The 10 most egregious U.S. abuses of psychology and psychiatry

From Project MKUltra to the CIA's torture program, mental health professionals in the US have some explaining to do

Published September 29, 2015 10:57PM (EDT)

  (AP/Brennan Linsley)
(AP/Brennan Linsley)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetPsychiatrists and psychologists have been used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to facilitate mind control and torture in Project MKUltra and in the American Psychological Association-bolstered CIA torture program. Psychiatric political abuses in nations that are U.S. enemies have been routinely denounced by U.S. establishment psychiatry and the U.S. government, especially during the Cold War within the Soviet Union (where political dissidents were diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia” and psychiatrically hospitalized and drugged). However, the abuse of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment to subvert human rights has occurred not only in totalitarian U.S. enemies but in the United States as well.

While the following list of political abuses of U.S. psychiatry and psychology begins with the infamous Project MKUltra and recent American Psychological Association torture scandal, this should not be taken to imply that these more sensational abuses are the most important ones. For gay Americans, Native Americans and African-Americans, the political abuse of psychiatry and psychology is a significant part of their traumatizing American history, and while MKUltra resulted in severe trauma and even death, mental health professionals’ current enabling of dehumanizing American institutions continues to create, quite possibly, even greater damage.

1. Project MKUltra

This CIA program of experiments on human subjects, which began in the early 1950s, used drugs (including LSD) and other procedures (including sensory deprivation and electroshock) to weaken and break an individual and force confessions. MKUltra has been documented by the U.S. Congress’ Church Committee investigations, acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court, and detailed in "The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate': The CIA and Mind Control: The Secret History of the Behavioral Sciences" by former State Department officer John Marks.

In MKUltra, there was widespread involvement by at least 80 institutions (including universities, pharmaceutical corporations and prisons) and 185 researchers, including some of America’s leading psychiatrists such as Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West and leading psychologists such as Henry Murray. Among the subjects in one of Murray’s MKUltra experiments at Harvard was 17-year-old undergraduate Ted Kaczynski, and serving as a subject in another MKUltra experiment was a young prison inmate named Whitey Bulger.

2. American Psychological Association Assistance in Interrogation/Torture

The American Psychological Association, in the days after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, nurtured relationships with the CIA and Department of Defense “to position psychology and behavioral scientists as key players in U.S. counterterrorism and counterintelligence activities,” according to a 2014 Truthout report.

The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the George W. Bush administration to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners. This was highly useful for the government officials involved in torture, as the New York Times in 2015 reported, “The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation program was significant because it enabled the Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the program was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.”

The degree of American Psychological Association complicity was detailed in a damning independent review (commissioned, under political pressure, by the American Psychological Association), which revealed that ties between the American Psychological Association and the CIA/DOD were deeper than previously recognized, as the associations’ ethics director collaborated with the DOD to align the associations’ ethics policies with the needs of DOD.

3. Pathologizing Homosexuality and Disempowering Gay Americans

In recent times, the most well-known political abuse of psychiatry with regard to stigmatizing and disempowering a particular group is its psychopathologizing of homosexuality. The American Psychiatric Association in 1973—due to the political efforts of gay activists—finally relented and declassified homosexuality as a pathology in its diagnostic bible, the DSM.

Even after declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness, much of establishment psychiatry continued to maintain that homosexuality was not as normal as heterosexuality, according to dissident psychiatrist Vivek Datta, who points out that even in the declassification year 1973, “a number of publications discuss diagnostic and treatment aspects of homosexuality, including aversive conditioning, use of electric shocks and even lobotomy.” Datta details how the diagnosis of “sexual orientation disturbance” (later to become “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”)—defined by a discomfort with one’s sexual preference—was only applied by psychiatry to same-sex attraction, and that “it was not until 1987 that homosexuality completely disappeared from the DSM.”

4. Enabling Genocide of Indigenous Americans

Historically, the United States policy towards its indigenous peoples has been one of genocide through military invasion, starvation, induced disease, and cultural destruction, which has included the use of educational and mental health professionals. The political goals of this policy include land theft and enabling a standardized monoculture.

Boarding schools or “residential schools” were established by the United States and Canadian governments in the 19th century and functioned up until 1980 for the purpose of destroying indigenous culture (see Roland Chrisjohn’s "Circle Game" and Ward Churchill’s "Kill the Indian, Save the Man"). In these schools, draconian behavioral-modification “treatments” were utilized.

Dissident psychologist David Walker details American psychologists’ use of pseudoscientific psychometrics (including IQ testing) to attempt to establish the inferiority of indigenous Americans so as to justify eugenic solutions such as sterilization—another form of genocide. Says Walker, “It’s been a difficult realization to encounter my own profession’s complicity in this history, but I try to respond by bearing witness.”

5. Enabling Racism and Subjugation of African American

Benjamin Rush, the "father of American psychiatry” (his image adorns the seal of the American Psychiatric Association), typifies psychiatry’s history of both racism and hypocrisy about it. In 1792, Rush argued that the “color” and “figure” of African-Americans were derived from a form of leprosy, and he argued that with proper treatment, they could be cured and become white. In 1851, Louisiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright attempted to psychopathologize slaves attempting to flee captivity with the mental illness he called drapetomania, for which he devised brutal behavioral modification “treatments.”

In the modern era, psychiatry has been used to deprive African Americans of their human rights. When civil rights activist Clennon W. King Jr. attempted to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi in 1958, the Mississippi police arrested him on the grounds that “any nigger who tried to enter Ole Miss must be crazy,” and he was confined to a mental hospital for 12 days. Jonathan Metzl’s 2010 book "The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease" details how African-Americans have been diagnosed with schizophrenia because of their civil rights ideas.

In the early 1990s, the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration unleashed its “violence initiative,” which sought a genetic basis for criminal behavior. ADAMHA director Frederick Goodwin compared the “high-impact inner city” to a jungle and its youth to rhesus monkeys who only want to kill one another, have sex and reproduce. By focusing on “biologically vulnerable” youth for psychiatric interventions, including drug treatments, the initiative was essentially depoliticizing as it de-emphasized social explanations for crime.

6. Subverting U.S. Soldiers’ Resistance to the Military-Industrial Complex

Nothing was more powerful in ending American involvement in Vietnam than U.S. soldiers’ refusal to cooperate with the U.S. military (see the 2005 documentary "Sir! No Sir!"). However, current American mental health professionals, by way of behavioral manipulation and psychiatric drugs, make such resistance more difficult.

The former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, has consulted with the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness positive psychology program. In one role-play used in this program, a sergeant is asked to take his exhausted men on one more difficult mission, and the sergeant is initially angry and complains that “it’s not fair”; but in the role play, his “rehabilitation” involves reinterpreting the order as a compliment. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Seligman was quoted as saying, “We’re after creating an indomitable military.”

According to the Navy Times in 2010, one in six U.S. armed service members were taking at least one psychiatric drug, many of these medicated soldiers in combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many soldiers in Vietnam, as part of a general non-cooperation, used illegal psychotropic drugs, which alarmed U.S. government officials who were afraid of unleashing illegal-drug using veterans on American streets. But legal psychotropic drugs ubiquitously prescribed in the military co-opts the once rebellious culture of psychotropic use, and the illegal-psychiatric drug hypocrisy promulgated by psychiatry enables the military-industrial complex to deny concerns.

7. Enabling Authoritarian Standard Schooling

As dissident teachers have observed, standard schools are routinely authoritarian institutions that utilize coercions that kill curiosity. John Taylor Gatto, former New York City and New York State teacher of the year, stated: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders”; and John Holt concluded, “School is a place where children learn to be stupid ....Children come to school curious; within a few years most of that curiosity is dead, or at least silent.” The National Endowments for the Arts reported in 2007 that standard schooling is associated with a decline of reading for pleasure, and Scholastic reported in 2015 that this decline is associated with coercion (choice over reading materials increases pleasure reading).

While coercive and oppressive schooling is not the only pain for young people, it is a major fuel for inattention, passive-aggressive anger, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression, all of which are routinely labeled by mental health professionals as “symptoms” of mental disorders that result in “treatments” (increasingly consisting of medication). So, psychiatry and psychology help society maintain denial of the oppressive, anti-educational nature of standard schooling.

8. Depoliticizing Normal Reactions to Dehumanizing Employment

A June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Psychiatry and psychology help cover up an often alienating and poorly compensated work life by pathologizing—and thus depoliticizing—our normal human reactions to oppressive jobs.

Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for 2014 the 10 largest occupations in the United States were: 1) retail salespersons (4.5 million); 2) cashiers (3.4 million); 3) combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food (3.1 million); 4) office clerks, general (2.9 million); 5) registered nurses (2.7 million); 6) customer service representatives (2.5 million), 7) waiters and waitresses (2.4 million); 8) laborers and freight, stock, and material movers (2.4 million); 9) secretaries and administrative assistants, except legal, medical, and executive (2.2 million); and 10 )janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners (2.1 million).

Even among those employed in careers that they have desired, bureaucratic oppression often makes their jobs dissatisfying. A 2012 survey among physicians revealed that nine out of 10 doctors would not recommend health care as a profession to their friends and family.

Inattention, anger, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression can be quite normal reactions to an alienating and oppressive job, but mental health professionals routinely label these reactions as symptoms of mental illness to be medicated; and so psychiatry and psychology are used to depoliticize Americans from rebelling against their dehumanizing work life.

9. Medicating Noncompliance and Marginalizing Anti-Authoritarians

Mental health professionals pathologize noncompliance. Rebellious children and teenagers, for example, are routinely diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), the symptoms include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” ODD is one of several “disruptive behavior disorders,” and a 2012 study reported that disruptive behavior disorders were the most common diagnoses in children medicated with antipsychotic drugs, accounting for 63 percent of those medicated.

Many people diagnosed with anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are essentially anti-authoritarians who fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will make it difficult for them to survive. A potentially large army of anti-authoritarian activists are being kept off democracy battlefields by mental health professionals who prevent the development of political consciousness by pathologizing—and thus depoliticizing—normal defiant reactions.

10. Controlling Uncared about and Discarded Populations

By 2011, antipsychotic drugs grossed over $18 billion a year in the United States, making antipsychotics the highest grossing class of drugs. Much of this growth is attributable to the prescribing of antipsychotics to non-psychotic people who are so uncared about that society permits them to be controlled as inexpensively as possible. These discarded populations include foster children, the elderly in nursing homes, and inmates in prisons and jails, where antipsychotic drugs are an inexpensive way to subdue and manage.

Among U.S. veterans, a 2014 study revealed 1.85 million veterans are using at least one psychiatric drug with 30 percent of them having no psychiatric diagnosis. Instead of devoting resources to help veterans heal from trauma, reintegrate into their families, and find meaningful work, the quick and cheap way to get troubled veterans out the clinic door is a psychiatric drug prescription.

For unhappy and potentially rebellious women in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than taking seriously their societal oppression, millions were prescribed Valium (“mother’s little helper”). Currently, 23 percent of women ages 40-59 are taking antidepressant (compared to 11 percent for all American adults). Also in assembly-line medicine, rather than taking the time to make a difficult organic diagnosis, physicians refer many Americans—especially women (see Chloe Atkins’ 2010 book "My Imaginary Illness") —to psychiatrists where they are labeled with some kind of “head case” diagnosis (such as “somatic pain” and “somatoform”) resulting in their physical complaints not being taken seriously.

In recent years, a new huge group of Americans has been thrown overboard: millions of student-loan debtors with huge monthly debt payments. Their normal reactions of depression, anxiety, and anger have been pathologized, medicated, and thus depoliticized—subverting organizing for political action to abolish debt oppression.

To summarize, the mainstream media has reported on sensational political abuses of psychiatry such as MKUltra, the American Psychological Association torture scandal, as well as the abuses of well-known figures (such as the use of psychiatry to discredit Barry Goldwater and Martha Mitchell). However, the mainstream media has routinely neglected the ordinary and everyday political use and abuse of U.S. psychiatry and psychology to stigmatize and disempower groups, enable dehumanizing institutions, compel compliance, marginalize dissent, depoliticize, and maintain the status quo.

By Bruce E. Levine

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