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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.4 > What is Mental Illness, Anyway?

What is Mental Illness, Anyway?

A Review of Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness by Anne Harrington
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 384 pp. $27.95. ISBN 13: 978-0393071221

INMIND FIXERS: PSYCHIATRY’S TROUBLED Search for the Biology of Mental Illness,1 Harvard historian of science Anne Harrington concludes about American psychiatry that “firm understandings of major mental illnesses and their underlying biology continue to elude the field” (p.272). Harrington cites hundreds of published articles and books demonstrating her major conclusion that the biology of serious mental disease remains a mystery. Such a pessimistic verdict is paired with the implication that treatment of emotional disease has shown little progress, largely as a consequence of inadequate biological comprehension. In Chapter 1, Harrington describes questionable early-20th century psychologically based treatment efforts for hysteria and traumatic psychic war disability. In 1913, Treponema pallidum bacteria that caused syphilis were found in the brains of patients suffering from the neurological psychiatric disease “general paresis.” Later antibiotic remedies that destroyed Treponema also ended neurosyphilis. Surely, one would think, the same kind of scientific advance could generate a cure for schizophrenia or depression? Alas, this has not happened even by today.

But the book extensively describes the time period after 1910 when influential Swiss neurologist and immigrant to America Adolph Meyer emphasized that psychiatrists must study mental illness from a biological perspective. The following year (1911), psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, also Swiss, who coined the term “schizophrenia” agreed. He claimed that although this disabling disease had psychological characteristics its origins was organic pathology of the brain. Both physicians asserted that understanding mental illness required more than investigation of pertinent lifetime social and mental data, and must include the actual inspection of brain specimens and the study of heredity and genetics.

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UNDERSTANDING FLAT EARTHERS WHO SAYS THE EARTH IS FLAT, AND WHY? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Water Fluoridation: Public Health, Not Poison, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Are You in the 43 Percent?, by Carol Tavris DEBATE Does God Exist? A Rebuttal of Theologian Brian Huffling • God is Not a Moral Being: A Response to Gary Whittenberger on the Problem of Evil ARTICLES Understanding Flat Earthers • Shroud of Turin Update • The Girl Who Smelled Blue: The Colorful Case of Willetta Huggins • How to Navigate Contentious Conversations • How Much Longer Will Cancer Screening Myths Survive? • Nationalistic Pseudohistory in the Balkans • “Prove that I am Wrong!” What QAnon, Descartes, and Brains in Vats Have in Common REVIEWS Reviews of Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness • The Human Swarm: How Tolerance of Strangers Creates Society • Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues • Forensic Science Reform: Protecting the Innocent • The Psychology and Sociology of Wrongful Convictions: Forensic Science Reform • Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law JUNIOR SKEPTIC Victorian England’s Jurassic Park, by Daniel Loxton