Is Psychiatry the New ‘Opium of the People’?

Picture credits: Atlantic Books/James Davies/Neel Burton

Dr James Davis is a medical anthropologist and trained psychotherapist who is perhaps best known for his book of 2013: Cracked: Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good.

Cracked is a forensic examination of our increasing reliance on psychiatry and psychiatric drugs, in which Davis essentially argues that psychiatry ‘in the name of helping others, has actually been helping itself’.

His latest book, Sedated (March 2021), is broader in scope, looking at the social and political underpinnings that facilitated and enabled this state of affairs.

Since the early 1970s, the number of mental disorders listed in the DSM, the American classification of mental disorders, has risen from 106 to 370. Antidepressant prescribing in the U.K. surged from 25 million prescriptions per year in 2002 to nearly 75 million in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the trend—while more benign and empowering psychological treatments are ever harder to access.

In Sedated, Davis puts it to us that psychiatric interventions, including superficial psychological interventions principally aimed at returning people to productivity, merely create the illusion of care while leaving the structural causes of distress intact. More than that, by shifting the blame or responsibility onto the sufferer, they serve to obscure these structural causes and, thereby, to preserve and entrench the neoliberal status quo.

The interventions favoured by the government, including even the psychological interventions, are those that involve internal rather than external change, because internal change promises to increase economic productivity and so cost-effectiveness, which is the preferred criterion for endorsing one treatment over another. If we are suffering, we are simply to stiffen ourselves to the social problems created by successive policies aimed solely at the bottom line.

Karl Marx famously said that ‘religion is the opium of the people’. The social institutions responsible for understanding and managing suffering are critical to the preservation of vested interests. With the waning of religion in the West, priests may have been supplanted by psychiatrists. The idea that a pill can make us happy ought to be inherently suspicious but fits perfectly with our materialistic and mechanistic worldview.

Thus, according to the prevailing narrative, suffering is rooted in individual rather than social or existential causes, while well-being is whatever best serves the economic imperative. Behaviours that disrupt economic activity are labelled as mental disorder, and this mental disorder presents yet another money-making opportunity.

If so many of us are ill, if a quarter of us are taking a psychiatric drug, this is because our suffering, having been stripped of its deeper purpose and meaning, is no longer being heeded. It is no longer being interpreted as a vital call to change, or to protest against harmful or inhibiting conditions. 

On the contrary, once we identify as mentally ill, we become disempowered in the belief that the problem lies solely with us, or, more precisely, with misfiring chemicals in our brains. While we are at the clinic, we are not at the barricades.

And while we work to grow the economy, we are not working to grow ourselves.

This is very big picture stuff from James Davies, who weaves our worst fears into a coherent, compelling, and damning narrative.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness.