Five months before a scheduled confrontation with the West, Soviet psychiatrists have quit the World Psychiatric Association. The resignation tells us something about the mind of Soviet psychiatry. It tells us even more about the mind of the Soviet leadership.

More than a decade ago, reports began to reach the West that the KGB was referring healthy dissidents to psychiatrists, who were diagnosing them as mentally ill and confining them in hospitals for the criminally insane. In 1977, the World Psychiatric Association voted to condemn the Soviets for psychiatric abuse; but the practices, critics charged, didn't stop. Last fall, the American Psychiatric Association proposed that the WPA suspend the Soviets from the organization, and Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists proposed that it expel them. Both resolutions were set for a vote at the next meeting of the WPA, scheduled for July of this year.

Four weeks ago, the Soviets announced that they were quitting the world body. That they chose to quit now, though, is curious. In the weeks before the resignation, they repeatedly revealed their determination to stay. They paid the dues they owed in order to participate in the vote on their membership. And they submitted the case histories of hospitalized dissidents that had been requested by a WPA committee monitoring psychiatric abuse, even though they had denounced that committee as illegitimate and anti-Soviet.

So why did they suddenly resign? The most reasonable explanation is that the new Soviet leadership made them resign. Under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviets were willing to yield on some Western demands in the interest of retaining memberships in international organizations. Under Yuri Andropov, such memberships apparently don't seem worth their cost.

Someone in the new bureaucracy--probably in the Central Committee, perhaps Andropov himself--must have discovered, late in January, the threat on the psychiatric front. The Western press was again making noises about Soviet psychiatric abuse. Western psychiatrists were again preparing to put the Soviet profession on trial.

"Who," someone in the apparat may have asked, "is countering this onslaught? Psychiatrists? We're letting psychiatrists run our foreign affairs? We're letting them release internal Soviet documents for Western inspection? Find out who's responsible and order them to resign from this World Psychiatric Association before any more damage is done."

Actually, from a Soviet perspective, this strategy makes sense--but it makes sense only if a shift in Soviet human rights policy has taken place.

The new Soviet leadership seems to have decided that, as hard a line as Brezhnev took on human rights during his last years, it wasn't hard enough: "If the West wants to talk about arms control or trade, we'll talk. But we won't talk about human rights if we can help it. That kind of talk puts us on the defensive. It's orchestrated only to shame us. The United States doesn't really care about the way we treat our dissidents, but finds the subject a convenient way of flogging us before the world. Well, we won't let them do that anymore. If they complain, we'll just walk away. Let them talk to an empty room."

In the main, we in the United States view our concern for human rights in other countries as an affair of the heart. We feel a duty to protect victims of political oppression, especially in countries that claim a role in world affairs and offer themselves as models of human civilization. We see such protection as a noble national calling. And we tell ourselves that it's for this reason that we expend so much of our diplomatic capital with the Soviets in complaints about their treatment of dissidents-- capital that could be devoted to goals of more direct and vital benefit to our own people, particularly arms control.

But this is only a partial explanation. True, we want to humanize the Soviets so they will treat their citizens decently. Probably even more, we want to humanize them because, somehow, it's important to us that they have the same concept of human worth that we have.

Our efforts at humanization are carried out not in competition with our efforts at arms control but, in large measure, and without our realizing it, because of them. It's necessary for us to believe that the country with which we've reached an agreement on nuclear weapons is a country we can, to a reasonable degree, trust. And it's hard to develop such trust if we believe that that country doesn't subscribe to human values similar to our own.

After all, we may wonder, if the Soviet leaders don't care about individual human beings, might they not some day calculate that it would be worth losing half of their people in order to obliterate all of ours? And shouldn't we, therefore, close our ears to their seductive arms control proposals? Shouldn't we protect ourselves by maintaining a nuclear arsenal so powerful that they couldn't possibly survive a nuclear war, even if they launched a first strike?

This line of thought helps keep us in our ever- rising spiral of nuclear self-defense. And many of us will find it hard to achieve the trust we need to confidently break that spiral unless we see some evidence that the value the Soviets put on human life isn't as low as we think it is.

Of course, there are other impediments to arms control negotiations, and we don't have to trust the Soviets in order to attain a modicum of understanding with them. But truly successful negotiations on arms reduction, and a stable structure of understanding on political and military issues, won't come, I think, until we can develop at least a measure of such trust.

So Andropov's position on human rights, signaled by the Soviet resignation from the World Psychiatric Association, is as frightening as it is important. It represents a hardening that's likely to increase our distrust of the Soviets in precisely the sphere of competition that could destroy us both.

The way we respond to that message is also important. It's important to convince the Soviets that a hardening of their human rights policies will dim the chances for our common survival. It's important to explain to them why we care so much about their treatment of dissidents and would-be emigr,es. Their human rights practices, we should tell them, aren't just convenient targets for our intercontinental brickbats. We criticize those practices because we do care about a Scharansky, a Sakharov, a dissident who ends up in a psychiatric hospital, or a complaining psychiatrist who ends up in the Gulag. We care about those people because we see that the Soviets don't, and that makes us worry, in turn, that they may not care about people at all.

We shouldn't stop talking to the Soviets about the problem of psychiatric abuse--or about any violations of human rights--just because they've pulled themselves out of reach. We should raise those issues in the forums that are still available to us, such as the Helsinki talks. We should do so not to pummel the Soviets but to engage them--so that they can understand our concerns, and perhaps even, some day, join us in them.