In the early nineties, an epidemic of mental disorder was sweeping America and Britain. It had been uncovered by a new system for identifying disorders. Psychiatry had been attacked for relying on the personal and fallible judgement of psychiatrists.
But instead, a new objective method based on checklists had been invented. These listed only the objective symptoms, and deliberately did not enquire into why the individuals felt an anxiety. In the late 80s, nationwide surveys had revealed an incredible picture: more than 50% of Americans suffered from mental disorders.
But at the very same, the drug companies had announced that they had created a new type of drug, called an SSRI, which they claimed, targeted the circuits inside the brain that were causing these malfunctions. The SSRIs were marketed under names like "Prozac". What they did was alter the amounts of serotonin that flowed across the circuit connections within the brain, and they readjusted the chemicals to normal levels.
What now began to happen, was that millions of people who had been diagnosed by the checklist as disordered, went to psychiatrists to be medicated. The result was liberation from anxiety on a wide scale. But in the process, the checklist became a powerful, and seemingly objective guide for people, as to what should be their normal feelings, and what was abnormal.
And a number of leading psychiatrists began to argue that what they were actually doing was creating a static society, in which human beings were adjusted by the medication, so that they fitted to an agreed normal type, defined by the checklist.
But then, the man who had created the checklists admitted that it might actually be leading millions of people to believe that they were disordered when they were not. The checklist added up only observable symptoms. They deliberately excluded any understanding of the patient’s life. Because of this, he said, it confused genuine psychological disorder with normal human feelings of sadness and anxiety, and that this was happening on a wide scale.
All this was being said by one of America's most powerful psychiatrists, Dr. Robert Spitzer:
What happened is that we made estimates of prevalence of mental disorders totally descriptively, without considering that many of these conditions might be normal reactions which are not really disorders. That's the problem. Because we were not looking at the context within which those conditions developed.
What was happening was that large parts of normal human experience - grief, disappointment, loneliness, were all being reclassified as medical disorders.