The article below appeared originally online at LOUDCANARY about Bruce Levine’s newest book Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite.
Author and clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wants to tell you that many forms of depression, discontent, and a whole raft of diagnosed mental illness are nothing more than natural responses to the oppression of institutional society. In his book, Commonsense Rebellion, Levine contends that the vast majority of mental disorders are, to put it simply, profit-driven fabrications with no established biochemical or genetic causes. This interview with Dr. Levine was conducted several years ago for publication in LiP: Informed Revolt, but the growth of corporate pharmaceutical “solutions” to deviant behaviors has only grown since then. Dr. Levine’s newest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeating, and Battling the Corporate Elite, (Chelsea Green, 2011) is an exploration of the political psychology of demoralization and the strategies and tactics used by oppressed peoples to gain power in the United States.
Awehali: Bruce, you’re a critic of both psychiatry—the medical science of identifying and treating mental illness with drugs—and psychology—the study of human behavior, thought, and development. Are there substantial differences between the two?
Bruce Levine: When I first started out as a psychologist in the late 70s and early 80s, it was fairly commonplace to dissent from psychiatry—that’s why people became psychologists. They saw the pseudo-science of not only the treatments but of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) itself. Unfortunately, over the years, psychology itself has slowly aped psychiatry, and there isn’t that sharp a distinction between the two anymore. The American Psychological Association (APA)—the professional group for psychologists—now fights for prescription rights for psychologists. So I guess any psychologist who maintains a position that depression isn’t primarily an innate biochemical disease, and that the DSM is a nonscientific instrument of diagnosis, is a dissident!
I should say that back in the 1970s and 1980s, before psychiatrists had the backing of the drug companies, they had very little power. In fact, they were falling apart, as evidenced by so many movies that were making fun of them, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—which could never come out today. But back in those days, when [psychiatrists] weren’t in bed with the drug companies and didn’t have much political power, you saw movies like that come out. Now, psychiatrists have the media power; they’re able to describe the playing field of the controversy.
Let me ask you a blunt question, first: Do you think there’s ever any basis for diagnosing someone as mentally ill?
Well, certainly there are things that can happen in your brain to make you feel crazy. If you go on an acid trip and fill your brain with a bunch of foreign chemicals, and you act crazy—there’s something going on there. But when we’re talking about things like, for example, attention deficit disorder [ADD], or depression, most of these behaviors are problematic to society. And they’re too easily being classified in the same category as cancer and diabetes. It becomes a complicated semantic discussion of what an illness is.
Let’s just take one of the more obviously comical diagnoses, something fairly recent, like oppositional defiance disorder [ODD] —that one really makes a whole lot of things really clear.
[Interviewer convulses with knowing laughter.]
I mean, oppositional defiance disorder is a “disease” in the DSM, and it’s not something that’s arcane; it’s something that’s being used frequently. It’s a diagnosis given to kids whose symptoms are often arguing with adults, refusing to comply with adults, and basically being a pain in the ass with adults. And once you declare it a disease, of course, you move into chemical treatments or behavioral manipulations. I think for the majority of folks out there, not just anti-authoritarian types, they have the same reaction you did: You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t [they] realize that kids rebel against authority? So there you have an obvious example.
And then you move over to something like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] or ADD, for which there are no biochemical markers, of any kind. None. If you have any doubts about that, just go to your doctor and say you think your kid has ADD, and ask her about the biochemical markers—she’ll say that there are none. It’s all behavioral symptoms that are used to diagnose it.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, a lot of people were looking for other explanations for why people were having problems, or creating problems for others. And in that era, prior to the drug company takeover, there were a lot more intelligent ideas. ADD/ADHD didn’t exist in the first DSM that came out in 1952, but I’m sure if it had been around, folks like Eric Fromm would have been talking about it as a form of passive rebellion. Oppositional defiance disorder is an obvious active rebellion, but most kids don’t have the courage, or they’re in situations where for them to actively rebel means they’ll get crushed—so they rebel passively. They go to a classroom and they stop paying attention; they just blow things off. Is it because they have no capacity to pay attention? No. And the research even shows that when you put these same kids in a situation where they’re either interested in the material or they’ve chosen the material, or it’s novel to them, all of a sudden these so-called ADHD kids can pay attentionn!
And that’s what I try to explain to folks: If you have diabetes or cancer, and all of a sudden you’re having a good time, the disease doesn’t go away. How can something be a disease when you put somebody in a different situation, and the “disease” goes away? That should tell you something.
But it’s in the interest, obviously, of drug companies—and psychiatry, because all they do is prescribe drugs pretty much nowadays—to view everything as a disease that needs drugs. It’s also in the interest of a society that doesn’t want to spend much money or resources on populations that aren’t fitting into the standardized order of things. One interesting aspect of this is that, more and more, it’s not just kids of color, but even suburban white Anglo-Saxon Protestant kids who can’t fit into the standardized order.
About the author: Brian Awehali lives on the West Coast and writes primarily about nature, capitalism, and predictable disasters. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation and makes his online home at LOUDCANARY.com.