Is psychiatric diagnosis ‘enabling or labelling’? A Maudsley Debate

The 48th Maudsley Debate took place on Wednesday 5th June. The Maudsley Debates, held at the Institute of Psychiatry in London since 2000, take place three times a year. These debates are all open to the public, and are well attended by service users, carers, professionals and journalists.

Cartoon by Catherine Pain

Topics generally focus on issues that have a direct impact on mental health services, service users and mental health professionals. Recent topics have included the role of the private sector in mental health services, the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on psychiatry, the importance of inpatient beds and putative links between creativity and mental illness (

The 48th Maudsley Debate on 5th June was entitled  ‘Enabling or Labelling?’ This debate coincided with the publication of the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

The Institute of Psychiatry hosted the 48th Maudsley Debate on the issue of psychiatric diagnosis which was framed as follows:

Some argue that a rigorously standardised system of classification of mental disorders forms an essential role in conceptualising a patient’s problem, in predicting what treatments are likely to be effective, and in conducting valid scientific research. 

Others consider psychiatric diagnoses to be no more than labels, which lack scientific and predictive validity and serve only to stigmatise and objectify those who suffer from mental disorders.

The motion for the debate was:

 “This House believes that psychiatric diagnosis has advanced the care of people with mental health problems.”

Two psychiatrists spoke for the motion, ie Norman Sartorius (Former president of the World Psychiatric Association) and Tony David (Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry). Against the motion were two speakers, ie Felicity Callard (Historian, social scientist and mental health service user) and  Pat Bracken (Critical psychiatrist and philosopher).

If you wish to download the debate in MP3 format,  go to and follow the instructions given.


I found the debate interesting and very engaging. I was particularly taken with Felicity Callard and Pat Bracken’s passion who talked about the stigmatising and damaging effects of psychiatric diagnosis/labelling for those diagnosed,  and also about the obsession with psychiatric diagnosis  currently prevailing in  mental health systems as a reflection of biomedical reductionism, medicalisation of  mental suffering and a departure from  crucial non-technical aspects of the patient-psychiatrist encounter, in other words relationships, meanings and values.