Should Racism Be Classified as a Mental Illness?
Por TiAja Ellis, em Suite101.com.
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.