I’ve been literally down the rabbit hole this last weekend working on a final research paper I have for a class I’m taking on human rights, race, and mass incarceration. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but it is truly one of the most fascinating and eye-opening classes I’ve ever taken in my life. I keep realizing despite having read The New Jim Crow, the book the class uses as its main text, years ago, I’m still really ignorant about a lot of aspects of the history of racism that have led us to where we are now. I always will be.
The little alarm clock in my mind that’s been buried under clicking on the footnotes to footnotes suddenly gave me a push notification that I promised myself I’d post to Mental Filmness weekly on Mental Health Mondays and I was like, oh no, what do I write about, and then I remembered my final paper is actually on race, mass incarceration, and mental health (of course) because that’s my thing now.
My professor often emphasizes that the construct of biological race has historically been used as a scientific tool to explain and defend racial inferiority, and that is sadly omnipresent in a cultural history of psychiatry. This article on the historical roots of racial disparities in the mental health system traces a clear evolutionary path of this construct from slavery to the present day.
The historical context begins with some very specific disturbing details. The American physician Samuel Cartwright, who invented the disorder “drapetomania,” or the mental illness causing slaves to run away, suggested the removal of their big toes as a remedy. Dr. Cartwright also described a disorder called “dysaethesia aethiopica,” which was characterized by skin lesions and caused laziness, “rascality,” or disrespect. I had read somewhere that black men are five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than their white counterparts, and this article explains one historical reason for that: during the Civil Rights Movement, schizophrenia became branded as a violent disease characterized by rage and aggression such as that displayed by black activist groups like the Black Panthers. These stereotypes of black angry men still carry over today.
It’s sad to think for those of us who feel we suffer with an invisible mental disability, and wish some people would understand how “real” it feels, it seems there has always been a history of doctors and scientists inventing mental disorders as a tool of racial oppression.