The Concept of Mental Illness: Spurious or Valid?

On January 17, 2013, Peter Kinderman, PhD, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool, wrote an article titled Grief and Anxiety are not mental illnesses.

On February 4, 2013, Steven Novella, MD, wrote a critique of Dr. Kinderman’s article.

On February 20, I wrote a critique of Dr. Novella’s article.

And finally, on September 17, Dr. Novella wrote More On Mental Illness Denial and How Not to Argue, a critique of my critique.

There are a number of fundamental issues involved, and I feel I should try to address at least some of these.


In his critique of Dr. Kinderman’s article, Dr. Novella stated:

“The question is essentially how we should think about symptoms of mood, thought, and behavior.”

Apart from the word “symptom,” I am in complete agreement.  The essential question, the central issue at the core of this entire debate is:  how can we best conceptualize problems of mood, thought, and behavior.

I would prefer to say problems of feeling, thinking, and behaving (i.e. verbs rather than nouns) because in my view, this better reflects the fact that these are activities rather than entities.  But this is not crucial to the central issue.

However, the use of the word “symptom” rather than “problem” is central.  Dr. Novella is saying that the essential question is: how do we conceptualize problems of mood, thought, and behavior – but rather than address this question, he anticipates the answer – they are symptoms, which, I suggest, entails the clear implication that “behind” these “symptoms” there are “illnesses.”

Dr. Novella goes on to express the belief that the best approach (to problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving) is something that recognizes “… the relative roles of biology, situation, and culture (and their interactions) in forming a person’s mental state.”  And if by “mental state” he means thinking, feeling and behaving, then I would agree.

Next Dr. Novella points out that the brain is an organ which can malfunction.  I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.  But he goes on:

“Further, even a biologically healthy brain can be pushed beyond tolerance limits resulting in an unhealthy mental state. We can reasonably define ‘unhealthy’ in this context (probably a more appropriate word than ‘abnormal’) as follows – a mental state that is significantly outside the range of most people, may represent the relative lack of a cognitive ability that most people have, and results in definable harm. That last bit is critical – it has to be harmful.”

And this, of course, is where we have to part company.  Assuming, as I said earlier, that by “mental state” he means a kind of composite snapshot of an individual’s thinking, feeling and behaving, then in my view a mental state can be neither healthy nor sick, in any conventional sense of these terms.

But, as is clear from his definition of “unhealthy” quoted above, Dr. Novella is not using these terms in their conventional sense.  Let’s take a look at his definition:

  • significantly outside the range of most people
  • may represent the relative lack of a cognitive ability that most people have
  • and results in definable harm

This is clearly not a definition of sickness in the normal medical sense.

Now I will certainly concede that in common speech, the words sick and unhealthy have been considerably extended in recent decades.  People routinely talk about an unhealthy lifestyle, for instance, when what they mean is an unwholesome lifestyle; and behavior that is crude or offensive is often referred to as sick.  But in formal speech and writing, and certainly within general medical practice, the words sick and unhealthy mean something wrong with the anatomy or physiology of the organism.  One can speak of a sick person or a healthy person, or, for that matter, of a sick horse or a healthy horse.  But one can’t validly speak of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving as being sick or healthy.  The activity of thinking can legitimately attract adjectives such as cogent, muddled, inconsequential, bizarre, etc…  The activity of feeling could be described as painful, joyous, etc… The activity of behaving could be described as productive, counterproductive, relaxed, frenetic, etc…  But one can’t attribute sickness or health to thoughts, feelings, or behaviors any more than one can attribute the quality of color to concepts.

I can’t, of course, dictate to Dr. Novella how to use or not use words, but what has to be acknowledged is that when he uses the term “unhealthy mental state,” he is very emphatically not using the word unhealthy in the conventional, formal medical sense.  The adjectives sick and healthy simply don’t apply to the activities of thinking, feeling, and behaving in the same way that they apply to organisms.  And this is true even if the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are “outside the range of most people,” and/or “result in definable harm.”

It is noteworthy that Dr. Novella expressed the belief that “unhealthy” is a better choice of word than “abnormal” without giving any reasons or arguments to support this position.  In my view, the choice of words like unhealthy, sick, ill, etc., in this context has no special value or advantage, and is, in fact, misleading.  The words also beg what Dr. Novella concedes is the fundamental question:  i.e. how best to conceptualize problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving; for Dr. Novella they are to be conceptualized as illnesses.

If Dr. Novella had stated that “…even a biologically healthy brain can be pushed beyond tolerance limits resulting in…” problematic thoughts, feelings, and or behavior, then we would be in general agreement.  But by arbitrarily labeling problematic thoughts, feelings, and/or behavior as unhealthy mental states (i.e. as mental illnesses), he is assuming the answer to the very question that he himself concedes is critical and essential to the whole issue.  For Dr. Novella (and indeed for psychiatry generally), problematic thoughts, feelings, and or behavior are mental illnesses.  This is not something they discover; rather, it is contained within their definition.  It is how psychiatry has decided to conceptualize these problems, and it is a decision that has profound implications in psychiatric practice.


All of this leads fairly naturally into a second point of dispute between Dr. Novella and myself.  It is my contention that it has become standard practice in American psychiatry to tell clients that their presenting problem, whether it be depression, anger, worry, paranoid thoughts, misbehavior, etc., is the result of a mental illness which is a real illness “just like diabetes” and needs to be “treated” with drugs.  Dr. Novella suggests that this is a caricature that he has never encountered in practice.

He expresses the belief that the standards and philosophy that underpin a profession can be gleaned from official publications, academics, and published standards rather than from the “average private practitioner in the field.”

To which I can only say that I disagree.  As a case in point, would the official publications, published standards, etc., of, say, ten years ago have alerted a naïve outsider to the extent to which psychiatric research and psychiatric prescribing had been corrupted by pharmaceutical money.  But even setting aside those kinds of unethical matters, it seems almost self-evident to me that the best way to find out what psychiatrists are doing is to interact with psychiatrists.  And in my experience, psychiatrists routinely say to their clients things like:  depression is an illness, just like diabetes; and just as a diabetic has to take insulin to treat his illness, so a person with depression must take his antidepressants.  This has never been any kind of secret.  I have often heard psychiatrists make these kinds of statements, and I have heard literally dozens (perhaps hundreds) of clients repeating these kinds of statements and attributing them to psychiatrists that they had seen.  In addition, this kind of message was a mainstay component of a good deal of psycho-pharmaceutical advertizing for years.  If this was not psychiatry’s philosophy, why did they not take steps to stop the ads or at the very least publish counter-information in appropriate places?

Now obviously, I haven’t conducted any kind of formal study of psychiatrists’ behavior, and my observations are limited by my experiences.  It’s possible that my interactions with psychiatrists and with clients have not been representative of American psychiatry generally.

However, I have just Googled the phrase “mental illness just like diabetes” and got 1.3 million hits!  So somebody has been saying that mental illnesses are real illnesses “just like diabetes” and the notion is generating a great deal of discussion.  I have also Googled the term “chemical imbalance” and got 960,000 hits.  Here again, it was psychiatry that promoted this concept, and it is still being discussed actively, and in my experience, is still widely believed.

In his September 17 article, Dr. Novella contends that the general practice of psychiatry is not based on the simplistic formula: mental illnesses are real illnesses just like diabetes, and are treated with drugs.  Rather, he states that psychiatric practice recognizes that problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving:

” …are caused by the full spectrum of influences from biology to social and environmental.”

It is certainly possible that Dr. Novella is accurately portraying psychiatric practice as he has experienced it.  But it is difficult to reconcile his portrayal with the fact that most psychiatric practice has degenerated into 15-minute “med checks” every two or three months.  How much attention can one give to social and environmental considerations in 15 minutes, given that at least some of this time is already budgeted for discussion of drug side effects?

From the tenor of his earlier writings, it occurs to me that Dr. Novella might dispute my contention that 15-minute “med checks” have become the norm, so I spent five minutes on the ‘net and found two articles.  The first is by Douglas Mossman, MD, Director of the Institute of Law and Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati.  It’s called Successfully navigating the 15-minute-‘med check’.  Here’s a quote:

“Even psychiatrists who deplore 15-minute med checks recognize that they have become standard care in psychiatry.”

The second article was published on Psychiatric Times in September 2009.  It’s called Deconstructing the “Med Check,” and was written by Glen Gabbard, MD.  Here’s a quote:

“There can be little doubt in our current era that the brief ‘med check’ is becoming standard practice in psychiatry.”

Even Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, President of the APA, has gone on record lamenting the practice of “…hurriedly written prescriptions…” which, incidentally, he attributes to changes in reimbursement systems.


There are many specific points of contention between Dr. Novella and myself.  Attempting to pick up and unravel all of these would, I suggest, be tedious and repetitious.  But I would like to pick up just one which I think is representative.  Towards the end of his September article, he states:

“Hickey further explains his position toward the end of his post:

‘The deniers’ point, however, (or at least this denier’s point) is that mental illness is an archaic, pre-scientific concept with no explanatory value, exactly analogous to phlogiston or witchcraft.’

Wait – but I thought that brain disorders can cause behavior problems? Wouldn’t such a case that Hickey acknowledges exists be considered a ‘mental illness?’ I’m trying to be fair, but such comments certainly sound like mental illness denial to me.”

I had made the point in my earlier critique that brain problems can cause behavioral problems.  I have also stated that there are no mental illnesses; that the concept of mental illness is spurious.

Dr. Novella picks up my statement that brain problems can cause behavior problems and then claims to have caught me in a contradiction – because a brain problem that causes a behavior problem is a mental illness.  Therefore, mental illnesses must exist.

The flaw in the argument, however, goes back to the earlier discussion about the meaning of the term “mental illness.”  For Dr. Novella, any significant problem of thinking, feeling or behaving that entails harm is a mental illness.  My position is that mental illness is simply the label that psychiatrists give to significant problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving, and of course, that’s their prerogative.  They can call things by any name they wish.  A problem arises in this case, however, because the word “illness” already has an established meaning in the English language.  And labeling problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving as mental illnesses implies that they are illnesses in the conventional sense of the term.  Dr. Novella does indeed make it clear elsewhere that for him the “illness” in “mental illness” is being used in a special sense.  But this is fraught with potential for misunderstanding.  To maintain clarity under these conditions one would need to add the rider “(the word illness is not being used in its conventional sense)” every time one used the term “mental illness.”

But to get back to the point of contention, Dr. Novella has not caught me in an inconsistency.  Brain problems can indeed cause behavioral problems.  Late stage syphilis (when the germ attacks neural tissue) can cause a person to behave in a “crazy” manner.  What’s involved here is a brain illness (a real brain illness), of which the “crazy” behavior is a symptom (a real symptom).  That, for me, is the reality of the matter.  Dr. Novella, however, adds an additional component – that the “crazy” behavior is also a mental illness.  This is not some kind of additional fact or discovery.  It is simply Dr. Novella’s (and psychiatry’s) label being added arbitrarily and pointlessly to a perfectly clear medical phenomenon.  The fact is that the syphilis germ attacks the brain and causes “crazy” thinking and “crazy” behavior.  Dr. Novella, if I understand him correctly, would reword this as:  the syphilis germ attacks the brain, causing a mental illness, which causes crazy thinking and behavior.  Perhaps he doesn’t mean to impute causative significance to the “mental illness,” but that raises the question as to why one would introduce the concept at all?

So to answer his question:  “Wouldn’t such a case that Hickey acknowledges exists be considered a ‘mental illness?’ the simple answer is “no.”  The concept of “mental illness” adds nothing to our understanding of late stage syphilis or to our understanding of the crazy behavior.  It is simply the label that psychiatrists apply, arbitrarily and misleadingly, to all significant problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving, apparently even to problems of thinking that are caused by late-stage syphilis!


In his final paragraph in the September article, Dr. Novella states:

“If there is a reasonable position to be made against the concept of mental illness, I have yet to hear it. So far I have only encountered the level of argument similar to or worse than Hickey’s unfair and confused article. I am open to any reasonable argument to be made against my current position.”

Obviously this is a huge subject, and this post is already fairly lengthy.  But I will try to provide a brief summary of the case against the concept of mental illness.

1.  Psychiatry defines “mental illness” as any significant problem of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving.
2.  Psychiatry identifies a large number of specific “mental illnesses” to reflect specific problems of thinking, feeling and/or behaving.
3.  Psychiatry presents these specific “mental illnesses” as the proximate causes of the problems.
4.  The logic, however, is flawed, as is evident from the following hypothetical conversation.

Client’s daughter:  Why is my mother so sad; why is she so inactive?
Psychiatrist:  Because she has a mental illness called major depressive disorder.
Client’s daughter:  How do you know she has this illness?
Psychiatrist:  Because she is so sad and inactive.

The only evidence for the putative illness is the very behavior it purports to explain.

5.  When we, on this side of the debate, say that there are no mental illnesses, what’s meant is that the concept of mental illness is spurious conceptually, and has no explanatory value – it adds nothing to our understanding of problems of thinking, feeling and/or behaving.  It is misleading, in that it appears to offer an explanation.  It is also destructive, in that it serves to legitimize the widespread and ever-increasing use of drugs, increases the level of stigma attached to people who are experiencing these problems (Angermeyer, M.C. et al, 2011), and communicates the false message that people are powerless to deal with their problems without psychiatric intervention (i.e. drugs).

I have written extensively on these matters throughout the website (e.g. here and here), and the above summary is just that – a summary.

It is my guess that Dr. Novella would dispute much of this summary.  In particular, I suspect that he would object to the notion that “mental illness diagnoses” are presented by psychiatry as the proximate causes of the problems.  My contention is that assertions of this sort are routine in psychiatric practice; Dr. Novella states that this is not so and bases his position on “official publications” and other formal sources.

So let’s take a look at one “official publication” – the APA’s DSM.  This is psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

In general medical circles the diagnosis is the cause of the symptoms.  If one is very tired and is coughing up dreadful-looking stuff, and goes to see a physician, he will probably run some tests and may discover that the cause of these problems is pneumonia.  This is the diagnosis.  This is a real illness that causes real symptoms.  If you asked the physician for a diagnosis, he would understand clearly that you were asking for the cause of the presenting problems.

So when the APA produces a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, there is, I suggest, an implicit assumption that it will present lists of diagnoses (i.e. real illnesses) and the symptoms which these illnesses cause.  And in fact, when one opens the book this is what seems to be the case – lists of diagnoses with their respective symptoms.

Some psychiatrists respond to this point by contending that the book doesn’t actually say that the diagnoses are the causes of the symptoms, and that the diagnoses are really just labels of convenience for clusters of problems.  If this is the case, then I suggest that the title of the book is very misleading.  It ought to be called something like:  A listing of significant problems of thinking, feeling and behaving, together with their labels of convenience as used by psychiatrists.

 But the use of the terms “diagnosis” and “symptoms” is not the only issueThe notion that the “diagnoses” are being presented as the proximate cause of the symptoms permeates the text.  I haven’t yet had an opportunity to study DSM-5, but a careful reading of DSM-IV and DSM-III-R reveals a great many passages which imply that the symptoms are caused by the putative underlying mental disorders.  For example, many of the symptom lists contain the phrase “the symptoms are not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g. Mood Disorder…),” or “the disturbance is not better accounted for by another mental disorder  (e.g.…).”  The term “better accounted for” implies a causal relationship between the putative disorder (the diagnosis) and the symptoms or problems.  The statements:  “The mental disorder accounts for the symptoms” means substantially the same as “the mental disorder is the cause of the symptoms.”

In DSM-III-R, the V codes were described as conditions “…not attributable to a mental disorder.”  The term “attributable to” is, I suggest, essentially synonymous with “caused by,” the implication being that the non-V diagnoses are, in fact, the causes of their respective symptoms.  In DSM-IV, the phrase was dropped, but the concept was retained, embedded in several of the textual descriptions.  For instance, V71.01 Adult Antisocial Behavior “…the focus of clinical attention is antisocial behavior that is not due to a mental disorder (e.g. Conduct Disorder…).”  Similarly, V15.81 Non-Compliance with Treatment:  “The reasons for non-compliance may include…the presence of a mental disorder.”  The terms “attributable to,” “due to,” and “reasons for” imply a causal relationship, and it is clear that the mental disorders are conceptualized and presented as the causes of the problems of thinking, feeling, and behavior.  And this is how the DSM taxonomy is interpreted and used in the field, and is perceived by the general public.

The DSM is not the only “official” publication that promotes the notion that “mental disorders” are the proximate causes of the “symptoms.”  I happen to have on my desk at the present time an APA document titled Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question.  The general theme of the document, which consists of five recommendations, is that practitioners should exercise more caution in prescribing neuroleptic drugs.  The fourth recommendation is:

“Don’t routinely prescribe antipsychotic medications as a first-line intervention for insomnia in adults.

There is inadequate evidence for the efficacy of antipsychotic medications to treat insomnia (primary or due to another psychiatric or medical condition), with the few studies that do exist showing mixed results.” [emphasis added]

It is clear from the wording of this item that according to the APA, insomnia (a common criterion item in the DSM) can be caused by (“due to”) a psychiatric condition (i.e., a mental illness/disorder).

Another example of this kind of circular reasoning can be found in theJAMA summary that Dr. Novella adduced to support his claim that the condition labeled ADHD is a brain illness.  On page 2 of this document, under the heading Diagnosis, you’ll find the following:

“To be significant, a symptom must have started before age 7 years, be present for at least 6 months, and not be due to another cause.” [emphasis added]

This clearly implies that the “mental illness” called ADHD causes the symptoms.

Another example:  in the NIMH’s education publication Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, under the heading How is ADHD diagnosed in adults? they write:

“For some adults, a diagnosis of ADHD can bring a sense of relief. Adults who have had the disorder since childhood, but who have not been diagnosed, may have developed negative feelings about themselves over the years. Receiving a diagnosis allows them to understand the reasons for their problems, and treatment will allow them to deal with their problems more effectively.” [emphasis added]

Again, the clear implication is that the “mental illness” called ADHD is being conceptualized and presented as the cause of (the reason for) the symptoms.

The Mayo Clinic has a Health Information pamphlet on Insomnia.  Under the heading “Common Causes of Insomnia” it states:

“Everyday anxieties as well as more serious anxiety disorders may disrupt your asleep.” [emphasis added]

It’s very clear that what’s being presented here is the notion that mental disorders cause insomnia.

 The American Academy of Sleep Medicine actually has a publication called Insomnia Due to Mental Disorder.  Here are some quotes:

“This insomnia is caused by a mental health disorder.” [emphasis added]

“Depression and other mood disorders often will result in a degree of insomnia.” [emphasis added]

The University of Maryland has an In-depth Patent Education Report on insomnia.  Here’s a quote:

“The disorders that most often cause insomnia are: [emphasis added]

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder”

As explanatory concepts, however, the “diagnoses” are entirely circular, and hence valueless.  Essentially, what’s being asserted is that problems of thinking, feeling and behaving are caused by problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  The explanation in fact is not an explanation at all.  It adds nothing to our knowledge.  Rather, by discouraging further inquiry, it acts as a barrier to genuine exploration and understanding, which, incidentally, was one of the points Dr. Kinderman made in his original article back in January, and to which Dr. Novella took such exception.

But let us be clear.  If it were proven that a particular “mental illness” were in fact the direct result of a brain malfunction, then the circularity would be broken, and we would be dealing with a genuine brain illness.  But despite decades of highly motivated research and the spurious claims of psychiatry in this regard, such proof is not available.  For the record, the DSM entries Mental Disorders due to a General Medical Condition are for obvious reasons excluded from these considerations.  The General Medical Condition category, however, does suggest an obvious question:  If the condition known as ADHD is indeed a brain illness as Dr. Novella asserts, then why is it not included in the General Medical Condition category?  After all, a brain illness is a general medical condition.


In his response to my critique, Dr. Novella states that only some mental illnesses are brain illnesses, and takes me to task for confusing some with all.  This is a fair point, though I still maintain that the use of the term mental illness conveys the impression that one is talking about a real illness, and that the likely focus of this is the brain.  But we’ve already discussed that matter, and let’s set it aside for now.

As an example of a “mental illness” that he claims is indeed a brain illness, Dr. Novella points to the condition known as ADHD.  He says that there is

“…decades of research which clearly show that ADHD is a genetic disorder characterized by hypofunctioning of the frontal lobes leading to a relative deficit of executive function. This part of the brain serves as a “resource allocator” – allocating brain resources to various tasks. Relative lack of this function results in a reduced ability to pay attention to the things we should be paying attention to.”

Dr. Novella goes on to state that it’s “… difficult to provide a single reference to reflect all this research…” and instead provides a JAMA summary, authored by Denise M. Goodman, MD and Edward H. Livingston, MD.  I opened the JAMA article expecting to find a summary of research findings with citations.  Instead, I found a simplistic JAMA “patient page” that simply asserts that “…ADHD is a biological condition…”

By contrast, I suggest that Dr. Novella take a look at Debunking the Science Behind ADHD as a “Brain Disorder by Albert Galves, PhD, and David D. Walker, PhD.  Dr. Novella might also review Transforming Diagnosis by Thomas Insel, MD, Director of NIMH.  In this paper, dated April 29, 2013, Dr. Insel was critical of DSM diagnoses generally.  He wrote:

“While DSM has been described as a ‘Bible’ for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each.”

“The strength of each of the editions…has been ‘reliability’…The weakness is its lack of validity.” [A lack of validity in this context means that the ‘diagnoses’ do not actually refer to, or mirror, anything in the real world.]

“…The DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.”

For the record, I do not agree with other positions taken by Dr. Insel, but his comments concerning DSM’s “diagnoses” are unambiguous.  In the present context, it is noteworthy that he did not exempt the ADHD “diagnosis” (or indeed, any DSM label) from his criticisms.

If there were clear and compelling evidence that the condition known as ADHD is in fact a brain illness along the lines that Dr. Novella asserts, wouldn’t Dr. Insel, the Director of NIMH, have known this, and excluded it from his comments?

In addition, if the condition known as ADHD is a real brain illness, wouldn’t it make sense to diagnose it by brain examination, thereby increasing the Kappa scores from their present value (0.5-0.6) to something approaching 1.0 (i.e. almost perfect reliability).


Dr. Novella and I are in complete agreement that the essential question in this entire debate is how best to conceptualize significant problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving.  Dr. Novella conceptualizes these problems as mental illnesses, which is not surprising because he defines a mental illness as any significant problem of thinking, feeling and/or behaving.

I, on the other hand, conceptualize significant problems of thinking, feeling and/or behaving as – significant problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving.

In the now distant days when I was practicing, I sat with my clients and, through unhurried dialogue and discussion, we identified and clarified the problems for which they were seeking help.  Also through unhurried dialogue and discussion, we explored how these problems might have developed, and what circumstances/pressures might be maintaining them.

If my clients said they were depressed, or worried, or angry, I asked them why, and I listened to their responses without interrupting.  In almost all cases, individuals could give perfectly coherent and plausible explanations for their problems without any reference to extraneous, spurious concepts such as “mental illness.”

I conceptualized (and still conceptualize) problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving as so individualized with regard to genesis and development as to defy any kind of simplistic categorization or classification.  I did not see my clients as ADHD’s or MDD’s or OCD’s or Conduct Disorders or Personality Disorders or any other DSM label.  I did not see them as patients who needed to have something done to them – but rather as complex and competent human beings, fellow travelers on life’s journey, who had hit speed bumps, or taken wrong turnings, or run out of fuel, or been battered, figuratively or literally, by the vicissitudes and cruelties of life.

We discussed the importance of habits: how some are productive and others counterproductive.  We discussed how habits are formed and how they can be broken.

We discussed what kind of remedial strategies might be effective, and how best they might be implemented in each particular case.  I took pains to help my clients identify their strengths, and we discussed how these strengths might be mobilized in coping with the present difficulty.

We also tried to identify what social connections the clients might have that might be helpful in the present circumstances.

It was very much not a matter of me, the “expert,” healing people or solving their problems.  Rather, my role was validating people’s experiences and their reactions to those experiences, and helping them mobilize, develop, and use their own resources to move their lives in directions they found more fulfilling.

This is a fundamentally client-centered approach in which there is no place or need for the concept of “mental illness.”

Dr. Novella clearly believes that his “mental illness” model is a better approach.  Perhaps ultimately we’ll just have to agree to differ.

  • S. Randolph Kretchmar

    Spectacular, Phil! Thank you for your work.

  • Phil_Hickey

    S. Randolph,

    Thanks for the encouraging words. It’s an uphill battle, but it seems like we are making some progress.

  • Nick Stuart

    Excellent. Do you know if Novella plans a response? Cheers.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Thanks for the encouraging words. Presumably Dr. Novella will reply. I left a comment on his site yesterday, with a link to my post.

  • Francesca Allan

    Very well done and interesting reading. I did read Novella’s rebuttal and made a lengthy comment in response. It’s being held for moderation and I’m curious to see if it makes the cut. The part of Novella’s position that I objected to the most was when he said “the deficit that defines ADHD is blah, blah, blah.” I corrected him to say that no, what defines ADHD is someone in authority (usually a teacher) being distressed or frustrated by a misbehaving kid. I’m so glad ADHD hadn’t been invented when I was a kid.

  • Mlema

    Thank you for taking the time to comment at dr.novella’s site, and for sharing your experience.

  • Francesca Allan

    Thank you for thanking me and taking the time to come here to do so. This subject really interests me as psychiatric diagnosis (and misdiagnosis) has been the defining event of my life. Trust me, if I could believe that emotional distress and dysfunction were brain diseases, my life would be a lot easier. But they’re not and that has left me with the difficult task of self-improvement, developing insight, learning to know myself better and attain the existence that I wish for. If these are in fact “neurological disorders,” they are certainly very strange ones. I don’t know of any other neurological disorder (e.g. Parkinson’s) that you can cure through the efforts that I just mentioned.

  • Mlema

    People who go through such an experience and survive with mental integrity are so strong it’s breathtaking. My brief experience as a psychiatric patient nearly robbed me of my life. Had I needed your endurance, I wouldn’t be here. I wish you well.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Thanks for coming in, and for your encouragement.

  • Francesca Allan

    Thank you. When I try to look on the positive side (because really there’s no point in just raging against the machine), I am thankful that I had the opportunity to find out just how strong I am. There’s a concept called post-traumatic growth that applies to psychiatric survivors.

  • Francesca Allan

    Well, thank you for starting and continuing such a sensible and helpful website. Those guys are crazy, not seeming to realize that saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. It blows me away that the branch of medical science with the least scientific validity and the most documented danger has the most legal power. I believe it starts with fear, fear of the different.

  • Nick Stuart

    I notice that Dr. Novella has failed to respond. I think he is not very happy when he is shown to have an inferior intellect. It may put his position as a ‘Yale professor’ in jeopardy.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Maybe he’s working on a reply. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Best wishes.

  • Sweet63

    I used to read that site a lot but they really do not like being contradicted.

  • Nick Stuart

    No. He actually bans people like me and Francesca and others if we dare to argue with him. Trouble is that he knows he does not have the intelligence that he thinks he deserves to be appreciated for. Thus… I do not expect a response from Phil’s reply to him. Best to ignore it in order to preserve one’s precious and prestigious view of the self eh?

  • Sweet63

    Typical MD ego. At least psychologists have some humility.

  • ssenerch

    Francesca, can I quote you? – “It blows me away that the branch of medical science with the least
    scientific validity and the most documented danger has the most legal

  • Falco

    “Over the course of my life, I have been given no fewer than five different diagnoses for mental illnesses, under the diagnostic system laid out in psychiatry’s “bible,” the DSM. But it was a sixth diagnosis— one that ironically will no longer appear in the edition being rolled out this week, DSM-5— that probably most accurately describes what is genuinely different about me. I’m sharing this because my experience is a case study for explaining why the latest revision to the manual is raising such ire.”

    In “The Book of Woe,” Gary Greenberg shows us vividly that psychiatry’s biggest problem may be a stubborn reluctance to admit its immaturity. And we all know how things go when you won’t admit your problems.

  • Falco

    1/ For Dr. Novella (and indeed for psychiatry generally), problematic thoughts, feelings, and or BEHAVIOR are ‘mental illnesses’.

    2/ the DSM specifically defines mental disorder as constituting a dysfunction in the individual, not “deviant” BEHAVIOR nor a conflict between an individual and his or her society.

    Read more:

    Are those two statements not contradicting with each other?

  • Falco

    BTW, here is my story:

    I have already heard of stalkers being locked up in a mental hospital. But here in Belgium, in my case, it happened the other way round. I was the victim, the person being stalked. The stalker was the Belgian state itself – I.a. the secret services with the collaboration of a psychiatrist (professor Kurt Audenaert) at the order of the former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

    People in general, journalists and many healthcare professionals (who have no excuse for such ignorance), seem to take the referee’s stance: no harm, no foul – as
    though psychological abuse is just something people have a right to do to you. They still make nothing of psychological abuse and think it is nothing compared to a physical blow. That notion is deplorably simplistic: psychological injuries are real.

    Because hard evidence is lacking – making prosecution impossible – and, because it’s wanton, bizarrely evil, the abusers get away with it.

    First of all you’re going to be followed. Unquestionably they’ll follow you everywhere
    you go. They’ll dig into your background, they’ll try and dig up some dirt about you, they’ll try and find out if there are any scandals in your background and they’ll certainly make them public, and they will keep the closest possible tabs on what you’re doing. Stalking may start with conduct that seems more annoying than dangerous. Often, the conduct is legal and even socially acceptable, if it’s just an isolated incident. But when it’s repeated, it may scare the victim. Following someone may become intimidating if done continually and against the person’s wishes.

    As spiders they enmesh their prey in a web that is a Catch-22: Nobody will believe
    the victim. So, when I said – at the time I was being stalked by the government
    (and this was even publicly fairly well known): “the government is stalking me”, the typical reaction was: “I don’t believe a government would waste time or money on anyone that isn’t a real threat.”

    In 1991, as libertarian, I was an enthusiast member of the new Flemish liberal party (OLD). His leader, Guy Verhofstadt, said he stood for a classical liberal policy and I believed him (he even told me that his ‘libertarian’ beliefs were uncompromising). Though now a middle-of-the-road politician, in his early political career Verhofstadt was even nicknamed by leftists “Baby Thatcher” for his “free market credentials.” He was also a freethinker and as such a critic of Islam. As atheist I appreciated this much. But once elected Prime Minister in 1999, it became obvious to me that he was pushing the party into a leftist agenda. Back in 1991, in his second Burgermanifest [“Citizens’ Manifest”], he had still the audacity to criticize Islam: “Is the Rushdie-case not ultimate proof of the impossibility to fit Islam in our society? Does this case not demonstrate how Islam at its core is a totalitarian ideology, colliding with the cultural, moral and legal regulations which apply in an open and democratic society?”

    Having betrayed his own principles and values for the sake of power, I wrote a few
    letters of protest to the Party office giving expression to my disappointment, and addressed him in these letters as “ex- libertarian.” He was furious! Since then he tried to break me mentally. How? By stalking, because victims suffer mental and emotional trauma which at times can cause them to break down mentally.

    After a relentless 4-year campaign (under the supervision of psychiatrist Professor
    Audenaert) of harassment, illegal actions, malpractices, such as spreading vicious lies about me, street theatre, spy-ops assaults (obviously I was aware this was happening, as sure as one is aware there is a snail because of the trail of slime it leaves behind it); after having been bombarded with sexually explicit and pornographic emails, it was me (and, mind you, three months before the end of his legislature), who was sent in 2007 to a mental asylum for six months, as if the Soviet Union has not been dismantled for years, and even reminds me of the shadowy unit called the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre (FT-C), covertly established in 2006.

    As a way of abdicating and denying his responsibility for the injury which he has
    caused, Audenaert – without even having a word spoken to me – portrayed me as
    mentally ill (in fact, portrayed me as schizophrenic).

    The psychiatrists power to define mental disease is almighty and, collaborating with
    secret services they have total control with “deviating” citizens in spite of all the laws – which should secure all citizens’ civil and human rights! So, a declaration from the psychiatrists serves as evidence for a.go. ‘suffering from paranoia’ which is not necessarily a sickness but a way of expressing the experience of real observation and manipulation.

    In that mental hospital, since I had previously been misdiagnosed with a psychic
    disorder, I was forced to swallow anti-psychotic meds [Risperdal (Risperidone)], simply to try to space myself out and no longer to pay attention to the stalking nor to focus on the danger of Islamization.

    In the course of taking these meds I began to suffer from strange sensations in my
    head. However, since I have stopped taking these, the sensations became chronic
    and have slowly become worse and worse (turned into a kind of ‘not very severe’
    headache). Also, very shortly after I had stopped taking that ‘medication’ I started having persistent visual disturbances (such as blue flashes in the eye).

    A few months later in the psychiatric hospital, I had to undergo psychological tests (the tests lasted for one week). Based on the results of those tests, and on her own observations during a my stay, Dr. Celina Matton – my attending psychiatrist – concluded that I was not schizophrenic [probably to save some of Audenaert’s reputation, she told me that I suffered instead from Asperger], and I was discharged from the mental institution.

    But Professor Dr. Audenaert, as if frustrated because his diagnosis was contradicted
    by the testimony of another psychiatrist (Dr. Celine Matton) – in fact, he had
    deliberately misdiagnosed with a mental disorder -, could not accept Dr. Matton’s opinion and, Kurt Audenaert – again with permission and logistical support from the state – government has resumed the action and this campaign of harassment, continues till to this day:

    Repeatedly following me from place to place.
    Repeatedly communicating with me indirectly.
    Repeatedly watching me, or my home, or any other place I happen to be.

    I corresponded about it with Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr, MD. He received his medical and psychiatric training at the University of Chicago and served for two years as a psychiatrist in the United States Army. He is currently in private practice in the Chicago area. Dr. Rossiter is board certified in both general and forensic psychiatry. For more than forty years he has diagnosed and treated mental disorders, with a special interest in personality pathology and its developmental origins. He has been retained by numerous public offices, courts and private attorneys as a forensic psychiatrist and has consulted in more than 2,700 civil and criminal cases in both state and federal jurisdictions.

    He wrote 6 months ago:

    Mr. De Bruyker,

    Assuming your story is true — and unfortunately it sounds credible — you have my
    sincere sympathy, for whatever it is worth.

    In America you would be able to sue for tort damages and the right to a criminal
    investigation for false imprisonment, etc. I thought Belgium, as a European nation, would have such rights to which you can appeal, and the rights I mentioned in an earlier email that could have prevented your hospitalization in the first place.

    If you have not done so already, I suggest you see a lawyer.

    Thanks again for writing. Good luck in your battle.

    Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., MD

    I have contacted several lawyers, but they ‘refused’ my case (my mails are intercepted). So I am so helpless right now.

  • Phil_Hickey


    A sad story indeed. It’s hard to fight those in power. Sometimes it makes sense to just disengage and do something else.

  • Falco

    “psychiatric diagnoses have been used for political purposes in the past and potential future misuse cannot be ruled out”

  • Francesca Allan

    Only 5 diagnoses? You’re a lightweight! I’ve been diagnosed with over a dozen, including “immature personality disorder” which I didn’t even know was a disease.

  • Falco

    However, compare my case with Pussy Riot’s protest in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It’s clear that my ‘form of protest’ was most certainly not that uncouth.

    On February 26, 2012, a criminal case was opened against the band members who had participated. In August 2012 it appeared that the defendants had all been examined psychiatrically. According to the psychological and psychiatric report the accused were sane during their “punk prayer” in the cathedral but they suffer from “complex personality disorders.”

    – In the report, doctors said that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has “a complex personality disorder displayed through her activist stance, and desire for self-realisation.” They reported that Tolokonnikova was self-assured and has a tendency to voice her opinion emphatically.

    – Ekaterina Samutsevich was diagnosed with “a complex personality disorder” displayed through persistence and emphatically voicing her opinion. Doctors also noticed that the Samutsevich has “a low emotional sensibility” and “a tendency for deviant behavior.”

    – Medics also characterized Maria Alekhina as having “an impulsive character with an overstated self-esteem, inclined to protest and suicidal blackmail.”

    According to the experts, none of the accused suffered from a psychiatric disorder during their protest, they fully understood what they were doing. The experts’ report ends with a note that the girls do not need compulsory medical treatment.

    So, what they did to me [involuntary commitment, although I never presented an imminent danger to myself or others] was grossly unethical and even stupid.

  • cannotsay


    Assuming that the story is true, and as a survivor of psychiatric abuse in Europe I think that it is in all likelihood, I am sorry to say that I don’t think there is much to do about it. The European Court of Human Rights, unlike the US Supreme Court, has repeatedly endorsed abusive psychiatric practices. This article, although a bit old, should tell you that when abused by a psychiatrist in a country under the jurisdiction of the ECHR, you are pretty much left at your own devices to endure the abuse: .

    Since I had long lived in the US when my own abused happened, I had this American mindset that Lyle H. Rossiter outlines above about suing the doctors that abused me. Unfortunately, after consulting with a top lawyer of the country where my own abuse happened and the US embassy of the same country, I was basically told the same thing: I was going to waste my time and money and risk another involuntary commitment if I ever showed up there. So I have not been there ever since.

    Good luck with everything and Merry Christmas/Happy New Year to you!

  • cannotsay

    Forgot to say, if you are interested, my story is here .

    In my case I cannot claim political motivation, just plain old “family paternalism” that is so common in Europe. The issue was used by my ex-family as a way to put me in compliance with their dysfunctional ways. Something like “oh, now we know why they guy was so weird, he was mentally ill!!” when in fact they were the ones who, by most standard definitions of dysfunction, were the ones who were abusive and really, bad people.

  • Falco

    Many thanks for the information and your support. It must have been a distressing experience for you. For each DSM diagnosis it should be determined whether there is a need to add a criterion that excludes normal reactions to psychosocial stress.

  • Falco

    I’ve just read the article you link to, and indeed what you warn for is clear from the text:

    “The Court considers any determination of ‘unsoundness of mind’ to be valid as long as it is made by a psychiatrist, and does not take into consideration the degree of affiliation of the psychiatrist with the State.”

  • cannotsay

    Thanks for your support. I do not believe that the DSM, or psychiatry, can be improved because I agree with Phil that it is a fraudulent endeavor. I also see it unlikely that psychiatry is going to completely go away for there will always be people who are attracted to the most bizarre theories however nonsensical these theories are (astrology, homeopathy, etc) . The best thing we can do, and the more realistic one, is to corner coercive psychiatry to the point of making it either impossible or extremely unlikely. Once psychiatric coercion is history, the quackery will fall completely on its own.

  • Falco

    “if you give anybody such power, they will become inevitably corrupt. The humiliation that I endured will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

    I completely agree with this statement 100%. See also:

    “Psychiatric Power” By Dr.Pat Bracken:

    “There is evidence that many people who have undergone involuntary admission and treatment continue to feel hurt and even violated by this process.”

  • cannotsay

    It has been several years since my own episode happened and I wake up everyday reminded that it happened. I remember thinking when I was being restrained by the security guys of the hospital that my life was about to change.

    What I can say now, with the perspective of time, is not that my life “changed” as a result, a better description is that my life was “derailed” as a result. It is not only that I got divorced and estranged from my parents. The most painful thing to watch has been to see my social life become extremely toxic.

    I have a good job with a good salary, that is not the problem (and if things go as expected my economic situation will only get better over time). The problem is that I don’t have a meaningful social life anymore. My natural personality is to be an open book with my friends. I have always preferred a “few good quality friends” to “many superficial relationships”. So, since very few people know what happened, I have over the years been shutting down my friendships with those who don’t know what happened -because I am incapable of lying about it to somebody I consider a friend- and I have not made any new friends since. Most of the friends who know about it have moved for professional reasons to other cities which means that I only see them rarely. I have become increasingly socially isolated. Making new friends is out of the question because of the dark secret of my civil commitment. My human to human social interactions have been pretty much reduced to the ones that I have at work which themselves are basically reduced to professional matters.

    The silver lining is that I have plenty of time left to bash psychiatry online :D.

  • Falco

    Yesterday, 20 year-old Josephine Witt has disrupted the live broadcast of Christmas Mass the world’s largest Catholic Cathedral Kölner Dom. In the midst of the Catholic Sabbath she jumped on the altar, half naked with the slogan ‘I am God ‘ inscribed on his torso.

    The German police is considering to start criminal proceedings.

    You see, in my case legal proceedings could not be initiated. But as a way for retaliation I was committed to psychiatric hospital.

    In the past I had also written a few letters to the newpaper complaining that crime was rising. But the leftist Media denied there was an increase: the public was told that the increase in crime was only a perception (in the meantime however the Media agree they were mistaken). Before I was committed, I was asked if I received messages from TV and if I hear voices.

    In fact in my whole life I have never heard voices nor received any messages from TV, so I said truthful ‘no’, but nonetheless I was considered delusional because I said that I was being surveilled (which was true).

  • Falco

    Professor Paul De Hert’s work addresses problems in the area of privacy & technology, human rights and criminal law. I informed him on the issue, and since then I have the impression the harassment came to an end (there’s no longer something odd about some people’s behavior around me, as was in the past). So, I thought it advisable making the names (in the story) anonymous.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Thanks for the update.

  • cledwyn bulbs

    As is commonly the case with men of inferior learning and passion for a subject, what we have here I think is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to how people (be it stupid people or people writing on subjects that lie outside of their own sphere of expertise) of little competence tend to suffer from illusory superiority because of a lack insight into their own ineptitude and their ignorance of the depth and complexity of a subject, or the world itself.

    For this reason, people who know the least about a subject tend to speak the most dogmatically and confidently about that subject; their ignorance fosters a misplaced self-confidence.

    Now, in the interests of fairness, it must be said that we have all probably fallen prey to this, because our knowledge is mostly spread over a few subjects, leaving us ignorant on almost everything else, yet this is most common amongst people of diminutive intellectual stature, for whom intelligence consists largely in calling people you disagree with idiots and laughing at them.

    I’m not saying Novella is an idiot. Just merely saying that perhaps he is falling prey to the fallacy commonly committed by people when pontificating on subjects they either know little about or not enough to be deemed an authority, because their passion lies elsewhere.

    You see this all the time with people who come on here. The most stentorian voices in a discussion are usually those with the least to say.

  • all too easy

    Now I will certainly concede that in common speech, the words sick and unhealthy have been considerably extended in recent decades. People routinely talk about an unhealthy lifestyle, for instance, when what they mean is an unwholesome lifestyle; and behavior that is crude or offensive is often referred to as sick. But in formal speech and writing, and certainly within general medical practice, the words sick and unhealthy mean something wrong with the anatomy or physiology of the organism. One can speak of a sick person or a healthy person, or, for that matter, of a sickhorse or a healthy horse. But one can’t validly speak of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving as being sick or healthy.

    How amusing, Phillip. Plainer than day bro, something anatomically is wrong in mental illness. It cannot be anything else. Thoughts and emotions are electric, biochemical pulses, spurting around and across zillions of synapses. If you don’t believe me, block all the electrical activity in the brain. Destroy all the biochemical tissues. See what you get.

  • all too easy

    Feeling is an activity? Are you sure, Doc? Thinking is too? Part of your confusion rests in your core misunderstanding of the biological, chemical, and electrical facets of a human being.