Schizophrenia as Political Weapon

The disease turned from a benign illness to a violent disease in the 1960s, just as black men joined protests against racism.

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“There is a schizophrenia, as the psychologists or the psychiatrists would call it, going on within all of us. And there are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us….There’s a tension at the heart of human nature. And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and to build our temples, we must be honest enough to recognize it….”

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

African-American men are diagnosed with schizophrenia at rates four to five time more than other groups. Schizophrenia is a biologically based disease, with no genetic links to ethnicity or gender. Are black men inherently crazy?

From the 1920s to the 1950s, schizophrenia was considered a fairly harmless disease that primarily affected whites. The illness was associated with “emotional disharmony” and the suggested treatment for those affected was that they be nurtured, not feared.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, advertisements for new schizophrenia drugs appeared featuring scary-looking black men under the tagline, “Assaultive and belligerent?” Apparently, “cooperation” could be achieved with doses of an antipsychotic drug, Haldol.

Schizophrenia became a black disease. And black men, labeled paranoid, hostile and violent, literally became the poster children.

Jonathan M. Metzl, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, decided to trace the troubled history of schizophrenia. By gaining access to archives of Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a mental asylum located in Michigan that was open between 1885 and 1975, Metzl began unraveling the tangled roots of schizophrenia and race. He compiled findings in the new book The Protest Psychosis (Beacon Press, 2009). Part reportage, part analysis, part theory, Metzl challenges readers to peel back the layered complexities of race and medicine.

Metzl talked with The Root about hostile black men, the FBI, psychiatry and structural racism.

The Root: How did this study of race and schizophrenia come about?

Jonathan M. Metzl: The main interest for me in this project was the fact that there’s this long, unknown history of schizophrenia being associated with different races and classes. More broadly, there’s a troubled history between race and sanity. With schizophrenia, the definition of this particular illness has changed radically, and I wanted to track the disease over time to see how it changed.

TR: Most of the book is centered on research that you did in the archives of Ionia State Hospital. How did you choose this facility?

JM: The archives from Ionia turned out to be the perfect because of how close the hospital was to Detroit and what was happening politically in the 1960s.