Models of Madness

In prior posts I’ve written about the pros and cons of the medical model (psychiatry) as the predominant model for the treatment of mental illness, and about what I call “the model muddle.” Models are ways of organizing and framing ideas in a way that serves as a guide. A good model is like a good map: it helps you to get where you want to go. The map is not the territory, but merely a helpful representation. No model is perfect and complete, or demonstrably superior to all other models, in all situations. Each one has its flaws and limitations.

Psychiatry is the medical model’s methodology for treating mental illnesses – primarily with medications. In a nutshell, the model starts with the identification of symptoms, which leads to an appropriate diagnosis, which in turn leads to an appropriate treatment.  The medical model is very good at what it’s good at, such as mending broken bones, doing surgery, and treating many physical ailments. But psychiatry is built more on theory than on scientific evidence.

One limitation of the medical model is that it’s mainly focused on what you do after you have symptoms, not so much on wellness and prevention. A distinct limitation of the medical model as regards mental disorders is that, unlike most common physical disorders, there are no identifiable biological markers to distinguish (for instance) what we call “schizophrenia” from “schizoaffective disorder” or “bipolar, manic.” Psychodiagnosis is not rocket science, because mental illness isn’t measurable in the way that many physical illnesses are (i.e. medical science can distinguish between asthma and pneumonia). 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.

Critics of psychiatry have argued that mental illness is a social construct and not a medical condition, and that psychiatry is a process of coercive social control. The negative side effects of some psychotropic medications and mood stabilizers outweigh the benefits for many patients. The term iatrogenic effects refers to treatments that do harm. Unfortunately, contemporary psychiatry is wedded to the pharmaceutical industry. That having been said, psychopharmacology has its place in the treatment of what we call mental illnesses. I believe that in some instances there’s no effective substitute for the right dose of the right medication at the right time. But I also believe that other interventions can mitigate the need for primary reliance on drugs as the default treatment for psychopathologies.

The biopsychosocial model takes into account such factors as physical health, heredity, stress, social stigma, social support system, mental habits, chemical dependency,  economic status, nutrition, and homelessness. We need to embrace a more holistic treatment model for what we call mental illness, and to provide a range of services that gives people who’ve been labeled as mentally ill more autonomy and more options for resolving problems related to their mental health. Unfortunately, the national mental health system is severely underfunded, and many people in need of help are underserved. This is a national disgrace.

The recovery model is an alternative to the medical 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” substance abusers, but did it apply to the mentally ill? Many mental health professionals have come to recognize the merits of the recovery model, and there are now recovery centers/programs in some cities, that aren’t run on the medical model. Such programs don’t necessarily preclude psychiatric interventions, but also offer educational resources to empower patients, professional and peer support, and access to community resources, to reduce the stressors that exacerbate symptoms of mental illness.. The concept of recovery from mental illness doesn’t mean full and permanent remission of symptoms, but suggests that psychiatric treatment isn’t the only route to symptom remission and control of one’s life. To find out more about the recovery movement and alternatives to traditional psychiatric treatment, check out