Suicide as a Disease, according to New Scientist

The other day, I came across this article Suicidal behaviour is a disease, psychiatrists argue on the website of New Scientist. To my skeptical mind, this article is profoundly dishonest, yet another example of self-serving opinions placed by vested interests with the goal of turning the debate on mental disorder in directions that suit themselves. In 1000 words, I can’t deal with every point it raises but we can have a look at some of the major inconsistencies. Firstly, it turns on the question of whether suicidal behaviour can correctly be classed a disease. Over the years, there have been huge amounts written on “what is a disease?” I think the vast majority of people would say that a behavior is not a disease. Is aggression a disease? Is romantic behaviour a disease? Is hoarding a disease, and is greed a disease? I don’t think so. At the most, we could label it as the “final common pathway” of a huge number of psychosocial inputs with perhaps some (unstated and probably unknowable) biological factors as well.

I have already pointed out the problems in the DSM project [1], and in the new Research Domain Criteria project touted by the US NIMH [2]. I believe these problems are lethal to each project, to the extent that they can never achieve their goals. However, that won’t stop people trying: one definition of mental disorder is to keep on doing the same thing but expecting a different result. The “same thing” in this case is the attempt to hammer human behavior into a biological model. Anybody who says something like “suicidal behavior is a disease of the brain” is making a large number of assumptions about the nature of human behavior, the concept of mind, etc. These have never been worked out.

The brain - suicide as a disease?Last year, in a fit of masochism, I did a survey [3] of thirteen of the most influential psychiatry journals to see if any of them ever required their authors to show where and how these assumptions had been made explicit. The results were appalling: of something like 19,000 original papers, articles, editorials and commentaries published from January 2001 to December 2011, not one of them gave any references to a reasoned argument that we can, in fact, see mental disorder as a special form of brain disorder. Not one. The 20,000 or so authors included every major psychiatrist, and most minor ones, who have committed pen to paper in the last twenty years. As justification, they gave nothing. Not one word justified the huge sums of money (about $2.5bln a year) and human effort that is being expended on biological research in psychiatry. This, I believe, is unprecedented in science. It is a scandal, or it should be if we could convince anybody in the mainstream press to look at the results. Problem is, the mainstream press (of which New Scientist is a prime example) is easily taken in by the “impending breakthrough boys,” the breathless people employed by drug companies and universities to talk up biological research so they can get more money.

Because of the gloomy results, I concluded:

All such claims (that biology can explain mental disorder) amount to opinion as they have no demonstrated scientific backing. Since these beliefs are held with quite passionate intensity, they meet the criteria for an ideology, i.e. a “set of beliefs that is false, misleading, or held for the wrong reasons but is believed with such conviction as to be irrefutable.” These opinion papers regularly appear in our specialist journals, as well as other highly influential journals of scientific record such as Nature, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, JAMA, Lancet etc; yet they add nothing to our scientific knowledge base. The problem is that, once published, they enter the scientific corpus and can be quoted as though they were empirical science when, as a matter of verifiable fact, they are not. As they stand, these papers represent firmly-held, highly partisan opinions with no convincing basis. They use rhetorical language to present an excessively simplified and one-sided view of a complex question in such a manner as to induce people to think that the matter has been resolved when, in fact, it has not. That is, while failing the criteria for scientific literature, they satisfy the definition of propaganda.

So, here we have a well-known newspaper spreading what has been shown to be propaganda. Are they party to it? Are they making a profit, too? Probably not; I’d say they are just dumb; they are easily taken in by a high-sounding survey or something to do with brain enzymes. And so we come to my point: that the psychiatric literature is now so large that anybody can troll through it and find evidence to support his position, whatever that is. For example, the question of a genetic basis to suicidal behaviour. It is the case that every study on any topic can and will find evidence to support a genetic component to the behaviour in question? Without exception. Surely, it must dawn on the geneticists that if they keep finding evidence to support their views, there is something wrong with their method? In fact, there is plenty wrong with their methods, as Jay Joseph, among many others, has carefully shown [4,5]. The real problem lies in the failure of the psychiatric establishment to understand the nature of scientific enquiry. Science is about criticism. We criticise the status quo; we attack the “cherished beliefs”; we assail the Big Names and, by attacking them, we force them to justify their views before they jam them down the throats of their students, the general public, the mentally disordered, and the funding agencies (essentially the government). In psychiatry, this doesn’t happen. There is no consistent self-criticism published in psychiatry.

In fact, the psychiatric establishment is bitterly antagonistic toward anybody who dares criticise, and the more accurate the criticism, the more poisonous they become. Psychiatry is not a science. It doesn’t have a model of mental disorder and it never will have, just because nobody is allowed to criticise rubbish like “Is suicide a mental disorder?”



1. McLaren N (2007). The categorical system of diagnosis: Personality disorder. Chap. 8 in Humanizing Madness: Psychiatry and the Cognitive Neurosciences; Ann Arbor, Mi.: Future Psychiatry Press. ISBN 978 1 932690 39 2.

2. McLaren N. (2011). Cells, circuits and syndromes. A critique of the NIMH RDoC project. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry 13: 229-236. An expanded and much less polite version published as Chap. 11 in The Mind-Body Problem Explained: The Biocognitive Model for Psychiatry (2012); Ann Arbor, MI: Future Psychiatry Press. ISBN 978-1-61599-171-6

3. McLaren N (2013). Psychiatry as Ideology. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry 15: 1-8.

4. Joseph, Jay. (2004). The Gene Illusion. New York: Algora Press.

5. Joseph, Jay. (2006). The Missing Gene: Psychiatry, heredity and the fruitless search for genes. New York: Algora Press.

About the Author: Niall (Jock) McLaren is an Australian psychiatrist who has published extensively in the application of the philosophy of science to psychiatry. This work concludes that modern psychiatry has no scientific basis whatsoever. He has developed a formal model of mind for psychiatry, the biocognitive model, which generates a psychological approach to mental disorder. His books are available on Amazon and he also publishes a monthly newsletter, available by contacting His books are available on Amazon and he also publishes a monthly newsletter, available by contacting


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