The Sunday Magazine

The art and science of psychiatry

Psychiatry has progressed from an era of charlatans, to the belief that people with mental illness can live productive lives and even be cured. But psychiatrists are still mystified by basic questions: What is mental illness? What causes it? And how can it be treated? Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman is past president of the American Psychiatric Association. His new book is called "Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry".
A demonstration from the 50s of psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich's Orgone Accumulator. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Here is a chapter from the annals of psychiatric medicine: Dr. Wilhelm Reich asked his patient to strip off her clothes and step into a small wooden booth.  Then he dangled a rubber hose from her neck, ostensibly to release the energy that was causing her mental distress. Dr. Reich was one of the most controversial medical practitioners in psychiatric history, and that was not the only nutty therapy he tried. He died in jail in 1957.

No branch of medicine has gone through as massive a mind shift as psychiatry. It has progressed from an era of charlatans to what we have today: the belief that people with mental illness can live productive lives and that they can be cured. However, since the beginnings of their profession, psychiatrists have been - and they continue to be - mystified by the same three fundamental questions: What is mental illness? What causes it? And how can it be treated? 

There is much to learn about the workings of the human brain. And arguably, there is much we have yet to understand about the workings of psychiatry, even though in recent decades, the psychiatric profession has been subjected to public scrutiny and criticism as never before.

Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman has observed the progress of psychiatry since he earned his medical degree in 1975 and worked his way up to become President of the American Psychiatric Association, a post he stepped down from last year. He has written a book about the evolution of his profession. It is called Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry.  


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