Weekend Australian: Miriam Cosic

Saturday, 02 April 2011 15:32


February 24-25, 2001

Interview with Miriam Cosic

DOROTHY ROWE doesn't look like a bomb thrower. She's grey-haired and motherly. Grandmotherly, actually. She states her case tentatively, in a discursive style full of personal anecdotes and conversational detours, as if she's clarifying her ideas as she speaks.

And yet, this internationally recognised psychologist and author has been chucking incendiary critiques at the psychiatric establishment for years. What's more, she has lived in London for the past 30 years. And we all know what they think of Australians over there. "Oh, when I used to work closely with psychiatrists, they did not like me," she says mildly, and a larrikin grin edges into her voice. "I made them very angry and they made it very clear. But it never seemed to bother me."

Rowe is an authority on depression, among other things, and this grew out of practising as a clinical psychologist and working towards her PhD at Sheffield University in the early 1970s. She became convinced that psychological problems are not biologically based. Instead, she believes, they are caused by the sufferer's experience of the world. "If there are no mental illnesses, if what we call mental illness is just our way of trying to hold ourselves together when we feel ourselves falling apart, if it's the way we make sense of our lives, then psychiatry is irrelevant," she says. "The function of psychiatrists is to deal with those people who are a trouble to society. And when people are a trouble to society, it's decided that they're either mad or bad. If they're bad they get locked up in prison; if they're mad, psychiatrists get called up and they're locked up in psychiatric hospitals. And of course nowadays a lot of the locking up is giving people drugs which pretty much immobilise them."

Rowe was born in Newcastle, NSW, in 1930. Her childhood there was dominated by her mother's chronic depression, though she couldn't put a name to it then. She was the black sheep, her sister the golden girl: "My childhood is just a gold mine that I keep going back to because it informs me a great deal about my work, and provides me with material I can still write about."

She didn't set out to be a psychologist. She studied English and history at Sydney University and became a teacher. Her employers suggested she train as an educational psychologist. "That was great; I really loved that year," she says. "By then psychology had started to relate to real human beings and I could see a real connection between what was happening in psychology and what had happened in my life."

She became a specialist counsellor for emotionally disturbed children, working out of Parramatta in Sydney's west. And then she began to search for a scientific way of studying individuals. She contacted a psychologist developing statistical techniques at the Institute of Psychiatry in London; he suggested she move to England, where psychologists were in demand. "I thought, I can't do that! I was divorced by then, and I lived from month to month on what I earned. I had never been to London and I didn't know anyone there. But I'd always wanted to travel." She cashed in her superannuation and her long service leave, booked berths on a ship for herself and her son, and took an exhilarating, terrifying step into the unknown. It was in England that her career took off. Her growing notoriety in the profession was backed up by rigorous work and enthusiastic support from a small coterie of like-minded psychologists and a grateful public. Outrage set her off on her iconoclastic path. The first psychiatric hospital she worked in, in North Ryde in Sydney, was a clean and pleasant place. "Then I came over here," she says, from her light-filled garden apartment in London, "and I couldn't believe that anybody would put people in these disgusting filthy places. The bathrooms, Jesus! People were crowded into a ward with no privacy. Their own clothes were taken away. And then the drugs.." Rowe gets angry just thinking about the long-term effect of psychiatric drugs on people's minds. "A lot of the strange behaviour you see in people on the streets isn't their madness, it's tardive dyskinesia, an irreversible brain disease caused by the major tranquillisers that they're given."

From Sheffield, Rowe moved to Lincolnshire to set up the National Health Service's first department of clinical psychology and received a grant to further her work in depression. "When I came to write the research up, I realised it wouldn't fit into an academic article, it needed to be in a book."

Her first was Choosing, Not Losing. A stream of books followed, including The Courage to Live, Breaking the Bonds, Beyond Fear, The Depression Handbook and Wanting Everything: The Art of Happiness. Based on anecdotes and easy to read, they are underpinned by Rowe's research and clinical experience and a wellspring of humanity and generosity. More recently, she has ranged further afield. In the late 90s, shè wrote a book called The Real Meaning of Money, which explored the social and psychological background to our ambivalent attitudes to wealth. Her latest book, Friends and Enemies (HarperCollins), is a broad-ranging meditation on the emotions that fuel interpersonal, group and political relationships.

In the meantime, she has kept up with, and kept on about, the latest developments in the medical profession. The latest wonder drug, Prozac, gets her going. "Now psychiatrists talk about depression being a chemical imbalance of the brain. They talk about how Prozac works on the serotonin in the synapses and they draw little diagrams. We can't say what a chemical imbalance is because we don't know what a chemically balanced brain Is."

Which is not to say that. antidepressants should be junked. "People in states of great distress feel very frightened and It can help just to have some of that anxiety reduced," she says. But drugs should be an interim measure to give people the space to figure out their own solutions: joining a yoga class, maybe, sorting a financial problem, or visiting a therapist.

Rowe Is confident that any problem can be worked out with the right therapist. "Good therapists use the metaphor of going on a journey with their client. And neither they nor their client knows where this journey's going to end. But the therapist can read some sign posts, can suggest one path rather than another. And that's a special kind of friendship, a special sense of trust."

Can a good friend, one who is intelligent and kind and courageous, provide that kind of help? Or must the therapist be highly skilled and professionally trained? "Oh no," Rowe chuckles, "the human race would have gone utterly crazy many, many thousands of years ago if people couldn't do that for one another."