The History of Eugenics in the United States & How It Affects Psychiatric Care Today

Robert Whitaker speaks in this video, recorded May 2, 2012, on “The History of Eugenics in the United States & How It Affects Psychiatric Care Today.”

From the website:

“Although we usually associate eugenics with Nazi Germany, it was here in the United States that eugenic laws were first passed. In the early part of the 20th century, states passed laws that prevented the “insane” from marrying; eugenicists argued, with much success, that the mentally ill needed to be segregated from society in mental hospitals, in order to keep them from passing on their “bad genes;” and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to forcibly sterilize the mentally ill.

These eugenic conceptions of the mentally ill, as essentially “unfit” for society, also set the stage for the introduction of therapies in the 1930s and 1940s, that were understood to “work” by damaging the brain. Frontal lobotomy, which involved destroying the patient’s frontal lobes, was one of these therapies.

Today, we think that such eugenic impulses have been scrubbed from our society’s treatment of those with psychiatric diagnoses. But it is easy to see that our society still prescribes treatments that, in their effects, have some similarities to the treatments used in the 1940s; that our society is expanding its forcible treatment for those deemed mentally ill; and that the modern effort in research circles to identify the genetic causes of mental illness encourages our society to think of people so diagnosed as having “broken brains,” and really not quite “fit.”

By understanding this past, and how it can provide an understanding for the present, we can perhaps imagine a different future, with our society embracing a paradigm of care that is free from such eugenic impulses.” →