Will Self reviews a recently published book on psychiatry and has some interesting observations on the relationships between addicts, mutual aid groups and psychiatry:
Interestingly there is one large sector of the “mentally ill” that Burns believes are manifestly unsuitable for treatment – drug addicts and alcoholics. He points to the ineffectiveness of almost all treatment regimens, possibly because the cosmic solecism of treating those addicted to psychoactive drugs with more psychoactive drugs hits home despite his well-padded professional armour. Elsewhere in Our Necessary Shadow he seems to embrace the idea that self-help groups of one kind or another could help to alleviate a great deal of mental illness, and it struck me as strange that he couldn’t join the dots: after all, the one treatment that does have long-term efficacy for addictive illness is precisely this one.
Psychiatrists are notoriously unwilling to endorse the 12-step programmes, and argue that statistically the results are not convincing. There may be some truth in this – but there’s also the inconvenient fact that there’s no place for psychiatrists, or indeed any of the psy professionals, in autonomously organised self-help groups. Burns agrees with Davies that our reliance on psychiatry, and by extension, psycho-pharmacology, may well be related to our increasingly alienated state of mind in mass societies with weakened family ties, and often non-existent community ones. Surely self-help groups can play a large role in facilitating the rebirth of these nurturing and supportive networks? But Burns seems to feel that just as we will always need a professional to come and mend the septic tank, so we will always need a pro to sweep out the Augean psychic stables. I’m not so sure; psychiatry has been bedevilled over the last two centuries by “treatments” and “cures” that have subsequently been revealed to be significantly harmful. From mesmerism, to lobotomy, to electroconvulsive therapy, to Valium and other benzodiazepines – the list of these nostrums is long and ignoble, and I’ve no doubt that the SSRIs will soon be added to their number.
Sooner or later we will all have to wake up, smell the snake oil, and realise that while medical science may bring incalculable benefit to us, medical pseudo-science remains just as capable of advance. After all, one of the drugs that Irving Kirsch’s meta‑analysis of antidepressant trials revealed as being just as efficacious as the SSRIs was … heroin.