Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Some books about insanity

Well, that title should get you all going!  To remove the obvious from consideration I have NOT written autobiographies!

My daughter gave me a book for Christmas written by  a psychiatrist who had served a year in a mental hospital in California.  It is "Behind the Gates of Gomorrah" by Stephen Seager.  It is obvious at the beginning that he has survived the year, which resolves one of the potential sources of tension.  It is difficult - a few weeks after reading the book - to recall exactly what gripped me about the book, but it is very well written and the characters are many.  I found it very good and would rate it at least 9/10.

As a parenthesis, some years ago I read "In the House of God" which was extremely good, although - to use an appropriate metaphor - bipolar in that the first half is very funny and the second half very dark.  A second book by this author "Mount Misery" was more a mantra about the psychiatric profession and the various forces at play between philosophies.  It is more steadily on the dark side, but very interesting.  I'd rate both of them over 8/10 and well worth reading if you are interested in the medical profession.

What has stirred this post is "A First Rate Madness" by Nassir Ghaemi.  It is primarily a book based on a view that while nations (and businesses) in good times need guidance by sane leaders when the going gets tough the better leaders need a touch of mental illness to get innovation and drive required to fix things.  He discusses a range of leaders (I think I got on to this by a reference  to Winston Churchill) who have some form of mental illness - largely controlled.  I'm not going to try to reproduce his arguments but it is a very interesting book.  A particular highlight comes early where he contrasts the diagnostic procedures of physicians, psychiatrists and historians in justifying his approach.  I give it about 8.5, and that includes an downgrade because I think his justification for regarding Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as having depression is somewhat weak.  Very well worth reading, both by those interested in psychiatry and politics.

A particularly interesting point is that both Seager and Ghaemi end their books with sections commenting that mentally ill people are not necessarily the evil ones.  Ghaemi argues that while Hitler was mentally unwell - especially when given massive doses of contraindicated amphetamines in later years - many of his staff and colleagues were not suffering any mental illness but were just awful people.  Seager discusses some of the inmates who played their cases so that they ended up in a Hospital rather than the far harsher environment of a Prison.  In each case there are people who the authors rate as bad not mad.

I'm not sure I'd recommend any of these if your situation is in a bad place but if you are happy with where you're at they are well written and very interesting.  Probably not a good idea to try self diagnosis based on the definitions given early on in Ghaemi's tome!

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