Is parental failure the cause of schizophrenia?

In facile analysis, the finger of blame will always be pointed at the parent. "What? You didn't abuse your child? Well, you must have mystified him or her. Or you must have failed to inculcate a sufficiently optimistic attitude in your offspring..." And so it goes on.

As the father of a woman who slid into psychosis at university, I am familiar with all these lines. Sure, I "mystified" her. I hung a Raymond Ching portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa in my hallway. That's why Tessa (not her real name) developed the delusion she was Kiri's daughter, and was being stalked by Machiavellian martial-arts afficionados. Give me a break.

In 'Schizophrenia' Is Not an Illness, the first chapter of Models of Madness: Psychological, Social and Biological Approaches to Schizophrenia, John Read, Loren R. Mosher and Richard P. Bentall write (P3) that they "have not attempted an even-handed, 'objective' approach", and claim that "What is required, after a hundred years or more of the dominance of an approach that is unsupported scientifically and unhelpful in practice, is a balancing stance rather than a balanced one".

But what is a work that adopts a "balancing stance", if it is not a polemic? And what is a polemic, if it is not a work of propaganda? And what is propaganda, if it is not a product of ideology?


Last year, nearly 10 years after she was discharged from hospital, my daughter graduated with a BA in psychology. "What did you write in your final exam on the subject of schizophrenia?" I asked her — knowing that she had been marked incorrect when, in an assignment, she had said something in favour of compulsory treatment with anti-psychotic medication "in some cases". (It was flupenthixol*, administered compulsorily, that had brought her out of psychosis.) "I told them what I knew they wanted to hear," she replied.

What does that say about our universities?

The problem, I think, is that the psychology departments of our universities have been "captured" by latter-day disciples of R.D. Laing, who simply do not believe there is such a phenomenon as schizophrenia (which is why they superciliously place the word in quotation marks). "The obvious fact," they say, is that "people are driven crazy by bad things happening to them" (Read, et al., in Models of Madness). So if someone like my daughter starts thinking her mother is a famous opera singer, she must have been deeply wounded by life. Yes, one psychologist, in an email to me, has presumptuously referred to Tessa's "wounds" — because psychological wounds are, according to this theory, a sine qua non of "schizophrenia".

Of course, none of this would matter a great deal if the psychology departments of universities were not churning out graduates who, in some cases, go on to work in the mental health field, where they can greatly add to the difficulties one has in having a loved one committed. One can find oneself — as I found myself in late 1995 — in a truly desperate situation, only to be confronted by sugary condescension, and blithe suggestions that all could be resolved through some sort of family conference.

Largely because of this attitude, I was not able to get Tessa into hospital, and ensure she stayed there, until she was at the point of total collapse. And by "collapse", I don't mean having a few funny ideas; I mean having hallucinations, seizures and blackouts.

* An "old-generation" anti-psychotic medication. It's a dopamine inhibitor.

Written in 2006.