Authors and book cover

A quick Google search defines mental illness broadly as, ‘a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking.’ When we live in a context where a “serious disorder” is often attached to acting and speaking out about racism rather than being racist, we must be critical about our own understandings of mental health and how they have been constructed by those with power.

In 1851, American physician Samuel Cartwright diagnosed black slaves who attempted to flee captivity with a mental illness he termed drapetomania. He argued in Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race that if white slave masters didn’t reinforce their position of power over black slaves but start to treat them humanely, the slaves would develop drapetomania. The prescribed solution for drapetomania was punishment through whipping and even the cutting off of big toes, “until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy.”

In the same article, Cartwright also diagnosed black people with dysaesthetsia aethiopica; a mental illness that explained the, “cause of laziness among slaves”. He believed that all slaves were afflicted with this but that it was also, “much more prevalent among free negroes living in clusters by themselves”. He proposed that this would be fixed by having, “white people direct and take care of them” and through whipping and hard labour. Cartwright’s article was reprinted in the South but largely mocked in the Northern United States and since debunked as pseudoscience.

In more recent history, Jonathan Metzl’s book The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease examined the ways in which, during the 1960s, the Ionia State psychiatric hospital in Michigan began to diagnose African Americans with schizophrenia because of their civil rights ideas. 

In both cases we see the diagnosis of mental illness of what are completely understandable and legitimate responses to racism, the first to slavery and the second to a denial of civil rights. This is extremely harmful for the following reasons. It masks what are politically charged situations by presenting them as medical and scientific ones, in this way portraying racist ideas as “objective truth” as a way to justify the silencing of dissent. As well as this, by depicting the victims of racism as mentally ill and therefore not in “the right state of mind”, responsibility shifts from white slave owners or deniers of black civil rights onto the victims themselves. Finally, the idea that speaking out about racism is often labelled “oversensitive” or a product of mental illness is a toxic narrative that can be internalised by people of colour, working to make them feel like their emotions and demands are illegitimate.

These tactics are still very much in operation today. One example is the constant backlash from posting experiences tied to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability on social media platforms. Comments often take the form of telling the authors that they are whiny, over thinking things, too angry etc. This is known as tone policing and ties to mental health as it categorises those who speak out as people with “issues” or irrational thought processes as a way to silence them.

Issues with mental health are so often reduced to genetic inheritance and biology when in reality societal factors are just as important. The diagnosis of mental illness is political in the way it has been, and continues to be, used a way to prevent people from speaking or acting out against racism and other forms of marginalisation.