The model muddle

I’ve already written posts on several therapy models (gestalt, Rogerian, Transactional Analysis, Freudian psychoanalytic), so it’s time I examine what models are: their utility, their strengths, and their limitations. First off, models are ways of organizing and framing ideas in a way that serve as a guide. A good model is like a good map: it helps you accomplish something you set out to do, to get where you wanted to go.

But the map is not the territory; it’s merely a helpful representation. I’ve known people who were so dedicated to a model that they couldn’t see its limitations, and were blind to alternative formulations, viewing everything through the lens of their fixed beliefs. No model is perfect and complete. Each one has its flaws and limitations.

I first started thinking about models as a young mental health professional, when I read Miriam Siegler and Humphrey Osmond’s Models of Madness, Models of Medicine, in which they compared the medical model to eight other models related to the care of mentally ill persons. After examining each model (moral, impaired, psychoanalytic, social,  family interaction, etc.), the authors – both MDs – conclude that psychiatry is the only way to go. Holistic, shmolistic..

Psychiatry is the medical model’s approach to treating mental illness, usually with medications. The medical model is a scientific model. In a nutshell, the model starts with the identification of symptoms, which leads to an appropriate diagnosis, which in turn leads to a specific treatment. The medical model is very good at what it’s good at, such as mending broken bones, and doing surgery, and treating many physical ailments. But its self-promotion as the only game in town for the care of the mentally ill has been challenged by many, notably Dr. Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing.

No model is a perfect fit for all occasions, and many MDs have come around to believing in the benefits of a holistic approach to health care. Although I still believe that psychiatric treatment has its place and can be of benefit to many people with what are known as “psychiatric disorders,” like all models the medical model has its limitations. There are other valid approaches to health care that don’t rely on symptoms > diagnosis > treatment as their primary focus. The medical model is mostly focused on what to do after you exhibit symptoms, not so much on how you got there. Some medical traditions are more focused on wellness than on treating (sometimes preventable) illnesses. No model has all of the answers.

One of the limitations of the medical model as regards the care of mentally ill people is that the criteria for a differential diagnosis were determined by a committee of psychiatrists, to be applied to a unique individual. Unlike most physical disorders, there are no identifiable biological markers to distinguish what we call “schizophrenia” from “schizoaffective disorder” or “bipolar, manic.” Psycho-diagnosis is not rocket science, because mental illness isn’t precisely measurable. At best it’s educated guesses, and many people with an extensive history of psychiatric treatment have been diagnosed with – and treated for – a variety of diagnoses.

A model I’ll be writing about in a future post is the Recovery Model. A lot of mental health professionals initially scoffed at the idea of people “in recovery” from chronic psychiatric disorders. Recovery made sense as a helpful model for “recovering” chronic substance abusers, but did it apply to the chronically mentally ill? I think (hope) that many or most mental health professionals have come to recognize the merits of the recovery model, and there are now recovery centers in some cities that aren’t run on the medical model. You might want to check out <madinamerica.com> to learn more.

Treatment models compete in the marketplace, and there’s money to be made. For instance, the Pentagon has paid millions for training in Positive Psychology. With modern marketing in the mix, we find ourselves in the midst of a model muddle. More about this down the road.

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