Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Postpsychiatry: a new direction for mental health

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 24 March 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:724
  1. Patrick Bracken (, consultant psychiatrist,
  2. Philip Thomas, consultant psychiatrist
  1. Department of Applied Social Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP
  1. Correspondence to: P Bracken

    Government policies are beginning to change the ethos of mental health care in Britain. The new commitment to tackling the links between poverty, unemployment, and mental illness has led to policies that focus on disadvantage and social exclusion.1 These emphasise the importance of contexts, values, and partnerships and are made explicit in the national service framework for mental health.2 The service framework raises an agenda that is potentially in conflict with biomedical psychiatry. In a nutshell, this government (and the society it represents) is asking for a very different kind of psychiatry and a new deal between health professionals and service users. These demands, as Muir Gray has recently observed, apply not only to psychiatry but also to medicine as a whole, as society's faith in science and technology, an important feature of the 20th century, has diminished.3

    According to Muir Gray, “Postmodern health will not only have to retain, and improve, the achievements of the modern era, but also respond to the priorities of postmodern society, namely: concern about values as well as evidence; preoccupation with risk rather than benefits; the rise of the well informed patient.”3 Medicine is being cajoled into accepting this reality, but psychiatry faces the additional problem that its own modernist achievements are themselves contested. Consider this: although patients complain about waiting lists, professional attitudes, and poor communication, few would question the enterprise of medicine itself. By contrast, psychiatry has always been thus challenged. Indeed, the concept of mental illness has been described as a myth.4 It is hard to imagine the emergence of “antipaediatrics” or “critical anaesthetics” movements, yet antipsychiatry and critical psychiatry are well established and influential.5 One of the largest groups of British mental health service users is called Survivors Speak Out.

    Psychiatry has reacted defensively …

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