The intimate relationship between the body and the mind has led to misunderstanding and misdiagnosis during the entire history of psychotherapy. The problem of biological disorders that were thought to be psychological problems and treated as such is a grim skeleton in the therapeutic closet. Most psychotherapists would like to ignore or forget about this history of looking at and treating psychological symptoms which were really the result of physical diseases.

At one time in this history there were physical diseases which were considered to be mental disorders because of the accompanying mental symptoms. Two examples are general paresis, caused by the spirochete of syphilis invading the brain, and pellagrous psychosis, caused by a dietary deficiency of nicotinic acid. In both cases numerous people who have suffered from these diseases were labeled schizophrenic and treated accordingly. The following account is just one of many case histories involving misdiagnosis.

A twenty-two-year-old woman exhibited certain symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia. Rather than suggesting a comprehensive physical, the psychiatrist to whom she was referred diagnosed her condition as schizophrenic and treated her accordingly. However, it was later discovered that her depression and hallucinations were due to pellagrous psychosis, which had been brought on by a crash diet and near starvation conditions.

Sending a person to a mental institution instead of treating the physical problem not only prevents possible cure, but also adds even more horror to the agony of the disease itself. Can you imagine the number of people who have suffered from such physical diseases and were treated as insane because of ignorance of the real problem. Even Parkinson’s disease was once considered a mental disorder and treated by means of psychotherapy.

This raises the whole problem of misdiagnosis and the tendency to refer people to psychotherapists. There have been and still are great numbers of individuals erroneously referred to psychotherapy who are really suffering from physical disorders. A number of people, whose neurotic and psychotic behavior has been caused by undiagnosed physical problems, have been treated by psychotherapy because the real cause was not recognized.

Allen Bergin, in an article “Psychotherapy Can Be Dangerous,” mentions a female patient who had several physical problems and was being treated by a psychotherapist. He reports, “Although he had an M.D., he never suggested a physical examination. A subsequent medical exam revealed she was suffering from anemia and low metabolism.”

A Nightmare

Another example of misdiagnosis, maltreatment, and the accompanying nightmare is found in neurosurgeon I. S. Cooper’s book The Victim Is Always the Same. One of the most pathetic parts of the book has to do with two little girls who had the rare disease dystonia, which is a neurological disease involving involuntary muscular movements mainly of the arms and legs. Before it was finally discovered that they were actually suffering from dystonia, the girls and their parents went through almost endless psychotherapeutic terror, all in the name of diagnosis, treatment, and help.

All the doctors and social workers involved thought only of psychological factors as they observed the overt symptoms, which consisted of strange movements while walking and odd, disconnected arm movements. These symptoms were regarded by the professionals as bizarre behavior, which they felt indicated that the girls were emotionally disturbed and were symbolically acting out inner struggle and anxiety. Through the various interviews, the parents were regarded as neurotic, distressed, and anxious. No one evidently stopped to consider that these parents were naturally concerned about their children and the diagnoses which they were hearing.

Both the parents and the girls underwent weeks and months of individual psychotherapy and group therapy. One of the girls was even admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The more the symptoms persisted, the more the professionals accused the parents of not cooperating and resisting therapy. One child went through the agony of being interviewed in front of television cameras and in front of other doctors. Worst of all, she was not allowed to see her parents, who, it was thought, might ruin the therapy with their own presence.

At last, quite by accident, one of the neurologists in the hospital happened to notice the child in passing and identified what she had—dystonia. Throughout this entire period of time, Cooper reports, the psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and group therapists demonstrated an astonishing amount of self-confidence in what they were doing. One might wonder about how much psychological damage they bestowed in the name of therapy.

Although this seems to be an isolated story, it is not at all unusual. In an article entitled “Dystonia: A Disorder Often Misdiagnosed as a Conversion Reaction,” neurologists Ronald P. Lesser and Stanley Fahn state that, from the records of 84 patients who actually had dystonia, 37 had been originally diagnosed as mentally ill. They report, “These patients had received without benefit a variety of psychiatric therapies, including psychoanalysis for up to 2 years, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and pharmacotherapy.”

The preceding cases are only examples of what can happen in this whole gray area of body/mind. Many persons have been given psychotherapeutic treatment without success and have even been wrongly hospitalized because they were suffering from some physical disease or from inherited disorders like dystonia. The tragedy of it all continues even today.

“Christian Psychologists” Not Exempt

Much of what is described in the above report is equally true of Christian psychology, psychiatry, and treatment centers. The Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) is a group of psychologists and psychological counselors who are professing Christians. At one of their meetings the following was said:

We are often asked if we are “Christian psychologists” and find it difficult to answer since we don’t know what the question implies. We are Christians who are psychologists but at the present time there is no acceptable Christian psychology that is markedly different from non-Christian psychology. It is difficult to imply that we function in a manner that is fundamentally distinct from our non-Christian colleagues . . . as yet there is not an acceptable theory, mode of research or treatment methodology that is distinctly Christian.

Christian psychiatrists would have to admit to the same similarities regarding psychiatry. As we have examined the writings of Christian psychologists and psychiatrists, we have found the same mixture of secular psychological ideas and the same vulnerabilities to misdiagnosis and maltreatment.

The following is excerpted from a recent letter to us.

We have a family in our fellowship with a daughter (12 yrs.) diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy of about 2 years duration. The family has taken her to a nearby university hospital for treatment where she has improved considerably. Treatment consisted of physical therapy and pain management. The girl has recovered the use of her leg and some of the other symptoms have passed. The neurologist suddenly has sought to have the girl hospitalized in order to bring her under psychiatric treatment, saying that the girl is causing her own pain through a ‘repressed conflict.’ I have written a letter on the girl’s behalf . . . . The parents also have refused to submit their daughter to this. The Hospital clinic is insistent that the child can be no longer treated in any way without psychotherapy. If hospitalized the girl would not be released, says the neurologist, until they believed that she was ready. Moreover, the clinic has refused to follow the recommendations of three other physicians for added medical (not psychiatric) tests.

Please pray that the Lord will intervene and provide wisdom and real help for this child.

(From PAL V4N2)