Antipsychiatry History – How Did We End Up With Antipsychiatry?

Last week I discussed the antipsychiatry movement in general, including some of their critiques of psychiatry – in this piece I will look at why antipsychiatry exists at all. After all, there doesn’t seem to be an anti-cardiology or anti-oncology group – what makes psychiatry so special?

Again, Henry A. Nasrallah, MD’s article: The antipsychiatry movement: Who and why nicely encapsulates this topic, but for those of you wondering about the history of antipsychiatry, here goes.

History of Antipsychiatry – the 1960s

As I mentioned in my last article, I think historical critiques of psychiatry are next to useless as they simply show our lack of understanding and knowledge at the time and bear little resemblance to the issues psychiatry and psychiatric patients are dealing with today. Nevertheless, if you want to know where antipsychiatry came from, you have to look back.

Antipsychiatry and David Cooper

The term “antipsychiatry” was coined in 1967 (although the movement had been around a long time by then) by psychiatrist David Cooper who seems to me is no one to hold up an entire movement. Among other things, 

Cooper believed that madness and psychosis are the manifestation of a disparity between one’s own ‘true’ identity and our social identity (the identity others give us and we internalise). Cooper’s ultimate solution was through revolution.

And, my favorite, a quote from his writing in 1980,

Madness is permanent revolution in the life of a person…a deconstitution of oneself with the implicit promise of return to a more fully realized world.

Ah, so madness is good then. Tell that to everyone who’s been through a psychotic episode.

Antipsychiatry, Foucault and Szasz

How did antipsychiatry come to be?At this time, Foucault, one of the seed-sowers of antipsychiatry seemed to like the idea of prescribing, “travel, rest, walking, retirement and generally engaging with nature” as a treatment.

Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was a big part of the creation of antipsychiatry too although he decried the moniker and its adherents, instead, collaborating with the Church of Scientology to create the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights in 1969. (I know that sounds like a good thing but all you have to do is wander around on their website for about 3 minutes to see why it’s not. They’re one of the most hate-spreading, propaganda-promoting groups I’ve ever seen.)

I suspect this is why many people right off all antipsychiatry groups as merely Scientologists (but they’re not).

According to Wikipedia:

It was later noted that the view that insanity was not in most or even in any instances a “medical” entity, but a moral issue, was also held by Christian Scientists and certain Protestant fundamentalists, as well as Szasz.

(And if someone were to tell me that my mental illness was because of my morals, well, it wouldn’t be pretty. My morals are fine, thanks.)

Also around this time:

  • The idea that psychiatry is just an agent of social control began becoming popular.
  • Psychiatry from the 1900s, 1930s and other eras was criticised (and rightfully so).
  • Psychiatry was tied to the Nazis and the holocaust.
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was also written and became a best-seller.

The History of Antipsychiatry – the 1970s

The “psychiatry survivors” began entering the antipsychiatry movement. These are people who claimed past abuses of psychiatry. (I rather despise the name, personally, because, of course, it makes it sound like psychiatry is something you “survive” rather than simply a medical specialty. It’s particularly insulting to me and those in psychiatry, I feel.) Of course, some of these people had, and have, genuine complaints about how psychiatry treated them, particularly before the proliferation of psychiatric medication when few options (pretty much all bad ones) were available.

Some would claim that antipsychiatry worked to successfully remove references to homosexuality as a mental illness, but I would suggest that the gay rights movement really lays claim to that particular gain.

Antipsychiatry Today

Today, antipsychiatry argues against the biomedical model of psychiatry (as it always has) and it decries the ties to the pharmaceutical industry (once much worse than it is today). They also fight the idea of psychiatric diagnoses altogether and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) in particular.

Antipsychiatry is still marginalized within psychiatry and within the mental illness community at large. Although an exception to this seems to be online where antipsychiatry people and ideals are absolutely everywhere.

Thoughts on the Antipsychiatry History

Antipsychiatry Balances PsychiatryThere is no doubt that there are things to fight against in psychiatry. I do it. Other people do it. It’s pretty common. A good example is the DSM-V discussions which hotly debate all sorts of mental illness topics.

I just don’t agree with most of what antipsychiatry fights. Their raison d’être seems to be getting people off medication en masse, and that’s something I could never support. Antipsychiatry started at a time (pre-1960s) where conditions for the treatment of the mentally ill were deplorable and inhuman and wrong but they have continued into times when that’s just not the case. If anything people need more access to psychiatry, not less.

Antipsychiatry Benefits

While I’m hard-pressed to argue for antipsychiatry I will say that antipsychiatry provides checks and balances to a very powerful system. I feel these checks and balances could be better handled, but nevertheless, they are of benefit. While I don’t think psychiatrists should have to defend their profession in general (as with any other doctor) it may be helpful for them to cast a critical eye over what they do as what they do is very important and affects people greatly.

In short, naysayers (on this blog as well) force us to look at ourselves which can be seen as a benefit, but you really have to want to see it.

Next time: Why Does Antipsychiatry Exist – Beyond the History


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.



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