In 1988, Richard Bentall was on his way to becoming one of Britain’s most influential clinical psychologists. He was 32 and had developed an early fascination with psychosis, where patients can become detached from reality, often leading to hallucinations, delusions and suicidal thoughts.
While spending time on psychiatric wards during his training, Bentall felt that psychotic patients were poorly treated. The prevailing view was that psychosis was a genetic brain condition that could only be diagnosed and medicated. Life experience, including childhood trauma and social deprivation, was neglected as a possible cause.
Bentall would devote his career to changing the way severe mental illness is seen. He would help to revolutionise the way psychosis is treated – showing that talking therapies could work and pioneering a movement of compassionate psychology in which clinicians asked not: “What’s wrong with you?” but: “What happened to you?”
The Outspoken series celebrates the Guardian’s 200th anniversary by profiling people whose personal experiences have led to extraordinary and courageous campaigning
Unafraid to challenge orthodoxy, Bentall would later say that broad diagnoses, such as schizophrenia, are “hardly more meaningful than star signs”. He would call out the pharmaceutical industry for “peddling medicines that … are not much more effective than snake oil”. He would make headlines by proposing that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder.
But long before all that – before the bestselling books and his election to the British Academy, before his most recent work on the mental health impact of the pandemic – Bentall’s phone rang on a grey Sunday in October 1988. It was a call to say that his brother had killed himself at his block of flats in Sheffield.
Andrew, who was 18 months younger than Richard, had been struggling for years with mental illness and drug abuse. Bentall thinks he may have been psychotic. His death at 30 came just two years after their father had died in a car crash.
“I remember we were sitting with the vicar and he turned to me and said: ‘It must be especially difficult for you, given what you do,” says Bentall, who had …….