Antipsychiatry scholarship provokes academic freedom debate

The University of Toronto’s scholarship raises questions about the extent to which academic freedom is appropriate

February 1, 2017
doctors administering electroshock therapy
Source: Getty
For review? there’s room for debate on topics such as electroconvulsive therapy but not on ‘whether psychiatry is invalid or not’, says Edward Shorter

The world’s first scholarship in antipsychiatry has been recognised by the University of Toronto, and the news has been met with bafflement, interest and strongly worded debate.

The University of Toronto has the largest department of psychiatry in North America. It is home to Philip Seeman, who in the 1970s discovered the dopamine D2 receptor, allowing for the development of many antipsychotics and suggesting that biology plays a significant role in the development of schizophrenia.

Given this, perhaps it is surprising that the university is also home to the largest single group of antipsychiatry scholars in North America, who are based at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and include Bonnie Burstow, a renowned critic of institutional psychiatry.

The new Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry, administered by Dr Burstow herself, is intended to allow a student to undertake a thesis in antipsychiatry. She told Times Higher Education that the scholarship was significant given the difficulty of securing funding for controversial areas of study.

“It will allow for far more scrutiny of a field that desperately needs scrutiny,” said Dr Burstow. “And it will contribute to a broader social dialogue, which hopefully can lead to humane and meaningful community solutions to what are, we are suggesting, overwhelmingly societal problems.”

Antipsychiatry – a movement born in the “age of the asylum” – encompasses views highly critical of the science of psychiatry, as well as its medications, diagnoses and management. Most proponents of antipsychiatry, for instance, would argue that psychiatric disorders are socially constructed. Critics describe antipsychiatry as unscientific at best and a “toxic” public health threat at its worst.

“It has discouraged people from seeking help, and many of these people are depressed, on the verge of suicide. If you tell them that psychiatry is just a load of bunk, it drives them deeper into despair,” said Edward Shorter, a professor of psychiatry at Toronto. “The antipsychiatry movement has set out to poison the public’s perception of psychiatry…I think it’s deplorable that we as an institution have embraced these people.”

Supporters of the scholarship – who are not all opposed to psychiatry – argue that universities are places for debate, and that challenges to mainstream science have proved beneficial in the past. Author Robert Whitaker, an influential figure in the antipsychiatry movement, said that there was a need to counterbalance the volume of scholarship supporting psychiatry to create a “more informed debate”.

“I think we have had a huge academic enterprise for some time that has sought to reach conclusions of what psychiatry, as an institution, wanted to believe in, and also fit the interests of pharmaceutical companies,” Mr Whitaker said.

While Professor Shorter agreed that it would be constructive to study the sociology of the antipsychiatry movement, he believes there is “no chance” that the new scholarship will be objective. “This was put up by a band of enthusiasts, and you can be sure that only enthusiasts will be considered.”

Beyond the dispute about legitimising antipsychiatry as an academic field, the recognition of Dr Burstow’s scholarship has provoked debate about the extent to which academic freedom is helpful, particularly for areas so far beyond accepted science.

“Great universities create space for diverse and controversial dialogue to take place,” Charles Pascal, professor of applied psychology and development at the OISE, told THE. He stressed that the OISE as an organisation was not opposed to psychiatry, but did want to be “open to honest debates that arise […] we continue to defend [our academics’] right to pursue questions of interest and controversy”.

However, Professor Shorter said that there were times when balance – in terms of questioning established facts and practices – was inappropriate. “We don’t have balance about the polio vaccine, we don’t have balance about penicillin, we don’t have balance about the Holocaust. There are many non-mainstream, controversial views [in psychiatry] that can indeed be debated: electroshock therapy for example. But whether the discipline of psychiatry is invalid or not is not really something one can talk about,” he said.

The OISE’s webpage for Dr Burstow’s scholarship describes the scheme as a signal to the world that “this field of inquiry has come of age”.

But the open nature of large public universities means that what could be an entirely academic debate inevitably reaches the public, and can have a significant impact.

“It sends the message that we as an institution are willing to consider the idea that there is no such thing as psychiatric illness and the treatments for it are ineffective, and that’s an awful thing for a major university to put out to the public,” Professor Shorter told THE. “It will inevitably reduce their willingness to seek help if they become ill…We [shouldn’t] try to legitimise things in a university that are harmful to public health.”


Print headline: Does antipsychiatry merit a rightful place in academy?

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Reader's comments (1)

Some background to this is that Toronto is where one of the worst cases of psychiatric abuse ever took place - the "depatterning" experiments of eminent psychiatrist Ewan Cameron, a description of whose treatment sounds like something out of a horror film - including vast numbers of electroshocks, making patients listen to tapes over and over again, and forced sleep - there is a fascinating interview with one of the survivors in the first chapter of Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine". It is good to see that Toronto University are making some attempt to address this nightmare past. Your article quotes heavily Professor Shorter, who has written a book advocating the use of ECT as safe - he glosses over these events in a few short paragraphs, as he does much else. His is certainly not a neutral viewpoint.