A Patient's Lawsuit Shook the Field of Psychiatry

Book excerpt explores how case pitted psychoanalysis vs. new world of antidepressants
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 29, 2022 7:45 AM CDT
A Patient's Lawsuit Shook the Field of Psychiatry
Chestnut Lodge in Maryland, as seen in a 1909 postcard.   (Wikipedia)

In 1979, a 41-year-old kidney doctor named Ray Osheroff checked into the renowned Chestnut Lodge psychiatric institution in Maryland because he was suffering from depression. As Rachel Aviv recounts in her book Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us—excerpted in the Guardian—there was no quick cure. The institution frowned on the emerging field of biochemistry and antidepressants and relied solely on psychoanalysis. When Osheroff's mother visited him after about six months, she was rattled by his deterioration and asked he be given antidepressants. "But to the Lodge psychiatrists the premise of this form of treatment—to be cured without insight into what had gone wrong—seemed superficial and cheap." They refused.

She checked him out and put him in a Connecticut institution that administered medication. His severe symptoms resolved in weeks. Osheroff went on to sue Chestnut Lodge for malpractice, and while he settled before trial, the lawsuit resonated. The New York Times observed at the time that the dispute shook “the conventional belief, held even by some doctors, that chronic depression is not an illness, but merely a character flaw." This isn't a clear-cut story about the pharmaceutical approach winning the battle, however. Osheroff would eventually reject the explanation of his problems as an illness that could be cured with drugs because after three decades of taking them, he still felt "rootless and alone." As Aviv writes, "two different stories about his illness, the psychoanalytic and the neurobiological, had failed him." (Read the full story for more.)

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