Psychiatry Confronts Its Racist Past, and Tries to Make AmendsBreaking News
tags: racism, psychiatry, medical history
Dr. Benjamin Rush, the 18th-century doctor who is often called the “father” of American psychiatry, held the racist belief that Black skin was the result of a mild form of leprosy. He called the condition “negritude.”
His onetime apprentice, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, spread the falsehood throughout the antebellum South that enslaved people who experienced an unyielding desire to be free were in the grip of a mental illness he called “drapetomania,” or “the disease causing Negroes to run away.”
In the late 20th century, psychiatry’s rank and file became a receptive audience for drug makers who were willing to tap into racist fears about urban crime and social unrest. (“Assaultive and belligerent?” read an ad that featured a Black man with a raised fist that appeared in the “Archives of General Psychiatry” in 1974. “Cooperation often begins with Haldol.”)
Now the American Psychiatric Association, which featured Rush’s image on its logo until 2015, is confronting that painful history and trying to make amends.
In January, the 176-year-old group issued its first-ever apology for its racist past. Acknowledging “appalling past actions” on the part of the profession, its governing board committed the association to “identifying, understanding, and rectifying our past injustices,” and pledged to institute “anti-racist practices” aimed at ending the inequities of the past in care, research, education and leadership.
This weekend, the A.P.A. is devoting its annual meeting to the theme of equity. Over the course of the three-day virtual gathering of as many as 10,000 participants, the group will present the results of its yearlong effort to educate its 37,000 mostly white members about the psychologically toxic effects of racism, both in their profession and in the lives of their patients.
White psychiatrists have pathologized Black behavior for hundreds of years, wrapping up racist beliefs in the mantle of scientific certainty and even big data. The A.P.A. was first called the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, according to Dr. Geller, who last summer published an account of psychiatry’s history of structural racism. The group came into being in the wake of the 1840 federal census, which included a new demographic category, “insane and idiotic.”
The results were interpreted by pro-slavery politicians and sympathetic social scientists to find a considerably higher rate of mental illness among Black people in the Northern states than among those in the South.
In the decades following Reconstruction, prominent psychiatrists used words like “primitive” and “savage” to make the cruelly racist claim that Black Americans were unfit for the challenges of life as independent, fully enfranchised citizens.
T.O. Powell, superintendent of the infamous State Lunatic Asylum in Milledgeville, Ga., and president of the American Medico-Psychological Association (the precursor to the A.P.A.), went so far as to outrageously state in 1897 that before the Civil War, “there were comparatively speaking, few Negro lunatics. Following their sudden emancipation their number of insane began to multiply.”
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