Início > Geral > Should Racism Be Classified as a Mental Illness?

Should Racism Be Classified as a Mental Illness?

Por TiAja Ellis, em

Many scholars believe the time is now for the A.P.A. to include racism as a treatable mental illness in its DSM-V, which is due for publication in 2013.

By the end of the 19th century, the field of psychiatry was fundamentally competing with religion and the law for social and moral jurisdiction over who should define human sexuality. As a consequence, discourse about homosexuality expanded from the realm of sin and the church, crime and the law, to include that of pathology and medicine.

Many in the psychiatric profession viewed this historical shift from homosexuality being considered an unpardonable sin by the church and a crime by many states to a lesser degenerative illness or pathology as progressive. Though many noted psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud, “Letter to an American Mother”, American Journal of Psychiatry, 107 (1951): p. 787and Havelock Ellis were much more accepting. In fact Havelock Ellis argued as early as 1901 that homosexuality was “inborn” and therefore not immoral.

This did little however to dissuade the larger medical community or the church. But by the 2nd revision of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-II), which was published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1968, public unrest carried the day and the APA became enshrouded in controversy as gay activists in the early 1970’s protested the DSM-II classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Even after massive protests it required several years of beleaguered struggle before homosexuality as such was removed from the DSM-II classification of mental disorders and substituted with the category Sexual Orientation Disturbance. This represented a compromise between the view that preferential homosexuality is invariably a mental disorder and the view that it is merely a normal sexual variant.

Though this helped to ease the public controversy the semantic war continued on in the court of public opinion and throughout various journals of Psychiatric Medicine.

Racism and Psychiatry

Forty years ago, a group of black psychiatrists posed what they considered a rhetorical question to the APA when asking should extreme bigotry and racial prejudice be considered a mental disorder? The APA rejected their hypothesis on the basis that racism is a “cultural and social problem and cannot be contributed to any disorder.”

The general consensus was that simply labeling racism as a mental illness would do little if anything to rid society of the problem and would exacerbate political tensions between social groups. Still Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University suggests, “To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy. Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.; 4th edition (June 2000) “A mental disorder is defined as a behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.

It goes on to say that in order for a syndrome to be classified as a mental illness it must be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual. Neither deviant behavior nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual.”

Racism and the Case of Adolph Hitler

History candidly documents the calculated extermination of six million Jewish people under the leadership of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Third Reich. Hitler believed the concept of racial hygiene (“purity”) and social Darwinism (“survival of the fittest”) should be applied to human populations, which he maniacally engineered into the genocide of approximately six million European Jews known as the Holocaust.

Yet according to the DSM-IV, “Neither deviant behavior nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual.” This begs the question should Adolph Hitler have been critiqued by history as a mere social deviant who simply had a conflict with the Jewish people over the definition of a pure race?

In an article titled “Racism: A Mental Illness?” Psychiatric Services 56:1343,December 2004, Dr. Carl Bell, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health, University of Illinois challenges psychiatry to confront a difficult psychosocial problem.

He invites this discussion, “Should we define racism and other fixed beliefs as delusions or some other form of psychopathology? The definition of a delusion is a fixed belief that is not amenable to logic. Many beliefs, such as racism, would fit this definition but are accepted by a culture or a subculture and may not be viewed as delusional. Yet even if some of these beliefs are culturally accepted, they are destructive to individuals and society.

He goes on to say, if we view racism as a form of stress, which is bad for everyone and also can lead to mental illness among susceptible individuals, we might view racism as a public health problem as well as a moral and ethical problem. Putting racism in the public health arena provides us with additional options for dealing with the problem. By including racism in the DSM we might classify it as a delusional disorder or a personality disorder among some individuals.”

If America has truly evolved into a ‘post-racial’ society then the APA in the DSM-V must seriously deliberate racism and racial prejudice and other forms of cultural or subcultural beliefs that harm others as a probable classification of psychopathology.



  • Racism: a mental illness? Carl Bell, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health, University of Illinois Psychiatric Services 56:1343,December 2004
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.; 4th edition (June 2000
  • Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis, Ronald Bayer, and 1987 Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Letter to an American Mother, Sigmund Freud, American Journal of Psychiatry, 107 (1951): p. 787.

  1. Raquel
    Janeiro 13, 2011 às 9:26

    Isto tem tudo a ver com aquele vídeo sobre a “fraude” da psiquiatria. Querer rotular valores morais como doença (por muito desfasados da realidade e socialmente incómodos que esses valores morais possam parecer-nos) preocupa-me. Lá está, a ciência a querer reinar na posição de autoridade suprema outrora ocupada pela religião. Psiquiatras a dizer-nos que bússola moral deve reger a nossa vida…. e daqui a inventarem um ansiolítico qualquer para o tratamento do racismo, vai um passo. Quem diz racismo diz machismo, consumismo, falta de consciência ambiental… Se as mentalidades não mudam tão rápido quanto gostariam alguns, porque não encher-nos de fármacos a ver se a coisa vai ao sítio mais depressa,né ?!?! What’s next, I wonder…..?

  2. Robert
    Agosto 15, 2011 às 7:53

    The Portuguese are the most tolerant people in all of Europe when it comes to race. I am an American of Portuguese and Native Hawaiian extraction and lived on the Lisbon coast in 1980. I have traveled extensively throughout Europe–from Finland to Portugal–and experienced true racism and anti-Catholicism in Scandinavia, where I lived for two years. In proportion to its own population, Portugal has accepted black Africans into continental Portugal more than any other European nation. If they think that the Portuguese are so terrible to them, then I suggest they try emigrating to nations like Sweden, Finland, and Norway: many people of these countries don’t even like other pasty-white people from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Ireland!

    One important observation one needs to make when listening to immigrants who cry “racism” is: What about THEIR OWN racism? Many of these individuals don’t even like others of their own race, just like most Scandinavian whites who think that they are their own “race,” separate from and “above” other whites. Sweden had a branch of its government conducting a “racial hygiene” program in which over 60,000 Swedes were sterilized between 1935 and 1976 (when this program quietly ended in Sweden.) Most of these Swedes who were sterilized were those with mental retardation, birth defects, psychological problems, homosexuals, Romas (gypsies), and, horrifically, Swedes who just did not measure up to the ideal of being blond and “intelligent.” So folks, go and shout “racism” to people like the Swedes, not the Portuguese. That Sweden’s actions–as late as 1976–remained unchecked and not publicized; that Sweden’s actions were indeed tantamount to the Nazis, is far more despicable than what modern day African immigrants to Portugal are imagining.

    As to this article, it would be a grave MISTAKE to define racism as a “mental illness.” People, and even nations like Sweden and Nazi Germany, will be murdering innocent people en masse, and their defense will be that they “suffer” from racism, a “mental illness.” So let’s not even go there.

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