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Psychiatry and the misuse of power: the powerless role of the psychiatric patient

Updated on August 1, 2017


Almost 30 years ago, a rebellious British psychiatrist named Ronald Laing declared: 'I’m still more frightened by the fearless power in the eyes of my fellow psychiatrists than by the powerless fear in the eyes of their patients' (1). The quote effectively captures the huge and enduring power differential between those deemed to be 'mentally ill' and the psychiatric professionals employed to help them.

The central reasons for this stark imbalance of power will be outlined, with reference to both formal mental health legislation and the Western psychiatry’s spurious assumptions about the primary cause of human suffering. Moreover, the invidious position of psychiatric patients within Western societies will be discussed.

"I’m still more frightened by the fearless power in the eyes of my fellow psychiatrists than by the powerless fear in the eyes of their patients"

— R. Laing

Legalised discrimination

The laws of Western societies fundamentally discriminate against those deemed to be 'mentally disordered'. The legislation referred to in the following account will outline the legal framework as it applies to England and Wales; although different in the detail, the mental health laws in the USA and other Western countries tend to adhere to similar principles.

In bygone times, family members and religious organisations assumed the responsibility for looking after people believed to be suffering some form of insanity. However, since the late 18th century, a sequence of laws was passed that, incrementally, extended the powers of medical doctors in the management of the 'mentally disordered'. This process culminated in the Mental Health Act (1959), when the state effectively surrendered its role in determining who should be incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals. By the start of the 21st century, the government developed an irrational preoccupation with the potential threat posed to public safety by people with mental health problems, and in 2007 made revisions to the Mental Health Act that delegated further powers to psychiatric professionals.

The upshot is that psychiatrists now have the powers to compel someone to be confined in hospital for ‘treatment’. By permitting the incarceration, without trial, of people who have usually not committed any crime, those labelled as 'mentally ill' are denied the rights afforded to all other citizens – with the possible exception of suspected terrorists! As such, the current legislation fails to adhere to the United Nations’ convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) which states that, ‘The existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty’ (Article 14) (2)


The perils of collusion between the state and medicine

Over 40 years ago, Thomas Szasz (3) described the distinction between ‘Institutional Psychiatry’ (involving coercion and an overarching goal of protecting society) and ‘Contractual Psychiatry’ (characterised by cooperation and a primary desire to help the person seeking help). Importantly, Szasz highlighted how the views, and subsequent behaviours, of psychiatrists are substantially shaped by the government of the day, as well as drawing parallels between the witch-hunts of medieval times and the approach adopted to people labelled as 'mentally ill'.

More recent observers have echoed the view that people categorised as 'mentally ill' risk being blamed for the ills within society – in effect, modern-day witches – with professional psychiatry acting to legitimise the exclusion of unwanted or troublesome sections of the community (4). Dubious assumptions and stereotypes regarding people with mental health problems undoubtedly fuel these discriminatory practices (5)(6).

Community Treatment Orders

The revisions to the Mental Health Act (2007) emerged at a time when the government wished to be seen as protecting its citizens from the risk of violence assumed to be posed by 'mentally ill' people. The policymakers’ inflated views of risk were likely to have been shaped by the psychosis-violence stereotype and the spurious assertions of traditional psychiatrists that ‘schizophrenia’ is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain that can be rectified by medication compliance. Such a context spawned the introduction of Community Treatment Orders (CTOs).

Under a CTO, patients previously detained in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act can have restrictions placed on them upon discharge, typically involving an imperative to take medication; non compliance can result in their forcible return to hospital. An important implication of this piece of legislation is that a person who has not committed any crime, and who retains the wherewithal to make his own informed decision about the pros and cons of taking psychotropic drugs, can be coerced into ingesting prescribed medication – treatment which is likely to trigger unpleasant side effects and which may realise little or no benefits – or face coerced re-admission to a psychiatric hospital.

Despite initial expressions of concern, the majority of psychiatrists in the USA, New Zealand and Canada appear to support the concept of CTOs (7). In the UK, the use of CTOs has increased year-on-year since their introduction in 2008 (8). Worryingly, black people are overrepresented, comprising 15% of the CTO population yet less than 3% of the general population (9). Furthermore, there is no evidence that the patient accrues any clinical advantage from a CTO (8).

Advance Decisions

An advance decision (previously referred to as an 'advance directive') is a means by which adults can highlight the specific treatments they do not wish to undergo should they, at some time in the future, lose the wherewithal to make their own decisions. Any doctor or clinician who subsequently ignores the refusal enshrined within an advanced decision risks prosecution.

The concept of an advance refusal of treatment has long been recognised in clinical and legal circles in relation to physical health problems where it constitutes a reliable way of shaping future service responses. So for example, any competent person could today produce a written advance decision – it needs to be in writing if it refers to a life threatening situation – stating that under no circumstances does he want to receive chemotherapy for cancer, and be confident that his request would be respected if, at some point in the future, he is afflicted with cancer and does not have the mental capacity to make his own decisions.

For people with mental health problems, the evidence suggests that the prospect of completing an advance decision to refuse specific treatments in the future is an appealing one (10). Unsurprisingly, people with recurring psychiatric difficulties welcome the opportunity to shape service responses in light of their previous experiences. Alas, this empowering piece of legislation around advance decisions is corrupted by the Mental Health Act; if a psychiatrist labels you as 'mentally ill' and detains you in hospital under section, any directives described in an advance decision can be ignored without the clinician risking legal censure.

The consequences of being labelled as 'mentally ill'

Psychiatric patient
Person without psychiatric label
Unjustly seen as significant risk to others
No inflated perceptions of risk to others
At risk of incarceration without having committed a crime
Can only be incarcerated if committed a crime
At risk of incarceration without a Court trial
No risk of incarceration without a Court trial (unless a suspected terrorist!)
Excluded from valued social roles
Not excluded from valued social roles
Elevated levels of abuse and harassment from others
No elevated levels of abuse and harassment
Can be forced to take (often toxic) medication while living in the community or face incarceration
Must give consent before any treatment/medication is administered
Advance decisions to refuse treatment can be ignored
Advance decisions to refuse treatment must be respected

Psychiatric patients: the 21st century witches

Despite the increasing recognition that psychiatric diagnoses are virtually meaningless (11), when a psychiatrist labels a person as 'mentally ill' a whole range of stigmatising and discriminatory consequences are likely to ensue (see table).

In Western cultures, someone describing unusual experiences (for example voice-hearing or extreme suspiciousness) is likely to be perceived as harbouring some internal biochemical imbalance that requires treatment with drugs. One consequence of this assumption is that the person already struggling with these unusual experiences is forced to choose between either accepting the dominant psychiatric view that the cause is a brain defect, or dismissing this view and risking coercion into treatment or the withdrawal of support. Overwhelmed by emotion, and feeling vulnerable, many sufferers will passively accept the ‘expert’ psychiatric explanation (12).

Psychiatric professionals employ a range of strategies in their efforts to ensure that patients adhere to prescribed treatment (13). If persuasion (involving discussion of the pros and cons of the available options) does not achieve compliance, interpersonal leverage is applied, often in the form of the ‘will you take this medication for me’ approach. If the patient continues to be uncooperative, professionals may resort to inducements (‘If you take your medication I will be in a position to support your benefits application’ or threats (‘You leave me no choice but to section you if you continue to refuse your medication’). Ultimately, the Mental Health Act may be deployed so as to legitimise compulsory treatment.

So psychiatric patients are commonly forced to choose between either showing ‘insight’ by acknowledging they suffer with brain defects (thereby exposing them to interventions that are often both damaging and ineffective) or rejecting the biochemical imbalance view and facing abandonment or coercion into treatment. The parallel with the medieval witch-hunts is striking.

Laura Delano - the effects of psychiatric labelling


(1) Laing, R.D. (1985). Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

(2) United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

(3) Szasz, T.S (1973) – The Manufacture of Madness: a comparative study of the inquisition and the mental health movement. Routledge & Keegan Paul

(4) Summerfield, D. (2001). Does psychiatry stigmatize? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 94, 148 – 149.



(7) Churchill, R., Owen, G., Singh, S. & Hotopf, M. (2007). International Experience of Using Community Treatment Orders. Institute of Psychiatry: London.

(8) Health and Social Care Information Centre (2013). In-patients formally detained in hospitals under the Mental Health Act, 1983 and patients subject to supervised community treatment, Annual figures, England, 2011/12.

(9) Care Quality Commission (2012). Monitoring the Mental Health Act in 2011/12.

(10) Sidley, G.L. (2012). Advance decisions in secondary mental health services. Nursing Standard, 26 (21), 44 – 48.

(11) Bentall, R.P. (2009). Doctoring the Mind: why psychiatric treatments fail. London, Penguin. (see p. 89–109)

(12) Coles, S. (2013). Meaning, Madness and Marginalisation. In S. Coles, S. Keenan & B. Diamond (Eds.), Madness Contested: Power and Practice (pp 42 – 55). PCCS Books.

(13) Szmukler, G. & Appelbaum, P. (2008). Treatment pressures, leverage, coercion and compulsion in mental health care. Journal of Mental Health, 17(3), 233 – 244.


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    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      2 years ago from Lancashire, England

      I don't believe that the presentations labelled as 'bipolar disorder' and 'schizophrenia' are primarily caused by biological aberrations in the brain; there is no compelling evidence for biochemical imbalances or brain-structure abnormalities in those so labelled - even psychiatrists are increasingly in agreement with this view. This is not to say that people are not tormented by severe mood swings or terrified by unusual beliefs/voices, just that these presentations cannot be legitimately compared to illnesses/diseases such diabetes, cancer or malaria (where there are clear, measurable biological causes). Often a person's suffering and/or overwhelm is related to past traumatic experiences and when explored can be made sense of as a natural human response to abnormal life circumstances. A lot of research is rightly moving away from studying 'bipolar' or 'schizophrenia' - arbitrary labels invented by a few blokes at a DSM committee meeting - and instead are studying the basis of more discrete experiences like mood swings, voice-hearing and suspicious/threat-laden beliefs about others. Those suffering hugely with these experiences can be understood as people going through something we all have at some time or other but to a much more extreme degree.

      Thanks for reading my hub and taking the time to comment.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      I'm trying to figure out as a psychologist what you consider a mental disorder and what the causes are. Though I do not disagree and many things you say it seems like you think issues like bipolar and schizophrenia are not truly biological, or even that they are mental disorders. When you were practicing and someone came in with all the classic symptoms of those disorders how did you categorize their issues? The label I loathe is "mentally ill," or having a mental illness. They would be better to be called brain disorders.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      3 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Endrun - Thank you for reading & taking the time comment

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      In the states, context is ignored. Great pages!! Keep up the great work!!

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Matty2014 - Thanks for reading, and the positive feedback

      biblicaliving - I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. And I agree, context is under-emphasized when a person presents in distress.

    • biblicaliving profile image


      5 years ago from U.S.A.

      Very well written and informative! I appreciate that you have a works cited section to support your conclusions. The truly frightening part about the mental health field is the fact that once a person seeks treatment (or is compelled to seek treatment) it can be a life altering mistake. Many times isolated incidents or issues are blown out of proportion by "professionals" who take things out of context. At other times, there are individuals who have genuine mental health issues that are not treated properly. Thanks for the Hub!

    • Matty2014 profile image


      5 years ago


    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

      It can feel reassuring to acquire a name for something that has troubled a person for a long time. For example, if someone often feels listless and is urinating excessively it is helpful for someone to identify that s/he is suffering from diabetes. This diagnosis explains why s/he feels the way they do (lack of hormone insulin resulting in excessive glucose in the bloodstream) and what s/he can do to relieve the discomfort (regulate sugar intake or receive insulin injections).

      Sadly, psychiatric diagnoses neither explain the cause of the problem nor give any clear direction as to what the person might do to rid themselves of the problem. In psychiatry the 'logic' is circular: Why do I often feel very depressed and sometimes euphoric? Because you have got bipolar disorder. How do you know I've got bipolar disorder? Because you've often felt depressed and sometimes euphoric.

      After saying that, I hope you do find an effective way of managing your mood swings in the future.

    • Hendrika profile image


      5 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      This is very interesting, problem is......I was only diagnosed as bipolar a few years ago. (I am 63 now) So, what about all the years of suffering without knowing what is wrong with me, what about all the wrong decisions I made because of overwhelming tiredness? My life is a mess because I simply did not know what was wrong with me. I really don’t know where the line is. Normal depression or euphoria stops to be a normal part of life and when it goes over the edge to the point you cannot cope anymore without know what is wrong with you. A wasted life because I did not know what was wrong.


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