Skip to main content

We’re All Mad Here

In the early 1970’s, eight people checked themselves into psychiatric
hospitals throughout the United States, complaining of hearing voices. They
were all admitted, and during their hospitalizations exhibited no unusual
behavior and claimed to no longer be experiencing auditory hallucinations.
After stays between 7 and 52 days in the institutions, the patients were
discharged and given diagnoses of either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. None
of these people had any mental illnesses, and had, in fact, falsified their symptoms
as part of an experiment conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan (who was
himself one of the “pseudopatients”).

The results of the study were published in a 1973
paper in Science titled “On being sane in insane
. In the paper Rosenhan argues that it is difficult to distinguish
between “normality” and “abnormality” when it comes to mental health, and that,
once applied, the label of a psychiatric diagnosis can be so strong that all of
an individual’s actions are viewed in light of that label, especially in a
place like a psychiatric hospital where patients are assumed to be “insane”. The
study was seen as an eye-opening commentary on the American mental health system
and also criticized for its methodology and conclusions.1,2

The founders of the Icarus Project believe that, just like Icarus’ wings, madness can lift people to great heights or send them falling to their doom

Thirty years later, the study is still cited in debates
about the science and ethics of psychiatric diagnoses and treatments, often by those
critical of the field. One interesting and controversial voice active in this
debate is the mad pride movement.3 In my previous post, I discussed the
neurodiversity movement’s views on autism
. Mad pride (which has recently
been discussed
on this blog
) takes a similar approach to issues of mental health. Like neurodiversity
(and most movements and ideologies in general) mad pride encompasses a wide
variety of beliefs and causes, but the primary one is to give a voice to people
living with mental illness (although some in the movement dislike that term4)
in the hopes of educating the public, creating patient-run communities and support
networks, and pushing for reform in mental health systems.

Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day (considered one of the first mad
pride events) took place in Toronto, Canada in 1993, and was organized, in part,
in response to housing discrimination against former psychiatric patients.5 The goal was to combat the stereotypes and stigma faced by current and former
consumers (a neutral term commonly used by mad pride activists) of mental
health services and to celebrate their contributions to culture and society.
The way in which mental illness is viewed by the public (which has been explored previously
on this blog
) remains a key focus of the mad pride movement.

Another focus of the movement is to create communities (through,
for example, group meetings and online forums and blogs) where people with various
mental health issues can discuss their experiences for both educational and
therapeutic reasons. Two notable examples of such communities are The Icarus Project and the National Empowerment Center. The
creators of these communities believe that talking with others who have had
similar experiences and being able to describe their own unique situations
(which are more complex and specific than the broad diagnostic labels applied
to them) are good ways for people to improve their mental health, especially if
they feel marginalized and misunderstood in their day-to-day lives.

Many mad pride organizations also advocate for changes in the
field of psychiatry and the mental health system. Just as they fight for a
voice in society, they fight for a voice in their treatment, arguing that, like
the Rosenhan study seemed to show, those diagnosed with mental illnesses are
often patronized and not taken seriously by doctors and therapists when, in fact, they need
to be heard both out of respect for them as people and because it is
beneficial to their treatment.

Advocating for giving patients a greater voice also extends
to supporting self-determination and choice when it comes to psychiatric
treatment. Mad pride and patient advocacy groups, like the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights and MindFreedom International, campaign
against involuntary treatment and involuntary institutionalization, seeing these
actions as human rights violations. Some take this argument further, casting
suspicion on mainstream psychiatry and arguing that the medical model of mental
health is not the only legitimate approach. To them, conditions labeled as psychiatric
disorders (particularly mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder) might in fact be extreme forms of the non-pathological emotions and mental states we all
experience and which, while they can be unpleasant and even dangerous, can be
controlled and managed in ways other than medication or traditional psychotherapy.
While they do not oppose the use of psychiatric drugs by those who choose to do
so, their rejection of what they see as a healthy/sick duality leads them to also
support the freedom to reject treatment or to explore alternative therapies.6

These critiques of psychiatric treatment (both
compulsory and otherwise) and the support for non-traditional therapies are
where the controversy lies. I am personally very uneasy with the concept of
involuntary institutionalization; ideally all medical treatments should be
purely consensual. But when a person’s thoughts are possibly compromised, the
concepts of self-determination and autonomy obviously get murkier, especially
when the debilitating nature of some of these disorders and the risk of suicide
is taken into account.

Many of the outspoken critics of psychiatry in the mad pride
movement are current or former psychiatric patients whose opinions were formed
through their own experiences with involuntary treatment and abuses in the
system. But many of them were patients in the 1960s and 70s (or earlier)7 when
the state of the field was much different than it is now. Involuntary
commitments were more common and harmful and painful procedures were
performed (like insulin
shock therapy
and electroconvulsive
done without anesthesia) that are no longer used.8 I know that these
activists are aware of such changes in psychiatry and most likely are more
familiar with the current state of the mental health system than most people,
but in making their arguments they sometimes seem to present it as it was
decades ago.

The rejection of the medical model among some mad pride
advocates enters into anti-psychiatry
(a different, but related movement that opposes the foundations and activities
of the medical field of psychiatry), blurring the lines between the two
movements. The opponents of psychiatry claim that there is not enough evidence
to support purely biological models of mental illness and the use of
psychiatric drugs.6 While the effectiveness of such drugs and the accuracy
of such models are being questioned in the medical and scientific communities9,10 (including the controversy surrounding the newly released DSM-511),
anti-psychiatry takes those criticisms further and is (not surprisingly) denounced by psychiatrists.12 And those who are skeptical of psychiatric medication don’t apply the
same standards to their own claims since there is even less evidence to support
the alternative therapies they advocate. Though the alternatives usually
include diet, exercise, meditation and social support, which are supported by
medical professionals, just not as replacements for psychiatric help.

Is the serotonin hypothesis of depression correct?

In addition, the rejection of the medical model of mental illness
might actually put some mad pride activists at odds with other mental health
activists. Mad pride advocates dislike portraying psychiatric conditions as
illnesses or diseases because they think that it increases the stigma around
them, making people see those diagnosed with such conditions as diseased and
abnormal. But some mental health professionals and patients encourage the
medical view of mental health, hoping that it will reduce stigma because such
disorders will seen as medical conditions (just like physical illnesses) rather
than character flaws or moral failings on the part of the patient (for example,
seeing a depressed person as being lazy) or their families (believing that all
mental health problems are the result of an abusive household).13,14

Still, the most visible and active elements of the mad pride
movement are working for the rights of those diagnosed with mental illnesses
both in society and in the psychiatric systems. Reducing stigma and giving
patients a greater voice in their treatment will only improve the current state
of psychiatry, and should be accepted by everyone, no matter where they stand
in this debate. Whether you see those with psychiatric conditions as people who
are sick and need help or as people whose emotions and mental states are more extreme
than usual, they are still people who deserve the same rights and respect as everyone


  1.  Spitzer, Robert L. On
    pseudoscience in science, logic in remission, and psychiatric diagnosis: A
    critique of Rosenhan’s “On being sane in insane places”. Journal of
    Abnormal Psychology, 1975, 84(5): 442-452
  2.  “Rosenhan
    Experiment,” the Psychology Wiki.
  3.  Gabrielle
    Glaser. ‘Mad Pride’ Fights a Stigma. The New York Times, 2008.
  4.  David
    Oaks. Let’s stop saying ‘Mental Illness”! MindFreedom International.
  5.  Consumer/Survivor InformationResource Centre of Toronto. July 15, 2008 bulletin.
  6.  David
    Davis. Losing the Mind. Los Angeles Times, 2003.
  7.  MindFreedom International:
    Personal Stories.
  8.  Eisenberg,
    L. and Guttmacher, L. B. Were we all asleep at the switch? A personal
    reminiscence of psychiatry from 1940 to 2010. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 2010,
    122: 89-102.
  9.  Lacasse
    JR, Leo J.  Serotonin and Depression: A
    Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature. PLoS Med, 2005,
    2(12): e392.
  10.  Moncrieff
    J, Cohen D. Do Antidepressants Cure or Create Abnormal Brain States? PLoS Med, 2006,
    3(7): e240.
  11.  Thomas
    Insel. Director’s Blog: Transforming Diagnosis.
  12.  Nasrallah,Henry. The antipsychiatry movement: Who and Why. Current Psychiatry, 2011,10(12).
  13.  “Overcoming The Stigma
    of Depression.” Healing From Depression.
  14.  Jennifer
    Welsh. Blood Test may Reduce Stigma of Depression. Live Science, 2012.

Want to cite this post?

Queen, J. (2013). We’re All Mad Here. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from


Emory Neuroethics on Facebook