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See Inside January / February 2010

Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Really Any Good?

Reviews and recommendations from the January/February 2010 issue of Scientific American MIND

TROUBLED PRACTICES

Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Really Any Good?
by Richard P. Bentall.
New York University Press, 2009 ($29.95)

Despite advances in our understanding of mental illness, treatments leave patients no better off today than they did almost half a century ago according to British clinical psychologist Richard P. Bentall. In his provocative book, Doctoring the Mind, Bentall takes on the conventional field of psychiatry, arguing that it works in a way that is “profoundly unscientific” and fails to actually help patients who are suffering from mental problems.

But it's not only the treatments that ail the field of mental health care; the diagnoses themselves can be equally problematic, Bentall says. That's because the current system of categorizing psychiatric problems is fundamentally wrong, he argues. For example, many patients show both bipolar and schizophrenia symptoms, blurring the boundaries between the two disorders. Such diagnoses, then, are “about as scientifically meaningful as star signs.”

Doctoring the Mind is a very accessible and well-organized book, but what makes it most engaging is the glimpse inside the world of mental illness that Bentall's patient stories provide. His accounts illustrate the point that a conventional approach often leaves doctors stumbling blindly in the dark. Some of the stories are so bewildering that it is hard to comprehend how they happened. One example is Andrew, who was brought into a facility for psychiatric examination. Presumably in an attempt to find behaviors that fit a diagnosis, health care professionals focused on the fact that Andrew was “excessively polite.” One of the reasons for keeping him in the institution, then, became to work out whether his politeness was “part of his normal personality or his illness.”

So what does it take for mental health care to get on the right track? Bentall thinks part of the answer is taking into account the circumstances that most likely led to mental problems in the first place. But rather than trying to make broad diagnoses such as schizophrenia, we should look at individual symptoms, he says. For example, research has already elucidated potential experiences that may contribute to the development of paranoia. Such an approach, however, would require nothing less than “completely rethinking the values and goals of psychiatric care.”

A REMARKABLE TOME

The Human Brain Book
by Rita Carter. Dorling
Kindersley, 2009 ($40)                                                                                                               

Don't let the rich, colorful illustrations fool you into thinking this book is for kids. The Human Brain Book packs an astonishing amount of information between its oversized covers, proving interesting and informative for both experts brushing up on the basics and new bies looking to learn more about the brain.

This gem can serve as a reference to answer brain-related questions, from the complex organ's function and structure to the disorders that can afflict it. The book's innovative graphics and diagrams also provide a unique way of looking at the brain; for example, one section separates and spreads out the layers in a graphical head, allowing the reader to view the dissected anatomy comprising the head and neck, including the brain stem, the skull and the intricate lace of nerves woven just beneath the scalp.

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