The Understanding and Treatment of Mental Health

Major Limitations of Science

Response: Dr Natalie Tobert. Discipline: Medical Anthropology. Topic: The Understanding and Treatment of Mental Health

The symptoms of mental distress and their interpretation are indicative of major limitations of science. Research shows that scientific evidence underpinning psychiatry, effectiveness of medication and certain treatments was manipulated, withheld, or non existent (Davies 2014, Whitaker 2010, Whitaker and Cosgrove 2015). Evidence against old-fashioned psychiatry and reductionist Western medicine is growing from within the profession: general physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists are seeking new ways of understanding. Within the movements of anti-psychiatry and critical psychiatry ‘scientific’ evidence and research data is now questioned (Breggin 2009, Gøtzsche 2015, Moncrieff 2008). My proposition: some people who tap into a non-local realm of consciousness spontaneously have NDE, OBE, ELE experiences (religious experiences; near-death, out-of-body, and end of life experiences) may not have a framework for understanding. People who cannot control their experiences and have distress may attract psychiatric attention. Specialists like shamans and psychics deliberately invite altered states of consciousness and turn them on and off at will. The phenomenology appears the same, although effects are different. Problems arise when this doesn’t fit with a person’s own or their observer’s belief system.

The problems: a) We are educating junior doctors and health care staff in a way which perpetuates the origin myths of schizophrenia and psychosis, as biological diseases of the brain, chemical imbalance, illness for life, or the racist ‘ethnic predispositions’. Our western education and training continues as if the research literature mentioned above doesn’t exist.

b) The West is globally exporting its misunderstandings of mental distress and its treatments, as if they are ubiquitous and universal (Watters 2009). Cultural wisdoms are recorded as ‘interesting anecdotes’ but are disregarded as ‘superstition’ or ‘ineffective’.

c) Regarding altered states of consciousness: academic disciplines seem to accept and conduct research into the paranormal, End of Life Experiences, Clairvoyance, NDEs, OBEs, and trance, but seem to draw a blank when a relationship with mental health is inferred (Tobert 2015, 2016).

Addressing Limitations

The following steps may be considered a) In the first instance, I would like to see academicians who conduct research into altered states of consciousness in all its forms, sit around the same table with psychiatrists, healthcare clinicians and mainstream educators. I would like them to explore the commonalities and differences between the phenomenology of lived experience in each field of study.

b) Psychiatrists and psychologists in certain countries are currently proposing, scientifically researching, evaluating, and offering training in more effective ways of addressing distress (Razzaque & Stockmann 2016). I would like to see these programmes funded and researched, and then if the evidence illustrates effectiveness, to be rolled out globally.

c) I would like to see systematic scientific research done into the environmental, political, and social triggers of mental distress, followed by an evaluation of strategies used to address them.

d) I would like to see mainstream media, journals, radio and television, trained in the appropriate ways of understanding mental distress, so that they broadcast programmes in a more responsible manner, and cease to propitiate archaic opinions about science and mental well being.

New Methodologies and Ontology

Today a turning-point is reached as we acknowledge deeper existential realities about being human. There is evidence on social media of anger by people who were diagnosed with a mental illness: they question both the label and treatment strategies. There is anxiety by clinicians who have been taught in a certain way, and are aware their education no longer fits the spirit of our times. a) I would like to see a Truth and Reconciliation Project. This would address the concerns of both former patients and staff, to acknowledge feelings on each side, and move forwards towards good practice. b) Academicians would systematically record the commonalities and differences between the phenomenology of each experience they study. c) I would like clinicians to systematically ask people experiencing mental distress “What happened to trigger the trauma?” rather than… “What are your symptoms?” I would like to see research data collected on this practice, using both quantative and qualitative methods.

Differences of an Extended Science

it is time to call a halt to the out-dated Eurocentric disease-model of human suffering and to conduct appropriate science to raise awareness of altered states of consciousness and cultural ways of interpreting ‘symptoms’. This would benefit the mental well-being of global populations.


Breggin P The Conscience of Psychiatry, Lake Edge Press, Ithaca, New York 2009 Davies J. Cracked: Why Psychiatry is doing more harm than good. London: Icon Books; 2014. Gotzche P Deadly Psychiatry and Organised Denial. People’s Press. 2015 Moncrieff J. The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2009. Razzaque R, Stockmann T, An introduction to peer-supported open dialogue in mental healthcare. BJPsych Advances Sep 2016, 22 (5) 348-356 Tobert N. Knowledge frameworks in medicine and health. NAMAH 2015; 23:3. Tobert N. Cultural Perceptions on Mental Wellbeing: Spiritual Interpretations of Symptoms in Medical Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2016. Watters E. Crazy like us: The globalization of the American psyche. New York 2010 Whitaker R. Anatomy of an Epidemic. New York: Crown; 2010. Whitaker R, Cosgrove L. Psychiatry under the Influence, Institutional Corruption, Social Injury, and Prescriptions for Reform. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US; 2015.

Dr Natalie Tobert, Medical Anthropologist Author of Spiritual Psychiatries and Cultural Perspectives on Mental Wellbeing