A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find

I was optimistic about reading this critique of the medical model of mental illness by professor of clinical psychology Peter Kinderman, in part because it is written by someone with experience in the field and in part because it is published on Scientific American, which I trust.

However, while the article makes a number of good points that I will discuss later, it starts off immediately with such a tired and oft-debunked misconception that I almost quit reading after that:

The idea that our more distressing emotions such as grief and anger can best be understood as symptoms of physical illnesses is pervasive and seductive. But in my view it is also a myth, and a harmful one.

I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: nobody* is trying to medicalize “distressing emotions such as grief and anger.” They are medicalizing mental patterns (which can include cognitions, emotions, and behaviors) that are not only very distressing, but also interfere with the person’s daily functioning. It’s kind of like how some stomachaches are minor annoyances that you wait out (or take a Tums), and some land you in the ER with appendicitis. Therapists and psychologists are not concerned with the mental equivalent of a mild cramp.

In general, people don’t end up in my office because they get pissed off when someone cuts them off in traffic; they end up in my office because they are so angry so often that they can’t stop physically attacking people. They don’t end up seeing the psychiatrist down the hall because they get jittery and uncomfortable before a job interview; they see the psychiatrist because they feel jittery and uncomfortable all the damn time, and they can’t stop, and they can’t sleep, even though they rationally know that they are safe and everything’s okay.

I understand that it’s more difficult to grok differences in degree as opposed to differences in kind, because Where Do You Draw The Line. Yes, it would be easier if mentally ill people had completely different emotions that had completely different names and that’s how we knew that they were Really Mentally Ill, as opposed to having emotions that look like more extreme or less bearable versions of everyone else’s. (Sometimes, from the outside, they even look the same. “But sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed either!” “But sometimes I feel sad for no reason either!” Okay, well, you might be depressed too. Or you might find that those things have no significant impact on your day-to-day life, whereas for a person with depression, they do.)

But it really doesn’t help when you’ve got mental health professionals obfuscating the issue in this manner.

As I said, Kinderman does go on to make some really good arguments, such as the fact that psychiatric diagnoses have poor validity and reliability. This means that they don’t seem to correspond that well with how symptoms actually look “on the ground,” and that different diagnosticians tend to give different diagnoses to the same cases. However, these are criticisms of the DSM, not of the medical model. I’ve felt for a while that we should move away from diagnostic labels and towards identifying specific symptoms and developing treatment plans for those symptoms, not for some amorphous “disorder.”

For instance, suppose I’m seeing a client, Bob. After getting to know each other for a few weeks, Bob and I determine together that there are a few issues he’s particularly struggling with: self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness, guilt, difficulty sleeping, lack of motivation to do anything, loss of interest in things he used to enjoy, and frequent, unbearable sadness. Traditionally, I’d diagnose Bob with major depression (pending a few other considerations/differential diagnosis stuff) and move on with treatment. But without these often-invalid and unreliable diagnostic labels, I just skip that step (although I might let Bob know that “depression” might be a useful word to Google if he’s looking for support and resources). Instead, Bob and I look at his actual symptoms and decide on treatments that might be helpful for those particular symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy might help with Bob’s self-hatred, feelings of worthlessness, and guilt. Behavioral activation might help with his lack of motivation and interest. Certain dialectical behavior therapy modules, such as distress tolerance, might help him cope with sadness in the meantime. Antidepressants might very well help with all of them!

Because mental healthcare doesn’t treat disorders; it treats symptoms. Whether that mental healthcare is medication, therapy, or some combination, the ultimate goal is a reduction in symptoms.

I can see how the medical model makes this seem bad when it isn’t. In traditional healthcare, treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem is downright dangerous. If someone has headaches and you give them painkillers without diagnosing their brain tumor, they’re in serious trouble.

However, we haven’t yet developed great ways of figuring out what “the root of the problem” is when it comes to mental symptoms, especially since there often isn’t one. It’s almost always some complicated tangle of genetics, early childhood stressors, interpersonal patterns learned from family, sociocultural factors, and so on. All of this affects the brain in fundamental biological ways, which further drives the symptoms.

Thankfully, that’s not as much of a problem as it would be with a physical health condition. If you only focus on symptoms and don’t treat the underlying cancer or diabetes or whatever, it will slowly kill you. But if you successfully treat the symptoms of mental illness, you will make the person’s life much better no matter what originally caused the symptoms. There won’t be anything silently killing them in the background, and good therapy teaches people the skills to avoid future relapses of their symptoms.

Sometimes the root cause of mental illness is, as Kinderman points out, a social problem. Poverty, social inequality, and other issues contribute heavily to mental illness. But since you can’t solve those issues from the inside of a counseling office, all you can do is help your client as much as possible. I do this every day, and believe me, it feels weird and gross at times. But what else can I do? Until our fucked-up society decides to come in and take a seat in my office, I can only work with my clients as individuals. (Otherwise I would have a very different job and it would not be therapy.)

Kinderman argues that treating mental illnesses as diseases is wrong because of these social factors that contribute to them. I understand his concern, because he (and many other people) treat “disease” as synonymous with “thing that is entirely biologically based.” So, the medical model feels like an erasure of the complex and valid social dynamics that contribute to what we call mental illness.

But I don’t think of disease that way at all, and I’m betting most doctors don’t either. Social factors contribute heavily to physical illnesses, too. People who are living in poverty or who are marginalized by the healthcare system in other ways are much more likely to have all sorts of physical health problems, and the results tend to be more severe for them. Stress, which includes the stress of poverty, racism, and other social problems, makes everyone more vulnerable to illness. Eating well and exercising enough, two very important factors when it comes to physical (and mental) health, are not equally accessible to everyone. Heart disease and diabetes may have biological origins, but they do not happen in isolation from societal factors, either. Just like mental illness.

You might argue that physical illnesses and mental illnesses differ in that physical illnesses are more heavily caused by biological factors and mental illnesses are more heavily caused by social factors, and I might agree. But again, that’s a difference in degree, not kind. Both types of illnesses affect us physically and mentally.

Another good argument that Kinderman presents is that the medical model may not help reduce stigma, and there’s research to back this up. Kinderman writes:

Traditionally, the idea that mental health problems are illnesses like any other and that therefore people should not be blamed or held responsible for their difficulties has been seen as a powerful tool to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on biological explanations for mental health problems may not help matters because it presents problems as a fundamental, heritable and immutable part of the individual. In contrast, a more genuinely empathic approach would be to understand how we all respond emotionally to life’s challenges.

So, that’s important and deserves highlighting.

However, I think the issue of how best to reduce stigma against mental illness is slightly separate from the issue of how best to help people with mental illnesses feel better. (There’s a school of thought in the disability community that disabilities [including mental illnesses)] “hurt” only because of the stigma and prejudice against people who have them, and I’m not particularly equipped to engage with that here except to say that it makes me angry in a way I can’t possibly explain. It completely invalidates how awful and wretched I felt because my symptoms hurt unbearably and not because of anything anyone else said or did to me as a result.)

When it comes to what people with mental illnesses actually find helpful, for some it’s the medical model and for some it isn’t. In her piece on mental “sick days,” Katie Klabusich writes about how freeing it actually was to see herself as “sick” when she needed to take a day off due to her mental illness:

I’d realized that not only is it alright for me to think of the dysthymia as the illness that it is, it’s necessary. If it were a south-of-the-neck illness, I wouldn’t have had the conflict about it. Yes, I’ve worked when I had a virus and shouldn’t have. (See the stats on service industry staff who work when they’re sick; we’ve all done it.) But my thought process would have been totally different. I certainly wouldn’t have needed the Ah ha! moment to know I had the flu. So why didn’t I realize I was sick?

Our culture impresses upon us that we SUCK IT UP and GIT ER DONE when our “issue” is “just mental.” Except . . .


It turns out that what happens in my head has a real—not imagined or exaggerated—physical affect on my other bodily functions. That list of symptoms from a dysthymia flare? They’re worse than the flu. Full-blown body aches and exhaustion alone are enough to make just sitting up nearly impossible. What work Idid do last week was all done from bed. Including writing this.

Others may not find that way of thinking helpful, in which case, they should absolutely abandon it in favor of whatever does help.

I want to end on a cautionary note about this whole idea of the medical model “pathologizing” “normal” emotions, because the alternatives I sometimes see offered to the medical model seem far, far worse about this. While Kinderman seems to argue sensibly for a more “psychosocial” approach to mental healthcare and a reduction in the use of medication (which I disagree with, but at least it’s sensible), others turn entirely away from scientifically validated treatments into “holistic” or “alternative” treatment. In many of these communities, “positive thinking” is seen as the only treatment you need, and anything that strays from the “positive” (like, you know, the negative emotions that are a normal part of almost any mental illness) is actively preventing you from recovering. There’s a very victim-blamey aspect to all of this: if you’re unhappy or sick,” it’s your own fault for not thinking positively enough.

I’ve had clients from these communities in counseling, and it’s very difficult to get any work done with them because they only ever want to share “positive” thoughts and feelings with me. As it turns out, medical model or no, they have completely pathologized any sort of negative emotion–including, in fact, the totally normal negative emotions that all of us experience all the time.

Yet it’s those evil psychiatrists who don’t want anybody to be sad or angry ever. Okay.

Some critiques of the medical model are quite valid and very useful. Others seem to rest less on evidence and more on a general sense of unease about the idea of thinking of mental symptoms as, well, symptoms. Kinderman even implies that it’s unethical. But “makes me uncomfortable” isn’t the same as “unethical,” as we all know. Unless I see evidence that this conceptualization is harmful overall, I see no reason to throw it out.

That said, if you’re a mental health provider and you have clients who are clearly uncomfortable with this model, maybe don’t use it to explain their conditions to them, since it’s unlikely to be helpful. All of these labels and diagnoses and explanations should serve the client, not the other way around.

And if you’re a person who experiences some significant amount of mental distress and you can’t stand thinking of it as an illness, then don’t! You don’t have to think of it in any way you don’t like. I hope you’re getting treatment of some sort that works for you, but at the end of the day, it’s actually none of my business.


*Yes, there are probably some bad psychiatrists out there who think that grieving at the loss of a loved one is literally a mental illness. There are also surgeons who leave crap inside of people’s bodies or amputate the wrong limb. I see these as roughly analogous.


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A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find