Medicalizing mental health: a phenomenological alternative

J Med Humanit. 2008 Dec;29(4):243-59. doi: 10.1007/s10912-008-9065-1.


With the increasingly close relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) there has been a growing tendency in the mental health professions to interpret everyday emotional suffering and behavior as a medical condition that can be treated with a particular drug. In this paper, I suggest that hermeneutic phenomenology is uniquely suited to challenge the core assumptions of medicalization by expanding psychiatry's narrow conception of the self as an enclosed, biological individual and recognizing the ways in which our experience of things--including mental illness--is shaped by the socio-historical situation in which we grow. Informed by hermeneutic phenomenology, psychiatry's first priority is to suspend the prejudices that come with being a medical doctor in order to hear what the patient is saying. To this end, psychiatry can begin to understand the patient not as a static, material body with a clearly defined brain dysfunction but as an unfolding, situated existence already involved in an irreducibly complex social world, an involvement that allows the patient to experience, feel, and make sense of their emotional suffering.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Drug Industry
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Psychiatry / history*
  • Psychiatry / methods*
  • Psychiatry / trends
  • Psychopharmacology / methods*