By Bruce E Levine, Truthout
Starting with results of the Nazi elimination of diagnosed schizophrenics, Levine re-examines the evidence for the heritability of mental illness and offers some suggestions about Western civilization and our shared humanity.
If a nation murdered and sterilized an estimated 73 percent to 100 percent of its diagnosed schizophrenics, yet a generation later that nation had a higher rate of incidence of new cases of schizophrenia than did surrounding nations, shouldn’t we have questions about the claim by the mental health establishment that schizophrenia is highly heritable?
Moreover, since people diagnosed with schizophrenia and other “seriously disabling mental disorders,” like bipolar and major depression, have markedly lower reproductive rates compared with the general population, but the prevalence of these disorders throughout the industrialized world has increased, shouldn’t we also be asking questions about heritability?
When we begin to question, we discover that (1) scientifically flawed research has been used to promote ideas around mental illness and its heritability, and (2) instead of focusing on nature vs. nurture causes of mental illness, it’s time to consider whether certain phenomena are really symptoms of pathology, or instead are inextricable aspects of our humanity.
However, with the pharmaceutical industry’s antipsychotic drug bonanza now more than $18 billion annually in the US (orchestrated primarily by increasingly pathologizing behaviors), and with financial dependency on pharmaceutical companies by the psychiatric establishment, including by the American Psychiatric Association (publishers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychiatric diagnostic bible), it is increasingly unlikely that truths about normality, pathology and heritability will get out to the general public.
Schizophrenia and Western Civilization
What causes schizophrenia? The surprising answer that biological psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey argues for in his book Schizophrenia and Civilization is Western civilization. Torrey concludes, “Between 1828 and 1960, almost all observers who looked for psychosis or schizophrenia in technologically undeveloped areas of the world agreed that it was uncommon.” Torrey writes, “There was a steady stream of studies from African countries noting the relative infrequency of schizophrenia,” and he offers other evidence for his thesis from the South Pacific, Tibet, Australian aborigines, and indigenous peoples in Brazil. And Torrey’s own 1973 New Guinea study shows contact with Western civilization is highly correlated with schizophrenia.
For the biological psychiatrist Torrey, what’s problematic about Western civilization is something biological. He writes, “Viruses in particular should be suspect as possible agents.”
However, what appears to be most problematic about Western civilization - in contrast to many societies with little or no schizophrenia - is Western civilization’s discomfort around people who display certain behaviors outside of ordinary experience. This discomfort results in objectification, coercion and other forms of violence - emotional and physical.
The behaviors that characterize people diagnosed with schizophrenia (delusions, hallucinations and disorganized speech) are certainly outside most people’s ordinary experience. And in Western civilization, unlike other civilizations with little or no schizophrenia, there is a strong tendency to label behaviors outside ordinary experience as pathological and to attempt to forcibly control these behaviors. That’s why homosexuality was an official American Psychiatric Association mental illness until the 1970s for which “treatments” were administered - this before psychiatry and society began to become more comfortable with homosexuality.
Does Hearing Voices Make One Mentally Ill?
Psychiatrist Dan Fisher, director of the National Empowerment Center, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized on three occasions, but has long recovered primarily with peer support, and he today rejects the term schizophrenia in favor of the non-disease term “lived experience.” Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme also believes that schizophrenia is a harmful concept, and that hearing voices and other so-called “symptoms” of schizophrenia are not evidence of an illness.
In 2011, Behavioral Healthcare (“So, What’s Wrong with Hearing Voices?”) described the work of a growing international organization, the Hearing Voices Network (HVN), developed around work by Marius Romme and voice hearer Patsy Hage. HVN has grown to encompass hundreds of chapters worldwide. The group’s mission is to nonjudgmentally gather and share information among those who hear voices or experience other extreme phenomena.
Two “voice hearers” who had been previously diagnosed with serious mental illness (and who also prefer the term “lived experience”) are Daniel Hazen, now executive director of Voices of the Heart, Inc. and Oryx Cohen, now the Technical Assistance Director for the National Empowerment Center. Both Hazen and Cohen believe what was helpful for them was to “de-pathologize” experiences like hearing voices (see Cohen and other voice hearers talk about their experiences in trailer for the movie Healing Voices).
Cohen notes that phenomena psychiatry proclaims as symptoms of psychosis are actually reported by 1 in 10 people at some point in their lives, making an individual’s likelihood of experiencing them “about as common as being left-handed.” Cohen adds that it is not uncommon for people after the death of a loved one to hear that voice again, and adds that for many of these hearers, “that voice is experienced as a very reassuring thing.” However, vulnerable people who experience such phenomena can become dangers to themselves and create havoc for others when they have become terrified. And being told that such phenomena are evidence of a disease can be extremely frightening. But bolstered by security and support from other voice hearers, Cohen says, “The hearer can come to the conclusion that he or she does not have to listen to the voice.”
Learning to live with voices, but not being enslaved by them, is actually the strategy used by Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash that helped him to return to functioning after being diagnosed with schizophrenia for many years. Nash, made famous by the film A Beautiful Mind, is glad the movie gave families of those diagnosed with schizophrenia hope of recovery; but he is troubled by many inaccuracies in the movie, including its claim that medication was important to his recovery, when in fact he rejected medication.
If we accept that hearing voices is not evidence of illness, but actually within the normal range of human experience, then, just as in the case of homosexuality, depression and life-sacrificing altruism, neither genocide nor lower reproductive rates will affect its prevalence.
In other words, if phenomena are inextricably part of our humanity, to eliminate such phenomena, all human beings must be eliminated.