The University of Toronto is supporting a striking new scholarship that has met with no small amount of controversy from the medical community. The scholarship is administered by Professor Bonnie Burstow and helps fund graduate students pursuing the nascent field of “anti-psychiatry.”
Burstow argues that there is no such thing as mental illness, and does not see evidence that psychiatric problems stem from chemical imbalances in the brain. She does not believe in the potency of anti-psychotic and mood-altering drugs, which have improved the lives of numerous sufferers alongside psychotherapy.
Facing challenges in getting the scholarship funded, Burstow put up $50,000 of her own money, and successfully convinced her University to endorse it. The University of Toronto defends the grant under the aegis of academic freedom, but its decision to do so has raised objections among academia and practitioners in the field of psychiatry.
Burstow’s grant is supported by donors who have matched her own contributions, some of whom she says are “survivors” of psychiatric treatments or their parents who claim to have been hurt by the medical practice. The scholarship has also won the support of an organization founded by the Church of Scientology, notorious for its opposition to the fields of psychiatry and psychology.
The University’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) is defending the scholarship, saying it’s the right of academics to study unpopular ideas like hers.
Other academics disagree. “This is a case where academic freedom should be quashed,” said Edward Shorter, a professor and expert in the history of psychiatry at the U of T. Speaking to the National Post, Shorter said the scholarship lends credence to anti-scientific views, and has the potential to mislead the public into refusing psychiatric help. Others in the field are echoing his concerns.
“We don’t have an anti-neurology scholarship or an anti-hepatology scholarship. Psychiatry is the only specialty that has people trying to abolish it,” Dr. Joel Paris, a psychiatrist at McGill University, told the Post. “This doesn’t make sense.”
Paris added that while there is much to learn about psychiatry, its scientific foundations are without question. He is ashamed that the institution would back a scholarship dismissing the entire profession.
While the OISE defends her research on the grounds of academic freedom and suggests that no field of science should be off-limits to scientific analysis or concerns over validity, Burstow herself disagrees. She flat out says that mental illness does not exist, and does not entertain any suggestions to its merit.
“Psychiatry’s tenets and claims do not stand up to scrutiny. We do not have to begin by trying to prove that,” said Burstow. “I am saying these are not diseases … There is not a single proof of a single chemical imbalance of a single so-called mental illness.”
The field of modern psychiatry dates to the early 19th century and has come a long way since physicians started classifying mental illnesses to treat them. Through on-going scientific research into chemistry and biology, physicians continue to discover safer and more effective ways of treating ailments like depression and schizophrenia.