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Think beyond drugs

by
05 October 2010

Linda Hurcombe on a distressing account of modern medicine and mental illness

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Many Forms of Madness: A family’s struggle with mental illness and the mental health system
Rosemary Radford Ruether with David Ruether
Augsburg Fortress Press £15.99
(978-0-8006-9651-1)
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

ROSEMARY RUETHER is best known as a lifelong exponent of feminist theology, and an active champion of social-justice issues. A Roman Catholic, she has written a truly catholic list of books and articles on feminism, eco-feminism, Palestine and Israel, the Bible, and Christianity.

Many Forms of Madness adds a new string to an arguably awe-inspiring bow. Some 30-odd years ago, after a rackety time of drug use, adolescent trauma, and bouts of frightening violence, Ruether’s son David was diagnosed as being schizophrenic. The consequences of this diagnosis, the search through counselling and medication, and the times spent in therapeutic communities, form the basis of Ruether’s critique of a society woefully lacking in creative care for the mentally distressed.

Once David was diagnosed as mad, his fate was sealed. His treatment was driven by the family’s commitment and compassion, and by their economic and educational privilege, but less happily by a psychiatric industry whose chemical approach to mental distress too often gloomily predicts that the condition is solely physical and — which is worse — incurable.

The book touches on the rise of this model, which dominates Western culture to the point that we now medicate our children with powerful drugs for the disease of being fidgety in the classroom. Psychiatry now exists to enforce the norms of the culture. Aberrant behaviour is to be constrained by the heavy cudgel of neuroleptic drugs. Readers may recall, for example, that slavery was once a norm of our culture. A slave who ran away was diagnosed as having “drapetomania”, or the disease of trying to escape.

A most moving aspect of Ruether’s book is her son’s full par­ticipation in it, and the inclusion of his poetry. Chronicling the history of David’s care, Ruether does not mince words in describing the woe­fully inadequate ways in which the needs of those in mental torment are met.

The absence of reference to such pioneering work as Loren Mosher’s Soteria Project, which closed down because there is not good money in recovery without reliance on drugs, and to the work of people such as Robert Whitaker (author of Mad in America) is a weakness. The book is redeemed by its last chapter, “What Would we do if we Really Cared?”

Looking at five therapeutic communities in which David lived for varying lengths of time, she asks what changes could improve care, if “we really cared.” It is typical of Ruether that the reader is left with a vision of justice for a better future.

This book is a “must-read” for parents, professionals in mental-health organisations, and pastoral leaders who care about justice and health for individuals caught up in the mental-health industry.

Linda Hurcombe is author of Depression: healing emotional distress (Sheldon Press, 2007).

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