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Foucault and the Bag Lady: The Backlash against Anti-Psychiatry

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Abstract:

This paper offers a fresh interpretation of the political backlash against the movement known as “anti-psychiatry.” Classic anti-psychiatric notions – that madness was a kind of protest against unjust social conditions, that psychiatry was social control in the guise of “treatment”, that asylums were gulags or concentration camps for society’s undesirables, or that “mental illness” was a hallucinatory construct with no basis in serious science – dominated popular discussion in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, a growing perception at that time that the entire society was becoming a lunatic asylum sparked an extraordinary range of oppositional projects – from feminism to resistance against the Vietnam War. And yet, in the early twenty-first century, the ideas of anti-psychiatry are now routinely dismissed and denounced as sure signs of the counterculture’s loopy excesses.
This paper will resituate the roots of the anti-psychiatry of the 1960s and 1970s within developments in the mainstream of American psychiatry in the 1950s. Biochemical explanations for psychosis were in disrepute, and social diagnoses became extremely influential. Moreover, anti-psychiatric notions had strong resonance on the populist right as well as the liberal middle and left. But all of that would become erased from medical history memory. Because some of the most extreme anti-psychiatric ideas were medically wrong and insensitive to the reality of the sufferings caused by psychosis, the political backlash was not only possible but plausible. But the political backlash also had more insidious aims.
The key decade was the 1980s, the era of the deinstitutionalization of the chronically mentally ill. Deinstitutionalization meant that federal dollars should have kept flowing to provide disability benefits for mentally disabled persons now seeking to make their own way in communities. However, when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he cancelled these benefits. And homelessness among the mentally ill spiked dramatically.
In a complex turn of events, right-wing political commentators both denied the existence of a homelessness crisis and blamed that crisis on the anti-psychiatric attitudes within the left. On the one hand, for example, Reagan advisor Edwin Meese III stated in December 1983 that if it appeared as though there were more persons than in past years lining up at soup kitchens for meals that Christmas season, it had nothing to do with more homelessness. People were just looking for free food. On the other hand, a more pervasive (and ultimately persuasive) strategy pinned the blame for the homelessness crisis in the 1980s on the seductive appeals of anti-psychiatry during the 1960s and 1970s. As medical doctor Gerald Weissmann had written already in a 1982 essay, “Foucault and the Bag Lady,” it was precisely the successes of anti-psychiatry in the 1960s that had led to widespread deinstitutionalization in the 1970s which, in turn, was resulting in the homelessness crisis of the 1980s. Numerous additional commentators took up claims similar to Weissmann’s. The cumulative effort has left us with the misunderstandings of both anti-psychiatry and deinstitutionalization we have today.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Staub, Michael. "Foucault and the Bag Lady: The Backlash against Anti-Psychiatry" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508860_index.html>

APA Citation:

Staub, M. E. "Foucault and the Bag Lady: The Backlash against Anti-Psychiatry" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508860_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: This paper offers a fresh interpretation of the political backlash against the movement known as “anti-psychiatry.” Classic anti-psychiatric notions – that madness was a kind of protest against unjust social conditions, that psychiatry was social control in the guise of “treatment”, that asylums were gulags or concentration camps for society’s undesirables, or that “mental illness” was a hallucinatory construct with no basis in serious science – dominated popular discussion in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, a growing perception at that time that the entire society was becoming a lunatic asylum sparked an extraordinary range of oppositional projects – from feminism to resistance against the Vietnam War. And yet, in the early twenty-first century, the ideas of anti-psychiatry are now routinely dismissed and denounced as sure signs of the counterculture’s loopy excesses.
This paper will resituate the roots of the anti-psychiatry of the 1960s and 1970s within developments in the mainstream of American psychiatry in the 1950s. Biochemical explanations for psychosis were in disrepute, and social diagnoses became extremely influential. Moreover, anti-psychiatric notions had strong resonance on the populist right as well as the liberal middle and left. But all of that would become erased from medical history memory. Because some of the most extreme anti-psychiatric ideas were medically wrong and insensitive to the reality of the sufferings caused by psychosis, the political backlash was not only possible but plausible. But the political backlash also had more insidious aims.
The key decade was the 1980s, the era of the deinstitutionalization of the chronically mentally ill. Deinstitutionalization meant that federal dollars should have kept flowing to provide disability benefits for mentally disabled persons now seeking to make their own way in communities. However, when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he cancelled these benefits. And homelessness among the mentally ill spiked dramatically.
In a complex turn of events, right-wing political commentators both denied the existence of a homelessness crisis and blamed that crisis on the anti-psychiatric attitudes within the left. On the one hand, for example, Reagan advisor Edwin Meese III stated in December 1983 that if it appeared as though there were more persons than in past years lining up at soup kitchens for meals that Christmas season, it had nothing to do with more homelessness. People were just looking for free food. On the other hand, a more pervasive (and ultimately persuasive) strategy pinned the blame for the homelessness crisis in the 1980s on the seductive appeals of anti-psychiatry during the 1960s and 1970s. As medical doctor Gerald Weissmann had written already in a 1982 essay, “Foucault and the Bag Lady,” it was precisely the successes of anti-psychiatry in the 1960s that had led to widespread deinstitutionalization in the 1970s which, in turn, was resulting in the homelessness crisis of the 1980s. Numerous additional commentators took up claims similar to Weissmann’s. The cumulative effort has left us with the misunderstandings of both anti-psychiatry and deinstitutionalization we have today.


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