The first attempt in forty years to explain the full subject of psychiatry, from one of the world’s experts.
In what will be a tour de force in the field of psychiatry in all its complexity and depth, this important new volume explores the essential paradox of psychiatry—and offers a balanced understanding of its history and development in the medical world. Much is written about psychiatry, but very little that describes psychiatry itself. Why should there be such a need? For good or ill, psychiatry is a polemical battleground, criticized on the one hand as an instrument of social control, while on the other the latest developments in neuroscience are trumpeted as lasting solutions to mental illness.
Which of these strikingly contrasting positions should we believe? This is the first attempt in a generation to explain the whole subject of psychiatry. In this deeply thoughtful, descriptive, and sympathetic book, Tom Burns reviews the historical development of psychiatry, throughout alert to where psychiatry helps, and where it is imperfect. What is clear is that mental illnesses are intimately tied to what makes us human in the first place, and the drive to relieve the suffering they cause is even more human.
Psychiatry, for all its flaws, currently represents our best attempt to discharge this most human of impulses. It is not something we can just ignore. It is our necessary shadow.
Burns, professor of social psychiatry at Oxford and a practicing psychiatrist, looks at psychiatry and mental illness as a subjective phenomena, yet nonetheless "real" to its subjects and participants. By examining the shadow that psychiatry and psychotherapy cast on other aspects of culture, he reveals the practices to be historically contingent part of, though frequently at odds with, other branches of medicine as well as how they have come to define our concepts of personhood, daily life, our legal system, and our view of fate. The book begins as a history of the treatment of mental illness, from humors and asylums to the "discovery of the unconscious," psychoanalysis and shell shock, and the early, grisly medical cures (insulin wards and malarial treatment of syphilis) of psychiatry. Burns puts forth no defense of psychiatry's past sins, but is confident in the value of the newly open, evidence-based treatment of mental illness that typifies 21st-century care. While his early chapter on seeking psychological care seems misplaced, Burns's focus on psychology's operations in our larger culture is provocative, well-researched, and well-suited to interested lay readers looking for insight into medicine and the mind.