Anne Harrington on the Troubles with Psychiatry

Dan Clendenin
2 min readNov 6, 2021

By Dan Clendenin

In her book Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019), the Harvard historian of science Anne Harrington describes the standard narrative of the history of psychiatry — that around 1980, after dominating the field for fifty years, the “wasteland” and “nonsense” of the Freudian model of mental illness was displaced by a new and revolutionary medical model that searched for causes and cures in a strictly biological manner, just like it did in cancer or heart disease. Psychoanalytic talk therapy gave way to neurobiology, genetics, and pharmacology; the focus moved from the unconscious mind to the physical brain. In this “simple explanatory story,” says Harrington, there are heroes and villains, and a happy ending. “The only trouble with this story,” though, “is that it is wrong — not just slightly wrong but wrong in every particular.” In his feature article about the book, Gary Greenberg of the The Atlantic wrote: “[I]t’s a tale of promising roads that turned out to be dead ends, of treatments that seemed miraculous in their day but barbaric in retrospect, of public-health policies that were born in hope but destined for disaster.”

Terry Gross interviewed Harrington on Fresh Air (April 24, 2019) about what she believes is psychiatry’s “legacy of over-diagnosis and over-medication.” See here:

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