Will Self writes: A psychiatrist who once “treated” me used to recite this rueful little mantra: “They say failed doctors become psychiatrists, and that failed psychiatrists specialise in drugs.” By drugs this psychiatrist meant drugs of addiction – and his “treatment” of me consisted of prescribing Temgesic, a synthetic opiate, as a substitute for the heroin I was more strongly inclined to take. So, he undertook this role: acting, in effect, as a state-licensed drug dealer; and he also attempted a kind of psychotherapy, talking to me about my problems and engaging with my own restless critique of – among many other things – psychiatry itself. Together we conceived of doing some sort of project on drugs and addiction, and began undertaking research. On one memorable fact-finding trip to Amsterdam, we ended up smoking a great deal of marijuana as well as drinking to excess – I also scored heroin and used it under the very eyes of the medical practitioner who was, at least nominally, “treating” me.
All of this happened more than 20 years ago, and I drag it up here not in order to retrospectively censure the psychiatrist concerned, but rather to present him and his behaviour as a perversely honest version of the role played by his profession. For what, in essence, do psychiatrists specialise in, if not mood-altering drugs? Or, to put it another way, what do psychiatrists have to offer – over and above the other so-called “psy professions” – beyond their capacity to legally administer psychoactive drugs, and in some cases forcibly confine those they deem to be mentally ill?
Psychiatry is undergoing one of its periodic convulsions at the moment – one that coincides with the publication by the American Psychiatric Association of the fifth edition of their hugely influential “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM–5) – and I think we should all take the opportunity to join in the profession’s own collective navel-gazing and existential angst. After all, while the influence of the talking cures is pervasive in our society – running all the way up the scale from anodyne advice dispensed on daytime TV shows, to the wealthy shelling out hundreds of pounds a week to pet their neuroses in the company of highly qualified black dog walkers – psychotherapy and psychoanalysis remain essentially voluntaristic undertakings; only psychiatry deals in mandatory social care and legal sanction. Besides, only psychiatry partakes of the peculiar mystique that attaches to medical care. We may dismiss the opinions of all sorts of counsellors and therapists, secure in the knowledge that their very multifariousness is indicative of their lack of overall traction, but psychiatry, dealing, as it claims, with well-defined maladies – and treating them with drugs and hospitalisation – exerts an enormous pull on our collective self-image. Just what the nature of this pull is, and how it has come to condition our understanding of ourselves and our psychic functioning, is what I wish to unpick. [Continue reading…]