The Race and Class of Schizophrenia

Back in January, Nojojojo made a post on her livejournal that I found insightful. I asked her for permission to share it with Alas readers which she granted–and I apologize for not getting to it before now.

Nojojojo quotes Melissa Harris Lacewell‘s review of Jonathan Metzl’s Protest Psychosis at The Nation. Here’s the telling quote she selected:

At the turn of the 20th century schizophrenia was a diagnosis typically given to middle-class, white women whose behavior was deemed embarrassing, distressing, and inappropriate by their husbands and families. This disease of the double-mind was often attributed to white, intellectual geniuses as well. (Think of the popular book and film A Beautiful Mind) Throughout the first half of the 20th century, medical professionals diagnosed white patients as schizophrenic and typically described these patients as docile, non-threatening, and in need of therapuetic nurturing.

A dramatic change occured in the 1960s. During this era schizophrenia was increasingly diagnosed in “Negro men.” As black men were more firmly associated with the disease, psychiatric communities and popular culture came to understand schizophrenia as a disease marked by violence, hostility, aggression, and requiring powerful psychotropic medication.

Metzl draws his book title from a 1968 article in the Archives of General Psychiatry where leading physicians describe “protest psychosis” as a condition where black men develop hostility, aggression, and delusional anti-whiteness after listening to Malcolm X, joining the black Muslims, or engaging in Civil Rights protests. In short, when African Americans experienced anger, distress, and disillusionment when faced with the crushing realities of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, the medical establishment labeled them crazy and dangerous.

In the 1850s slaves seeking freedom were described as mad. In the 1920s women unwilling to conform to the constraints of domesticity were treated as insane. In the 1970s black people who wanted equality were thought to be nuts.

In comments, user squirrel_monkey adds, “”Sluggish schizophrenia” was also a common diagnosis in punitive psychiatry of the USSR, associated with ‘delusions of reformism’ — that is, to criticize the state was to be crazy by definition.”

It’s not that schizophrenia doesn’t describe something real, or that psychiatry can’t help people–as Nojojojo says in comments, “I did not mean to imply that there was no such thing as schizophrenia; I’m honestly not sure why some folks seem to have read that in the OP, but just wanted to clarify. I’m fully aware that schizophrenia is a real, organic, genetically-linked disorder. People who have it can live a normal life if they’re diagnosed and treated properly; I get all that.” But she’s “also well aware that the mental health profession (psychology, psychiatry, social work, etc) is like any other profession whose main tool of expression is people; people often impose their own biases on the interpretation of facts. What I found intriguing about the article was that the same biases affected interpretations of the same groups’ behavior in the same ways across history. It seemed like an especially blatant illustration of the systemic effects of racism, sexism, etc.”

Dissidence seems to be one of the important etceteras.

This entry posted in Disabled Rights & Issues, Feminism, sexism, etc, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

3 Responses to The Race and Class of Schizophrenia

  1. 1
    attack_laurel says:

    Yes, this is very cogent. It’s used, even today, to explain away behaviours that do not fit the status quo, where seeking a real explanation for the behaviour is uncomfortable for the hegemony. Thus, ingrained racism refuses to recognize itself and classifies resistance as mental illness, for who could object to the status quo who was not mad? Similarly, women were accused of hysteria and mental illness for wanting to be treated as equals.

    Even in cases where someone has done something because they are entitled, bigoted, or evil, like men who kill classrooms of women because of “feminism”, are classified as “crazy”, so people do not have to look at the way society raises men to feel like they deserve everything, and women are taking that away from them, ergo, if they kill the women, then they will have what they want.

    The diagnosis of mental illness is a red herring, designed to absolve society of the responsibility to change.

    My sister is schizophrenic. It’s very, very different.

  2. 2
    neverneverland says:

    Wow, this hits so close to home.

    When I was 26, my partner of 5 years developed schizophrenia. But being the upper-class white male who was a computer programmer at a major, major corporation in the Pacific NW, he was perceived as merely “creative” and I, the pregnant woman who lost her health insurance when my partner quit his job, was deemed “hysterical” and over-reactive by more than one medical professional, social worker, and yes, even the police when he told me he was going to kill himself.

    I always suspected a lot of sexism in that, but had too much on my mind to consider classism at work, too. :(

  3. 3
    Simple Truth says:

    I thought Mandolin linked to a great story that touches on the topic over on her journal (The Yellow Wallpaper)

    Schizophrenia is one of those diseases that they like to just throw drugs at and forget about (like depression). Apparently giving old men erections is far more important than understanding the actual (not perceived) mental health of people. I majored in psychology in my undergrad, and I am totally disillusioned with the DSM style of diagnosis. The icing on the cake for that one was learning that most, if not all, the doctors consulted for the disease classifications were on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies.