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Antipsychiatry

The term ‘antipsychiatry’ is primarily associated with a loose social and political movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement accused psychiatry of neither healing mental illness nor being a legitimate branch of medicine. Anti-psychiatry’s advocates said psychiatry presented itself as a healing art yet actually policed and controlled behaviour deemed abnormal, irrational or socially unacceptable. More broadly, antipsychiatry also refers to the many different individuals and organizations who have criticised psychiatry ever since it became a recognized medical specialty in the 1800s. These have included doctors, patients, ex-patients, religious leaders, social reformers and feminists.

These individuals and groups opposed psychiatry for different reasons. Elizabeth Packard and other women’s rights activists in the late 1800s criticised asylums. They said asylums controlled women who wanted to do more than be wives and mothers. Some religious leaders argued that, instead of treating medical problems, psychiatrists falsely controlled spiritual ones which properly remained the province of the clergy.

Opposition to psychiatry and asylums reached a broader audience during the 1960s. There was growing public awareness of controversial treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomy. The antipsychiatry movement contributed to a move away from asylums and towards treatment focused on outpatient care and psychiatric drugs. This had positive and negative consequences. Critics of psychiatry now point to the use of drugs such as antidepressants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

There is still no consensus on the role psychiatry should play in determining when socially unacceptable behaviour becomes a medical problem. However, psychiatry is central to many people’s lives.

Bibliography

Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and other Inmates (1961, Pelican edn 1968).

Thomas S. Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness (New York: Dell, 1970).

Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds), Cultures of Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in Postwar Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998),

Digby Tatham, ‘The Anti-Psychiatry Movement’, in 150 Years of British Psychiatry, 1841-1991.

Peter Bartlett and David Wright (eds), Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care in the Community 1750-2000 (London: Athlone, 1999).

Glossary:

Lobotomy

A controversial surgical treatment to severe the nerves to the frontal lobe of the brain (responsible for attention, short-term memory and activities requiring planning and organization). It was used to treat severe mental illnesses but is now no longer used.

Adhd

A behavioural disorder which begins in childhood. Symptoms include short attention span and impulsive tendencies, commonly but not always combined with hyperactivity.