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The 'flight into health'

MagazineNovember 2003 (Vol. 14 Issue 8)The 'flight into health'

I am no longer a psychiatrist


I am no longer a psychiatrist. I renounce it because I believe cruelty is at the core of the profession.

In my early days in the field, the head psychiatrist of a hospital took me aside, placed his arm around me paternally and offered to teach me the first lesson of private-practice psychiatry. 'John,' he said, 'Do what I do. Put them in a private hospital for a couple of weeks and give them shock treatment. If they are not better by then, certify them to a mental hospital. That way you will have no trouble and, by then, you'll have got most of the money you are going to get out of them anyway.' He meant it - and that was how he practised psychiatry.

The head of another psychiatric hospital was even crueler. At a clinical meeting, a new patient was presented to him - a young girl of 20 who was extremely disturbed. Her suffering was pathetic. She was obviously schizophrenic and required, most of all, loving care. But no, he proclaimed, she wasn't schizophrenic at all, merely hysteric.

The treatment for this, he added, was to 'encourage her flight into health'. I, and others, protested. But he looked at me and, with a supreme pontifical gesture, issued the dictum, 'No, John, there is nothing schizophrenic about this girl. I will cure her.' And again, he used the phrase 'by encouraging her flight into health'.

By this, he meant that the staff - both junior doctors and nurses - were encouraged to do everything possible to humiliate her, to shame her, to embarrass her, to belittle her - anything and everything to abuse her, to inflict acts of minor cruelty on her. Even worse, they were encouraged to think of her with cruelty.

This went on, despite our protests, for two months. It finally stopped when this tortured woman jumped out of a window in the psychiatry ward and landed on the concrete courtyard some stories below. I was the first to her. Her legs were caught up under her, twisted and broken; her face was smashed and horribly distorted; there was blood everywhere. She looked at me with her one open eye, and out of her twisted bloody mouth came, 'Maybe the doctor will believe me now.' Such had been her 'flight into health'.

She spent many months in a surgical ward - and then was certified to a mental hospital.

I do not mean to say that all psychiatrists are cruel; I can think of many glorious exceptions, going back to Benjamin Rush. But rather, I believe that there is something inherent in the profession that tends to bring out any cruelty lurking within.

I have long wondered why this profession - that ought to be so compassionate - has, it seems to me, turned its back on humanity. It is deaf to the tormented cries, the anguished pleas, for help from its patients, the most suffering of all sufferers.

A similar profession, with similar cruelty, is that of the singing teacher - but, again, with many wonderful exceptions. I have seen so many singers abused, both psychologically and physically, to the point that many of them have not only given up their careers, but stopped singing altogether.

The student places his soul in his teacher's hands - so trusting, and so often abused, if that is in the heart of the teacher.

And it is the same with the psychiatric patient. There is no physical disease that can stand as a shield between him and his doctor. Furthermore, the ego disintegration of the psychiatric illness itself brings the sufferer's soul to the surface. Displayed before him, the psychiatrist can choose to comfort it and nurture it - or not. The choice is his.

So often, regardless of whatever superficial reason he may give, the choice is really whether or not to be cruel to the helpless victim before him.

Psychiatry should be at the forefront of all the therapies - pioneering, blazing a trail for all the rest to follow. It, most of all, should recognise that our suffering is really in our souls. It, most of all, should be teaching love. Love rarely, if ever, appears in any index of a psychiatric text; it is not medical enough for the profession. If it proclaimed the supreme importance of love as the greatest therapy, then the profession could not tolerate cruelty within it - and would then attract a different type of doctor to enter into it, such as those who aspire to be what Freud called 'ministers of the soul'.

Two of my greatest mentors, the late Dr Robert Fulford and Dr George Goodheart, respectively an osteopath and a chiropractor, while they have deviated greatly from the mainstream of their professions, nonetheless have remained within them and have been honored by them. For, I believe, their professions are not basically cruel.

My two great mentors in psychiatry were both very aware of the spiritual basis of human suffering. One stayed within the profession - and committed suicide. The other, Dr Ainslie Meares, renounced his profession and became a teacher of meditation. I, too, renounce it to teach what I teach.

I will come back to psychiatry gladly when it speaks of the soul, of the spirit, of Love, when these are major topics in its learned journals.

The sufferer's soul
a quivering dove
which he gives
into my hands
for me to help it
fly.
That's the flight into health!
John Diamond
Dr John Diamond, an holistic healer based in New York, is a founding member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This essay is taken from his new book Facets of a Diamond (Enhancement Books, 2003).


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