Despite being published nearly two years ago, a paper written by Western Associate Prof. Louis Charland is still gaining considerable attention in the academic community.
Charland — a member of the department of philosophy, department of psychiatry, and faculty of health sciences — is one of the first to study the effects on individuals identified and labelled with a psychiatric illness and the effects of removing that label.
“Nobody really has spent much time talking about what happens when you take a label away from a person,” Charland said. “What happens, for instance, if they get better and you say ‘you’re no longer sick, you don’t have that label anymore, you’re no longer schizophrenic’?”
Charland’s article, entitled “A madness for identity: psychiatric labels, consumer autonomy, and the perils of the Internet,” examines the ethical questions surrounding the removal of psychiatric labels and identifies an urgent need for further research in the area. The article was published in December 2004 but continues to garner attention as more academics respond and as Charland conducts further research.
Charland said that while the removal of a label can be a huge relief, in several cases individuals have suffered identity crises when told they no longer had an illness. These individuals often use the Internet to meet other patients who are coping with the identity loss.
For example, anorexics have used the Internet to communicate as a group and sometimes indulge in their disease. In fact, Charland was prompted to write his paper after meeting a young anorexic whose condition was influenced by websites.
“In these virtual communities, sufferers laud each other’s efforts to starve and cut themselves,” Charland said. He also noted that many patients regress because of these online communities and end up back in the hospital.
Jacquie Burkell, associate professor in the faculty of media studies, agreed that the Internet can be used to unite these communities.
“The Internet does facilitate certain kinds of sharing,” she said. “There is some evidence that people are more likely to be self-revelatory, they’re more likely to tell others and share things about themselves, and that too would have implications for the development of communities and the degree to which people become close to one another.”
Burkell also pointed out that while the Internet is contributing to the group interactions, it is not the driving force behind them.
“The Internet is a tool by which something is being achieved,” she said. “It’s not impossible — it may be less likely that [the labelled communities] might be achieved without the Internet — but it’s certainly not impossible.”
Charland said his paper was only a basis for research that needs to be conducted in the future, and he is currently organizing research projects and raising funding with Jacinta Tan, a psychiatrist at Oxford.