Guest Post : Psychiatric theories can be damaging

Today we introduce our first guest poster – Pam Pinder. Pam runs her own website which focuses upon carers issues (see also this link which is relevant to her blog post). In this post, Pam challenges us to consider one possible effect of a well known Psychiatric theory, as usual – we would be interested to hear your views on this.. 


The schizophrenogenic mother is the first one that comes to mind and the psychiatrist that I link this to is R D Laing but there were others that latched onto this theory.

Quote: A cold, dominant, conflict-inducing mother believed to cause schizophrenia in her child.

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother” was popular in the psychiatric literature. Research later confirmed that the mother who could cause schizophrenia in her offspring did not exist. Such a blame-levelling concept, which had no basis in scientific fact, may have caused a great deal of harm. Sociocultural factors, coupled with developments in psychiatric theory, contributed to the genesis of the concept. Implications of this episode in the history of psychiatry are discussed. (Arieti 1997, p. 353; Neill 1990).

Even though this theory was alleged to have faded out in the early 70’s this theory of blame towards parents and link to childhood still exist today. Very recently I spoke to a mother whose daughter had been referred for a psychiatric assessment. Her daughter spent just thirty minutes with the psychiatrist, who promptly told her that she did not have a mental illness and he could not help her. Her problems were due to her childhood, consequently the daughter told her mother there was nothing wrong with her it was her parent’s fault she was the way she is.

The mother is left searching for clues as to what she was meant to have done. But this comment didn’t just stop there. This mother had lost a daughter ten years previous; she died of a brain haemorrhage. Her daughter not only blamed her for her mental health problems but constantly tells her mother that she killed her sister. This is coming from someone who as far as the psychiatrist is concerned does not have any psychological problems!

Of course this mother didn’t kill her daughter and there is no evidence that she caused her other daughter’s problems. Could you imagine how something like this would affect you when you are grieving for a child you lost and someone constantly making accusations that you were responsible for their death?


In a court of law you are innocent until proven guilty yet in psychiatry your guilt is based upon someone else’s theory – something that has been read.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post : Psychiatric theories can be damaging

  1. The same thing happened with Mr Man! After being “observed” by nurses at the hospital, they concluded that he couldn’t possibly have Schizophrenia, but really had deep rooted issues from his childhood involving the relationship with his mother!! It made me so angry. I don’t know what sort of dysfunctional families they all came from, but for some bizarre reason they thought it was unnatural for Mr Man’s own mother to cuddle him when she visited(?). They also thought it was unnatural for his only sister to do the same, and even me, his WIFE. We were all to blame for his “issues”.

    Now, this is interesting, because in a way it relates to Andy’s recent post about prejudice. If nurses and psychiatrists keep harping on about outdated theories then how are the public ever supposed to understand mental illness?

    Great post Pam – thanks for reproducing it Andy.

  2. I can remember when my son first became ill, it was not long after this I started to hear about these theories. When ever I was in the presence of a professional I felt they saw me as being responsible for my son’s illness. Even though I knew I had done nothing to my son, I felt the need to prove my innocence. I would often bring up memories from my son’s childhood in front of his nurse, just to prompt him into confirming that he never had a bad childhood. I even read how people with mental illnesses felt unloved and uncared for, so I thought my son must have felt this way too. My reaction was to re-assure him he was cared about constantly and hug him often. He often pushed me away and would snap and tell me not to touch him, something I now know is common when people are psychotic. All my reactions were based upon something I had read, and I feel sure much of what I read contributed greatly towards me bordering on clinical depression … as diagnosed by my gp.

    I attended a mental health conference today, which was much like every other conference of this type I have attended. With deligates writing up comments on how the services can be improved. All the negative comments coming out about MH professionals. None were present at the conference and this got me thinking as to why this was the case. Professionals have very likely been exposed to these comments for years and are fed up with being put down when they are doing their best. Not unlike carers or family members with the negative comments and blame theories that have been and are still there.

    Knowing how this affected me, I can sympathise with MH professionals.

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