a tale that is equal parts cringe-inducing and uplifting, but almost always entertaining.

Psychiatry is traditionally a medical specialty, but one that has long stood apart. By the late 1800s, medicine had reached a point where almost anything that might be physically wrong with a person could at least be recognized, although the effectiveness of available treatments might vary wildly. Diseases of the mind, however, remained apparently intractable.

Lieberman starts his story with Franz Mesmer, inventor of the (entirely spurious) idea of "animal magnetism" as well as hypnosis, then quickly moves on to Sigmund Freud, by some measures the first real psychiatrist -- which is not to say he was a good one.

The author pulls no punches here: Freud may have redefined psychiatry, but his theories were mostly fantasy. It would take the better part of a century for the field to pull away from the pseudo-science of Freudian psychoanalysis.

On the other hand, one can appreciate the bind psychiatrists were in. No one really understood how the mind worked, and even less so the actual organ housing it. And physicians aren't scientists, as a rule -- they're healers. With each patient the goal is to help them get better, not collect data or test a theory.

Thus Lieberman paints a pitiable picture of the beleagured psychiatrist: essentially a physician specializing in untreatable, incurable, misunderstood diseases. Chaining madmen and women to cold asylum walls for the duration of their horrific lives can hardly have given any joy to someone who had taken the Hippocratic oath.

No wonder, then, that these modern Sisyphuses were eager to try literally anything that might help relieve their patients' suffering: lobotomies, electroshock therapy and ever-more-imaginative drug cocktails were applied. These were desperate ideas with little hope of working. But in some cases they did, and every small step forward changed the field forever.

In recent decades, a revolution in brain science has had a ripple effect in many medical and scientific fields, but none moreso than psychiatry. Spurred on by new technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging, transcranial magnetic stimulation and advanced genetic testing, the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness has been transformed once more.

Lieberman has two goals with this book: to describe the twisting and uncertain path psychiatry has taken in travelling from nonsense and superstition to legitimate medical science, and to get the word out that attitudes towards mental illness need to likewise move out of the 1950s.

Mental illness is now better understood than it has ever been before -- more importantly, argues the author, it's more treatable than it has ever been. This is a public-health message that many advocacy groups have been working to get out to the public, but not everybody has gotten it yet.

No one should have to live with an untreated mental illness. No one should feel the need to be ashamed of or hide their mental illness.

The doctor is finally in.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.


Advertise With Us

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective January 2015.

Photo Store

Scroll down to load more