Anti-Psychiatry and the Neurodiversity Movement

I just finished reading this excellent article by Nick Crossley about the anti-psychiatry movement (the article is behind a paywall, unfortunately). It’s funny – I’ve heard that term, ‘the anti-psychiatry movement’ tossed around so many times that I mistakenly came to believe that I knew what it meant. Having read Crossley’s article, I realise that I actually didn’t. Well, not really, anyway.  At any rate, it got me thinking about some of the similarities that might exist between that movement and the current neurodiversity movement. But before I get to that, a bit about the article.

In a nutshell, Crossley offers a really useful social and historical review of the anti-psychiatry movement as it emerged in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. He seems somewhat enamoured by one particular figure who the movement apparently centred around: a certain R.D. Laing (not to be confused with the contemporary American entertainer Artie Lange – not that anyone was going to, of course. But seeing as I already went there: if you can stomach some really filthy language, and you are not easily offended, check out this comic, if only for his hilarious and often unsettling recollections of – until quite recently – being a heroin addict).

Whether the history of the anti-psychiatry movement is necessarily best told through the story of R.D. Laing, or if this focus is simply the result of Crossley’s fascination with this character, I do not know. And anyway, as Crossley himself writes in the beginning of his paper, you can’t ever tell every possible angle of a story; you simply need to choose that one piece of the story which you want to tell the most. And in this case, Crossley made a great choice, because this really is a fantastic read. And R.D. Laing really is a fascinating figure. Do a little reading about him if you don’t believe me.

But anyway, obviously the anti-psychiatry movement can’t be credited to just this one man, brilliant and charismatic as he may well have been. In fact, Crossley’s main argument is that Laing’s ideas would never have caught on – could never have caught on – if the social, cultural, political, historical, and even disciplinary conditions weren’t “just right”. The conditions were ideal, though, right then and there, and consequently Laing’s views made sense to people. Had he had those ideas 10 years earlier, they might never have been of any interest at all to anyone. In fact, had he had those idea 10 years earlier, he may never have had them in the first place (a bit of a paradox there, you know what I mean), because the conditions wouldn’t even have been right for him to be having those thoughts in the first place. You see my point?

In this sense, Crossley resolves the structure vs. agency debate as well as anyone can, really: individual human agents operate within an existing structure, he says, and they are also, to a large extent, products of that very structure. Individuals do have the power to shape society, sometimes even to change it; but this can only ever happen within the limitations posed by, and the possibilities afforded by the existing social structures (themselves, of course, prone to be shaped and changed by individuals… and so the game goes on and on).

So while he does focus on R.D. Laing the person – what it was that made him, and consequently his ideas and influence unique among his peers and in that particular place and time – what Crossley is saying is that what allowed these ideas to grow and become as influential as they did was the specific social and historical context from which they emerged and in which they were received. More specifically, Crossley is referring to: (1) the extremely powerful and fiercely uncompromising state of the discipline of psychiatry at that time; (2) the advent of the political new left in Britain; and (3) the emergence of the 1960s counter culture, whose members were all too happy to accept and appropriate a philosophy that viewed psychiatry as an instrument of political power, utilised to control, in both obvious and subtle ways, the bodies and minds of the masses.

So yeah, reading this paper led me to think about the parallels between the anti-psychiatry movement and the neurodiversity movement. There are quite a few similarities here (the most important one being that both movements are extremely varied and heterogeneous, so please excuse my gross generalising and simplification). Both movements are very critical towards the medical construing of neurological variation as diseases or disorders. And both movements call for de-medicalization, to some extent at least. Relatedly, both movements tend to view society as the locus of mental illness rather than the individual; or in other words, they share the notion that to reduce individual suffering, one must target the ‘pathologies’ found in society and it’s institutions, not those imagined as properties of the individual. And importantly, both movements present an agenda that is as much political as it is academic, if not more so: power hierarchies, namely who gets to say what about whom and why (e.g. money, influence, hegemony), feature prominently in both movements’ view of things.

And yet – and do correct me if I’m wrong – it seems that the neurodiversity movement isn’t gaining as much popularity as the anti-psychiatry did back when. Sure, it’s everywhere when you look for it, and every newspaper and magazine features the odd shocked article where it reports that ‘that’ perspective exists (rarely crediting it as being as equally valid as the generally accepted medical view of mental conditions), but it doesn’t quite seem to even get close to the wide reaching, near-world-changing popularity of its predecessor.

Why is that? Given the unbelievably impressive array of authors and speakers promoting the neurodiversity paradigm, I suppose it would make sense to shift our gaze away from individual agents and look for answers instead in the all-powerful ‘context’: the systems, institutions, discourses, disciplines – in short, society. There it would be ‘decided’, in history’s tribunal, whether an idea will change the world or destined to become a small footnote.

So, what? Isn’t society capable and willing to accept the neurodiversity paradigm as a valid alternative to the biomedical model of mental illness? Can’t our existing discourses entertain this network of ideas? And aren’t society’s institutions – medical, legal, educational, legislative – able to adapt such notions into their heavy, complex and necessarily slow moving mechanisms?

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. The thing about social structure is that it constantly changes. What’s true today night not necessarily be true tomorrow. So, time will tell, I suppose.

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8 thoughts on “Anti-Psychiatry and the Neurodiversity Movement

  1. Huw (@Huwtube)

    Loved this post thanks! It is interesting that in addition to the neurodiversity movement, there is currently also something which more closely resembles an antipsychiatry movement (though I am not sure how clean the separation is between them). This modern antipsychiatry group is made up of a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, along with journalists (i.e. Robert Whitaker) and sociologists (i.e. David Pilgrim). Where “neurodiversity” focuses on learning disabilities and neurocognitive disorders (at least as I understand it-perhaps I’m wrong), the modern antipsychiatry movement retains a focus squarely on the category of mental illness, especially Schizophrenia.
    In many ways their aims are similar (a reframing of the experience of people labelled as being different) but there seems to be a fundamental difference. For “neurodiversity” activists, there is an implicit acceptance that the brain is different in some way among cases of Autism etc. (diversity implies difference); for the antipsychiatrists (and there is a good editorial from two prominent members here:http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(14)70359-1/fulltext?_eventId=login ), the brain more or less doesn’t come into it. This is not supposed to be a straightforward denial of neuro-factors (the charge of dualism is frequently disavowed) but it does amount to a claim that brain research hitherto on schizophrenia et al. is in some important way irrelevant. There is “distress” which can be viewed as a valid response to life events, and that is all the explanatory legwork required.
    It is interesting to reflect that the political benefits of a neurodiversity approach are less easily transferred to the arguments of the modern antipsychiatry approach because the latter doesn’t straightforwardly frame mental health problems as difference. People with mental health problems are “people like you and me”, so physiological differences are to be downplayed as basically irrelevant. Whatever the merits of this position, it is interesting to ask to what extent it misses out by not having something like “neuro-diverse” political ideas on board.
    Anyway, sorry for the windbaggery; your post was thought provoking-thanks for it!

    Reply
    1. Ben Belek Post author

      Hi Huw, thanks for this very interesting comment! I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware that such a modern anti-psychiatry movement existed, and I’m going to read that Lancet article you linked to very soon (and hopefully return with some new insights). But their view, as you describe it, actually sounds quite logical; once you completely depathologise neurological differences, what’s the use of giving them different names and categorising them into different groups? And subsequently, if we’re only talking about diversity as existing on that single (and wide) range of being human, then why talk about different ‘kinds of brains’? Yes, I can certainly relate to this view from an academic point of view (hopefully I’m not reaching too far with my conclusions before even reading about this view from its authors!).

      And at the same time, I completely understand what you said about this stance being less political. Indeed, what makes the neurodiversity movement highly political is exactly its insistence on there being groups; categories that can act as a basis for identification, community formation, and a call for action and societal change. A view of neurological diversity as just one big spectrum sort of takes the air out of that whole thing!

      As for neurodiversity activists mainly focusing on neuro-developmental conditions rather than mental illnesses, I think that while this does effectively seem to be the case, in theory at least, neurodiversity equally applies to schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, and any other sort of neurological atypicality. But I agree that (as far as I can tell, which may not be that far at all), it is mainly advocated by people on the autism spectrum.

      Reply
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  3. Psychiatry is Quackery

    ” Both movements are very critical towards the medical construing of neurological variation as diseases or disorders.”

    People that don’t believe psychiatry’s central tenets, people that some would call “antipsychiatry” (even though we are not against voluntary psychiatry at all), simply look around and see that “neurological variation” (whatever that is), hasn’t been demonstrated to exist in our bodies, at all, so we’d feel silly speaking about the “diversity” of our “neurology”. I think the “neurodiversity movement” looks silly when they claim they have these different brains and no doctor has ever examined their brain, but I mostly politely keep that to myself. I actually think its pretty degrading and offensive for you to accuse me of “neurological atypicality” based on some quack label that’s been slapped on me, biology unseen, by anyone. Are you a neurologist? no. Are you a neurologist that has examined my brain? no. Why would you presume to make assertions about my neurology? Given these quack beliefs about our brains are the prime driver behind millions of people being tortured with forced drugging and forced electroshock today and in recent decades, we tend get a little touchy about people claiming our problems in life are the product of some warped biological “atypicality” or whatever weasel phrases they are using these days. But we are a minority, most people just believe the standard psychiatric creation story.

    If you want to lean a vast amount about the current state of the movement opposing psychiatry’s political power and human rights abuses visit madinamerica.com

    Reply
    1. Ben Belek Post author

      You do raise an interesting point. On what grounds do we (i.e. society) declare that there is such a thing as neurological variation, when the existence of “different kinds of brains” hasn’t been definitively shown to exist? I suppose the answer comes down to a very stern belief, in some circles at least (including, normally, those who occupy research labs in universities and who consequently relay their findings and conclusions to the wider population) in material realism; namely, that cognition derives from the brain, and that consequently, any individual’s unique cognitive functioning would derive from a unique brain structure and function. According to this reasoning, the fact that people seem to vary in cognitive functioning is indicative of there being a variation in human brains.

      While I don’t necessarily rule out other explanations, I do tend to support this one.

      As for there being such a thing as an ‘atypical’ brain (read: atypical cognitive functioning) this clearly depends on how we understand ‘typical’. I don’t underestimate for a moment the role of power relations, hegemony, political interests etc. in the eventual determination of what constitutes “typical” and what falls outside its rather arbitrary remit. And yet these social factors are indeed very real and consequential, effectively influencing – whether we like them to or not – how people view one another; and just as often, how people view themselves.

      So when I write about atypical brain structures (a term which I don’t necessarily mind replacing with atypical cognitive functioning – I will give this some thought), I’m certainly not saying that they are objectively atypical; in other words I don’t mean to imply that ‘typical’ stands for anything except what’s been socially constructed as typical. And yet as a social scientist, I take the stance that these constructions need to be taken seriously. Critiqued, sure, but not ignored.

      In still other words, we could argue over whether autism “really” exists, namely in the body and brain. But what is (I think) beyond dispute is that it exists as a social category, a diagnostic label, a basis for community formation and as an identity. And seeing as that is the case, I personally don’t feel the need to argue against its existence. Instead, I’m much more interested in trying to understand what it is, precisely, with my starting point being that whether or not it denotes a particular sort of brain, well at any rate, that’s certainly not all that it denotes.

      Reply
  4. hopefulandfree

    Why look to brain differences for answers before inquiring into the foundational language of neuroscience? Hint: what are its primary metaphors? I mean, the reification of encoded “information” packets whizzing along plastc neuro pathways to be decoded by…? Where’s the little decoder device hiding? OMG, this void of critical inquiry at such a basic level is not a conspiracy, I will assume. It is not a mere accident. So, gosh, what possible OTHER factors might account for it? Remember when humans were so positive that the sun revolved around the earth? This is like that. Except now, dominant discourses claim to have the means to see inside the black box…not merely their own, but that of others— based on how closely these “communication” behaviors mimic social norms? Hmmm. Fascinating. Because
    I am not seeing how you can discern if what is measured when comparing individual behaviors is “communication competance” or if what’s measured shares an uncanny likeness to social dominaton behaviors.

    But then i am Nobody. Thank goodness. 🙂

    Since nobody really notices these BAFFLING problems, we may assume they are of little consequence …
    yeah? No?

    Reply
  5. hopefulandfree

    Fat stigma kills. Madness stigma kills. Autism stigma…yes. tragically. Etc.
    But “using the master’s tools…”
    Thinking we can use scientism/science to show the the masters they are wrong…or unjust? I dunno. Seems like deciding to become a flying monkey for the master. Much energy used in the endevour, but end result…?
    Scientism or science will always be relied on to show exactly what they are looking for…
    Example:
    When powerful, massive groups can convince us that there is something wrong inside the soldiers’ bodies… soldiers returning from hell on earth, can be convinced into as-if-knowing that…the nightmares, the horrors of coerced murder returning to mind and body again and again, the grief, lonliness, terror, alienation, unbearable pain…and so forth…are SYMPTOMS of pathology INSIDE their bodies, symptoms needing treatment, symptoms showing some inner parts/functioning are broken or dysregulated or supposedly different from bodies that do not respond this wat…and “help” is known as those processes that cost money, that do everything OTHER THAN actually help…and the former person becomes merely a treatment resistant CASE, and the SICKNESS grows worse…well, then…show me again please where this sickness lives…after the returned soldier is still and quiet and unmoving…lifelesss..having ended the torment/resistance by destroying the thing inside for which no “help” proved effective….

    When any power can produce the same results, again and again—human destruction/self destruction—-and do it in plain sight, as if the process is anything more than gaslighting and gaslighting’s minions at work…

    When actual help is withheld, and the above scenario takes its place…and almost no one notices anything…peculiar happening…and when this same power and its minions decide that some of us…we who are apparently dysregulated and dysfunctional…are lacking normal feeling or are deficient in…EMPATHY…that we are the pathological or cyborg-like-people and that…we need to hold on, hold on until help arrives or has become fda/ama/apa/etc APPROVED…becauuse of course y’all are so hopeful that better and more effective treatments/modalities/etc are in the works as we speak,

    And when they offer us mental models to explain ourselves to ourselves, to explain to ourselves why we feel crazy and confused and harmed and horrified by their WORDS, to explain to ourselves why none of this is making sense to us IRL,…to explain to ourselves why they (the functional and regulated ones) understand and are quite clear about what is happening, and so we can feel grateful and relieved to them for explaining to us why we, on the other hand, cannot trust our shared reality as non normals…

    We can trust that they have our backs…for they have carefully explained why that trust in them is supposedly rational…and there is a diagnosis for anyone who cannot quite swallow this…scientific knowledge / bullshit (take your pick) explanation about our need to deal with our trust issues…etc…

    It’s so…so…i wanna say kafka-something or other…but no…

    It’s so…no words…

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Autism in History | The Autism Anthropologist

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