Madness was a recurring theme in American politics last year. I received daily calls, emails, texts, and tweets from folks on the Left declaring “these Republicans are crazy,” “the GOP has gone mad,” or simply, “this county is nuts.” “Wingnuts” became a common way to describe vehement, political opponents on the Right.
Americans have an interesting history of conflating our political disagreements with diagnosis of mental illness. In a terrific new book, psychiatrist and historian Jonathan Metzl tells one of these fascinating stories. Metzl’s book, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease is exceptional and unexpected.
The text’s central argument is that mental illness is not solely (or even primarily) a biological or medical reality; it is largely a social construct. Madness is often diagnosed in those who do not conform to social norms, especially norms governed by identities like race, gender, and class. Illustrating this point, Metzl reminds readers that in the 1850s, American psychiatrists believed enslaved blacks who ran away from white enslavers were suffering from a mental illness called drapetomania. This illness, psychiatrists maintained, could be cured by excessive whipping.
Lest we snicker at the obviously racist and primitive assumptions of 19th century mental health professionals, Metzl spends the rest of the text tracing the 20th century story of schizophrenia.
At the turn of the 20th century schizophrenia was a diagnosis typically given to middle-class, white women whose behavior was deemed embarrassing, distressing, and inappropriate by their husbands and families. This disease of the double-mind was often attributed to white, intellectual geniuses as well. (Think of the popular book and film A Beautiful Mind) Throughout the first half of the 20th century, medical professionals diagnosed white patients as schizophrenic and typically described these patients as docile, non-threatening, and in need of therapuetic nurturing.