Oppressive & damaging

He reminds me of an unscrupulous salesman.

In his latest sigh-inducing, pathologising mishmash in the Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4683390/amp/Do-live-work-narcissist.html 10.7.17, resident psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton ups the ante.  If ‘Personality Disorder’ was a consumable product I would be wondering at this point if Dr Pemberton owned the company! Make no mistake, this article is a call for people to identify a ‘personality disorder’ in themselves or in others. He reminds me of an unscrupulous salesman.

Taking a superficially anti-stigma 'it can happen to anyone' approach

Taking a superficially anti-stigma ‘it can happen to anyone’ approach that for many readers unfamiliar with the debate would no doubt experience as compassionate and empathetic, Pemberton’s ‘concern’ is tangible!  All heart!  And heart with a social conscience thrown in for good measure as he berates society and the systems that discriminate against the afflicted and challenges assumptions and stereotypes about being attention seeking and difficult. He says, ‘It’s certainly not the person’s fault they have it!’ Instead, he explains that it’s all part of the illness that can affect anyone. He is eager for us to know that this debilitating disease can strike us at any point, threatening to destroy our lives, and it will happen to one in ten of us! He alerts us to the possibility that we already know someone ‘with one’.  It’s all very alarming!

A pile of chaotic contradiction all the way through

Thankfully however, the doctor reassures us by offering a series of ‘helpful’ user-friendly lists of the main things to look out for in relation to the different kinds of personality disorder that we may develop. He talks optimistically about the various ‘treatment’ options — a long list which includes ‘antidepressants’ and ‘antipsychotics!

By any journalistic standards Pemberton’s article is a mess, a pile of chaotic contradiction all the way through. Despite this, the potential for damage is obvious. It arguably leaves a vulnerable reader ‘self diagnosing’ via his criteria – a checklist full of experiences and behaviours that applies to some extent to every one of us. Forgive my cynicism, but this of course is the whole objective of the article – to get his ‘one in ten’ to the point of realisation where they suddenly acquire a ‘personality disorder.’  Then of course…  ‘It’s important to get a formal diagnosis by a psychiatrist or psychologist.’ Of course it is, Max.

The real stories are sidelined and ignored

In amongst all of this rubbish is Pemberton’s acknowledgement that many people with ‘personality disorders’  have experienced trauma  (my only point of agreement in the whole piece!) He says: ‘The tragic truth is that these patients often have a history of trauma..’  This statement is then left stranded, completely unconnected to anything else around it. Irrelevant in the context, it may as well have not been mentioned at all.

 The brutal irony here is obvious. In all of the pathologising, sensationalist label driven drama about ‘the illness’, the real stories are sidelined and ignored. For example, survivors of abuse who have been unfortunate enough to attract a ‘diagnosis’ of ‘personality disorder’ have in many cases had all their difficulties attributed to the ‘illness’, rendering the trauma/adversities that they have experienced irrelevant and meaningless.

Promoting an understanding - widely accepted as oppressive and damaging

This is such irresponsible journalism.  He is encouraging distressed people to identify with an ‘diagnosis’ that has no scientific validity, that is widely experienced as oppressive and that many survivors and academics have campaigned against for years. He is also encouraging people to view others’ distress through the lens of pathology, thus completely missing the person and their story.

People who have received this unscientific label are now speaking out in their thousands about its devastating impact. This surely raises the question as to why journalists like Max Pemberton are not only ignoring people with lived experience but actively promoting an understanding that has been widely accepted as oppressive and damaging.

I wonder if Dr Pemberton is able to empathise on any level at all with anyone whose pain has been papered over – no, whose pain has been concreted over by a ‘personality disorder’ diagnosis. So many women who have come to see themselves as inherently wrong and bad and whose stories of abuse have been effectively obscured while their ‘personalities’ are blamed! The narrative Pemberton promotes is the old and tired line that emotional distress is rooted in what is wrong with you rather than what has happened to you. This represents everything that is wrong about the illness model and the corresponding anti-stigma responses to emotional distress. 

There is no excuse for blatant misinformation!

Some might say I’m asking too much (this is after all, the Daily Mail), but I expect more from people who have audiences of many thousands. With power and influence should come some sense of responsibility. I don’t expect Pemberton will be letting go of his pathologising language any time soon, and he is welcome to his ‘types’ and ‘clusters’, but he does have a basic responsibility to acknowledge the controversial and disputed nature of the ‘information’ he has offered.  Instead he positions it as a series of facts or truths solidly grounded in medical science. There is no excuse for blatant misinformation that will damage people’s lives irrevocably, and in my opinion it is ethically dubious from both his position as a journalist and his role as a doctor.

Jo Watson