Psychiatry wars: The lawsuit that put psychoanalysis on trial

A new piece in the Guardian may interest AHP readers: “Psychiatry wars: the lawsuit that put psychoanalysis on trial.” The piece’s tagline notes “Forty years ago, Dr Ray Osheroff sued a US hospital for failing to give him antidepressants. The case would change the course of medical history – even if it couldn’t help the patient himself.” As Rachel Aviv writes:

The clinical language of DSM-III relieved Ray’s sense of isolation – his despair had been a disease, which he shared with millions of people. He was so energised by the new way of thinking about depression that he scheduled interviews with leading biological psychiatrists as research for his memoir, which he titled A Symbolic Death: The Untold Story of One of the Most Shameful Scandals in American Psychiatric History (It Happened to Me).

Ray sent a draft of his memoir to the psychiatrist Gerald Klerman, who had recently stepped down as the head of the US federal government’s Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Klerman had written disparagingly of what he called “pharmacological Calvinism” – the belief that “if a drug makes you feel good, it’s either somehow morally wrong, or you’re going to pay for it with dependence, liver damage, chromosomal change, or some other form of secular theological retribution”. Ray said that Klerman told him that his manuscript was “fascinating and compelling”.

Emboldened by Klerman’s approval, Ray decided to sue Chestnut Lodge for negligence and malpractice. He argued that, because the Lodge failed to treat his depression, he had lost his medical practice, his reputation in the medical community, and custody of his children.

The piece is adapted from the soon-to-be published book Strangers to Ourselves: Stories of Unsettled Minds by Rachel Aviv. The book is described as follows:

In Strangers to Ourselves, a powerful and gripping debut, Rachel Aviv raises fundamental questions about how we understand ourselves in periods of crisis and distress. Drawing on deep, original reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs, Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are. She follows an Indian woman, celebrated as a saint, who lives in healing temples in Kerala; an incarcerated mother vying for her children’s forgiveness after recovering from psychosis; a man who devotes his life to seeking revenge upon his psychoanalysts; and an affluent young woman who, after a decade of defining herself through her diagnosis, decides to go off her meds because she doesn’t know who she is without them. Animated by a profound sense of empathy, Aviv’s exploration is refracted through her own account of living in a hospital ward at the age of six and meeting a fellow patient with whom her life runs parallel?until it no longer does.

Aviv asks how the stories we tell about mental disorders shape their course in our lives. Challenging the way we understand and talk about illness, her account is a testament to the porousness and resilience of the mind.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.