The Dark Threads by Jean Davison makes an interesting contrast to Tim Salmon’s book reviewed on this blog a week ago. Whilst Salmon despairs at the services available to people with an established mental disorder, Davison’s despair is more fundamental – she was misdiagnosed with a mental disorder, and endured five years of unnecessary treatment.
As a teenager Davison was extremely shy and home was dysfunction and unsupportive. Her brother has behavioural problems, but it is Davison who receives psychiatric attention. Initially consulting her GP for depression, she is soon admitted and receives a diagnosis of schizophrenia seemingly on no more solid a basis than having doubts about her Christian faith. She receives regular ECT and her prescribed medication that makes her too drowsy to think. She loses her job and boyfriend.
From reading the back of the book we know the ending: Jean extracts herself from the psychiatric system but it’s a painful read on the way. Much of the book reads like a slow motion car crash – Davison’s situation continues to get worse, whilst the people who should have the sense show none.
Written after the passing of years, there’s very much a sense of Davison trying to make sense of what happened to her. The chapters are punctuated with extracts from her clinical notes and reflections about her before she became part of the psychiatric system. The prose is full of rhetorical questions.
“Why had they given me ECT? Why had Dr Prior told me there was ‘no risk’? Why had no one told me the truth?”
To what extent were mental health services and psychiatrists at fault for what happened to Jean? We only have one side of the story, but unless Davison is way off the mark she was subject to something that should never happen. The story is one of someone who got ushered towards mental health services when they had no help to give, who received unnecessary treatment because of clinical overconfidence and who lacked any advocate with the confidence to state a view opposed to that of the doctors. There is only one sensible psychiatrist portrayed – Dr Copeland – who tells Davison to stop thinking of herself as mentally ill. He leaves psychiatry to become a GP.
From her afterword Davison clearly thinks that the experience she had is far from impossible today:
“The most frightening that about what happened to me is that most of it could still happen to a young person, to indeed anyone, today. I was a causality of the narrow medical perspective of conventional psychiatry. With almost no knowledge of me or the context of my life, psychiatrists swiftly began treatment for what their training told them was an illness requiring brain-changing drugs and ECT. Over thirty years later, how has psychiatry changed? Psychiatry has arguably become even more biologically focused. An increasing number of people experiencing misery due to relationships, employment and other problems connected to life events are prescribed drugs such as Prozac to treat a perceived abnormality of brain neurotransmitters. ECT is still widely used.”
I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this.* Psychiatric services have changed a great deal during the past thirty years, not least with the widespread closure of High Royds and institutions like it. If there are careless practitioners this does not discredit the entire approach. But I am grateful that Jean Davison has written this book – it’s a note of caution aimed at a service that has more power than it sometimes realises.
* But Christopher Crook – perhaps you do!