Schizophrenia is a real, frightening, debilitating disease. But what are we to make of the fact that several studies show that African Americans are two to three times more likely than white Americans to be diagnosed with this malady, and that black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are six to nine times more likely to be judged schizophrenic than other residents of the United States. Is there a racist–or, at the very least, racialized–element in diagnoses of schizophrenia? According to psychiatrist and cultural critic Jonathan Metzl, the answer is “yes.”
In The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia became a Black Disease (Beacon Press, 2010), Metzl argues that psychiatrists at the height of the Civil Rights movement used the example of supposedly ‘volatile,’ ‘belligerent’ and ‘unstable’ African American men to define schizophrenia. Drawing on a variety of sources—patient records, psychiatric studies, racialized drug advertisements, and metaphors for schizophrenia—Metzl shows how schizophrenia and blackness evolved in ways that directly reflected the white status quo’s anxiety and uneasiness with growing racial tensions and upheaval. Schizophrenia, Metzl explains, went from being a mostly white, middle-class mental illness in the 1950s to one identified with blackness, madness, and civil strife in the decades that followed.
Jonathan Metzl is a contributor to Public Books.
As you listen to the interview take a look at some the pharmaceutical advertisements that Metzl cites in his research, and how schizophrenia went from being code for white and docile, to later black and threatening…