A Terrifying History of Psychiatry: An Interview with Sociologist Andrew Scull

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This is an interview with Dr. Andrew Scull, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego. He has received prestigious awards for his work on the history of medicine and psychiatry. With over a dozen books to his name, his work has been translated into numerous languages and he has been granted fellowships from esteemed organizations such as the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. In this interview, he talks about his book, “Desperate Remedies: Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness,” published by Harvard Press in May 2022.

The interview is about the history of psychiatry and its shortcomings. Scull criticizes psychiatry for its failure to keep its promises. He talks about the mixed effectiveness of psychiatric drugs and the severe side effects they can cause. He says there is the need for a more balanced understanding of mental illness and the stigma associated with it.

Scull talks about disturbing historical practices in psychiatry, such as lobotomies (surgically cutting parts of the brain) and surgical bacteriology, which involved the removal of organs to treat mental illness. He describes the horrors of these operations and the unethical psychiatric practitioners behind them.

Scull says that psychiatry gets carried away by new trends every few years. The reason is the profession’s inability to cure mental illness in the past. First, there was a lot of hope about asylums, which were seen as places of refuge and hope, but they turned into overcrowded warehouses that failed to cure patients. To explain these failures, the blame was put on the patients themselves, who were labeled as biologically defective or morally flawed.

With the rise of eugenics (a trend in psychiatry and medicine in the West where attempts were made to remove any mentally ill people from society), compulsory sterilization laws were introduced to prevent mentally ill individuals from reproducing. In other words, individuals with mental health issues were forcibly given surgeries that made them unable to have children. Scull highlights the dark history of such laws and their connection to Nazi Germany.

Then came the trend of biological approaches in psychiatry. The desperation of families and patients, and the fact that patients were not listened to, allowed for harmful interventions like lobotomies (brain surgery) to be widely practiced in prestigious medical centers for many years.

Overall, Scull’s analysis calls for a more critical view of the history of psychiatry, acknowledging both its achievements and failures. He highlights the importance of a balanced perspective on mental illness and emphasizes the need for ethical and effective treatments. Through recounting historical practices, he raises awareness about the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past and avoiding harmful fads in the field of psychiatry.

This is a brief synopsis of an interview that first appeared on Mad in America. The whole in-depth interview can be heard and read here.


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