Classism in Disguise


For everyone who goes on psychiatric drugs, the reason comes back to power imbalances in their personal life. Women who’s husbands “make all of the money” and have an unequal share of the power, kids who’s parents have power over them—frequently people who have less money and security, therefore less platform for authority than those around them. Mental illness is not in fact an illness but an unequal division of power and sense of security in a social group.

Almost everyone I speak to who has been labeled also just happens to be the one in their family with the least amount of money and resources. So are mental health diagnoses a form of class warfare and income discrimination? I’ve never met someone labeled mentally ill who was without abundant offerings and gifts, only those whose contributions hadn’t been recognized. Not recognizing a certain individuals’ place in the world is a sign of a blind spot we have as a society, unless we believe some people are “extras,” born into the world without a reason.

Would mental illness be able to survive without the food of capitalism? If everyone was guaranteed basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and their choice of health care, where would mental illness fit in? Is it possible we can squeeze mental illness out by creating a cooperative society that includes everyone, determined to draw out the offerings of every individual, unwilling to discard anyone?

In the past couple of months I’ve been looking for new housing at the same time as starting a new business and living with a room mate I don’t enjoy. I’ve thought many times of how having a home and a certain amount of money in my bank account and certain daily routines, including ample time alone, are necessary for my sense of stability (and sanity?). I don’t think a lot about sanity since I’m not sure what it is, but I do know that my ability to be calm, clear and centered feels fragile sometimes. Sometimes it feels so dependent on the right balance of so many different factors that my belief in a Higher Power is affirmed when it occurs at all! Fragile and sensitive as I feel much of the time, when I leave my hermitage and go out into the denser world, amongst people who don’t seem to need daily meditation, hours of quiet solitude and writing each day, organic whole foods, clean air, non-toxic medicine etc. etc. I can feel like a fish out of water. Still the sturdier, “less fragile” seeming people I see rarely strike me as sane—in fact I often feel insane around them. And when we call someone insane isn’t it because we feel insane around them? Whether this is a reflection of me or them may be debatable, but there is a different vibration, one that is out of touch with sensitivity and seems to be going from one addiction to the next. Is this the mental health we are striving for? Normalcy? No.

First of all, if you are in America, a good number of the people you see everyday and think are normal are probably on psychiatric drugs since over 49 million of us (and counting) are on them. Second, most people who seem normal or even well, have their own misery underneath. The mental illness model encourages a lot of belly button gazing where people feel there is something inherently wrong with or different about them. Yet happy, balanced people are the anomaly—in fact I’m not sure if I’ve met any in years. In a society that rejects such a high percentage of the population as mentally ill, it is hard for anyone to be balanced. We have lost a good percentage of the social resources available to us!

When I see first hand the intensity of our suffering due to the dominant paradigm of class oppression, and see how widespread this condition is, I know we need safer spaces for people going through transformation. How can one heal in the throes of being controlled by those with more socio-economic power? The number of people suffering at the hand of psychiatric drugs is enough to make many depressed just thinking about it. Yet, it is a reflection of the larger power imbalances in our culture, including gender, class, race, and age and the many power manipulating nuances that go along with each of these. Addressing injustices in the mental health system MUST go hand in hand with the other power imbalances we are struggling with as they are the root cause of psychiatric evils.


  1. I agree that a huge proportion of “mental illness” is simply a result of exposure to injustice due to an imbalance of power in relationships and society. It is amazing to me that sexism, racism, classism, domestic abuse, economic injustice, and related issues are not even mentioned when it comes to “mental illness.” Sometimes trauma gets a background mention, but only because “trauma changes the brain,” not because trauma contains elements of disempowerment and spiritual distress that are a NORMAL reaction to circumstances of being out of control of one’s experience. The idea that social systems themselves could cause mental illness seems so far off the radar as to be considered absurd by many. Yet we see that in three generations, immigrants to the USA have been shown to deteriorate in their physical and mental health to levels of the ambient population.

    There is no question that social and economic variables are the most ignored factors in mental/emotional distress. In my view, they are probably the most important. And the power imbalances you mention are deeply embedded in the system, from DSM diagnoses through involuntary detention. Until a shift in perspective is made and the need to address power differentials is brought to the front, our ‘mental health’ system will continue to harm those it presumes to help.

    — Steve

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  2. This is indeed a great article with some very keen insights. However, I think it would be a mistake to say that the “well off” or the “powerful” do not or cannot suffer from the same type of symptoms that many of us experience. Mind you, because they have the power and the resources, they are generally called “eccentric” (at least to their faces). While resources are indeed an important aspect to consider in this discussion, I immediately thought of Howard Hughes who suffered from all kinds of phobias, anxiety, delusions and paranoia before he died. I’m sure he’s not alone in the world of the wealthy and mentally unstable.

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  3. Thanks Steve, Dorothy and RMates. I certainly agree RMates that wealthy people can experience all kinds of emotional difficulties and trauma, and most probably do. Power imbalances and injustices certainly affect every single one of us-even those at the top of the social totem pole lose out when anyone suffers, is labeled or trested unfairly, whether themselves or others.
    I imagine the types of suffering are different depending on class, yet the suffering of wealthy people is no less real.

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  4. “And when we call someone insane isn’t it because we feel insane around them?”

    I love this question! I also really appreciate your observations re: sensitivities and meeting our individual needs. It seems like a lot of the distress that is called “mental illness” may – for some folks – come about from the imposition of lifestyles and lifeways that do not honor individual proclivities, sensitivities, and needs for peace, quiet and expression.

    Which comes down to power…who gets to decide what is desirable and functional for us?

    Good call, RMates, re: the privilege of “eccentricity” in relation to the pathology we often see applied to those who do not, will not or cannot conform to the expectations of normative function in the working and middle class economies of culture.

    Thanks so much for sharing your voice here, Chaya…much appreciated!

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  5. “Would mental illness be able to survive without the food of capitalism? ”

    Where did you acquire the idea that capitalism feeds ‘mental illness’?

    Medicare and Medicaid are not capitalism. Without those 2 Socialist, Government Programs Psychiatry itself would not even be possible.

    Medicare and Medicaid are not capitalism. They are Socialist Redistribution. Psychiatry can not Feed itself without the antithesis of capitalism.

    What we have today, and is being demonized as capitalism, is an army of cronies who’ve commandeered capitalism and the freedom it ensures under the guise of assuring equality of outcome.

    We already have a Securities and Exchange Commission, a Federal Trade Commission, an FDA, an FBI, a Fed DOJ, an FCC, etc. If those Agencies were doing the job they were supposed to be doing, Psych/Pharma wouldn’t even exist, but those Agencies are Not doing their job. They have been corrupted by Political Agendas issuing orders from above which Prevent those Agencies from shutting the whole, criminal con game down.

    Remember they Those Agencies work For you, but under the assumption that Govt actually has Any authority to enforce mind control on you or Anyone else, those Agencies are falling down on the job as Congress continues to illegally protect Psych/Pharma by not only turning a blind eye to it, but by subsidizing it with Your money.

    This is not capitalism. This is crony capitalism ignoring all kinds of laws we already have to feed Your money and Your life to its buddies.

    The authors of Depth Psychology, Freud, (an Atheist), Jung (while not a Nazi party member, openly endorsed Hitler) and Adler (felt Socialism’s professed outcome was a plus, its methods were a negative). It doesn’t get any more anti-capitalist than Nazism and Communism.

    Every subsequent school of Psychological thought is built upon their theories.

    Can you point out Any society which has actually produced Anything but misery and death without capitalism?

    Think of yourself as an Investor in capitalism, no matter how small your investments are.

    You are a capitalist every time you purchase bread, eggs, and milk, of your own Free Will. What’s needed is not a repudiation of true, free market capitalism, but its institution.

    Once started down the road of appointing Government arbiters to ensure that nobody gets Less than their share of groceries or equal treatment, we devolve into a society of poverty and misery because the sheer amount of arbiters needed breeds a Bureaucracy so top heavy that ‘Classism’ moves Out of the private Sector and Into the Government Sector.

    And Government does not produce Anything. Government Consumes.

    Please spend some time with Milton Freidman before decrying the inequities of a Classism based upon capitalism.……0.0…

    “Mental illness is not in fact an illness but an unequal division of power and sense of security in a social group.”

    Under true, free market capitalism, individuals retain the power to walk away from any and every such unequal division of power and social group.

    Under Socialism/Psychiatry, individuals surrender that power to Government.
    Which system of unequality would you rather live under? One you can walk away from, or one wherein Government says, “No, you’re too sick, you don’t know what’s good for you, you might make the wrong choice so We will decide for you.”

    Granted, in a true free market simply walking away will never be a cake walk, but it Is possible.

    In a Psychiatric Society where Government places further strictures upon individuals, walking away involves a Lot of money and Court Fights on top of making your own way.

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    • Dbunker

      Reading your comments about this insightful blog posting makes me “feel insane.”

      “What we have today, and is being demonized as capitalism, is an army of cronies who’ve commandeered capitalism and the freedom it ensures under the guise of assuring equality of outcome.”

      Dracula cannot be persuaded to suck water instead of blood. The people running this system are acting exactly the way a good capitalist is suppose to be behaving. Chase the highest rate of profit by any means necessary or be eaten up by your competitors. Freedom, is in reality, only ensured for those on top of the pyramid; those on the bottom are “free” to be exploited.

      “…Securities and Exchange Commission, a Federal Trade Commission, an FDA, an FBI, a Fed DOJ, an FCC, etc. If those Agencies were doing the job they were supposed to be doing, Psych/Pharma wouldn’t even exist…”

      These agencies only exist to make people “feel” like there is some oversight, regulation, and “checks and balances” within the capitalist system. Their members are chosen by those in power and completely bought off by the system; if they dare challenge the ruling class agenda they will be removed in a heartbeat.

      “It doesn’t get anymore anti-capitalist than Nazism…”

      You cannot be serious! Nazi Germany was a form of fascist rule that was thoroughly capitalist in its most naked form; without any pretense of democracy covering up the class nature of the society.

      “Under true, free market capitalism, individuals retain the power to walk away from any and every such unequal division of power and social group.”

      Once again you turn reality on its head. Free markets only exist for those who own capital; the rest of us have to sell our labor power to the highest bidder. You do not have the freedom or “power to walk away” from anything unless you have the basics of food and shelter, which is a difficult daily struggle for those unlucky (by accident of birth) to be at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

      Biological Psychiatry, has its origins in a commodity based society where the drive for profit reigns supreme. Their “genetic theories of original sin” are part of a “blame the victim” paradigm that turns people’s attention away from the daily trauma of classism, patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia and Imperialist wars of expansion that underlies this culture of violence.


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      • Mr Lewis;

        the rest of us have to sell our labor power to the highest bidder.

        And What do those ‘Rest of us’ receive in trade for our labor?

        Is it, or is it not, capital?

        “Nazi Germany was a form of fascist rule that was thoroughly capitalist in its most naked form; without any pretense of democracy covering up the class nature of the society.”

        Nazi is an acronym for National Socialism. which is what the German people chose regardless of what anyone else subsequently describes it as.

        Please, Me Lewis, tell me about how You would reorganize the science of economics and Government to avoid the pitfalls I’ve stumbled into in your critique of My turning reality on its head.

        You have my rapt, and undivided attention.

        Democracy? Democracy you say? As in yet More of our current Direct Democracy on every issue “Gimmee, Gimmee, Gimmee” hand out the uninformed are told they own a Right to, rather than a specifically and very narrowly circumscribed Constitutional Republic?

        “More Democracy means more Socialism.” Nikita Kruschev

        Please, if you will, show me Where and When a Centrally Planned economy has prospered, because that Is where we are now, and thanks to the benevolence of that Centrally Planned economy a full time job is being speedily redefined as 29.5 hrs a week.

        “the daily trauma of classism, patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia and Imperialist wars of expansion that underlies this culture of violence.”

        Because if you Really want to have this discussion, I Promise you that You will either blink, or have your comments censored for personal attacks Before I will.

        Specifics, please. How is Utopia to be instituted?

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    • Anyway, modern capitalism and communism aren’t so different…the power structure/relationship between the state(controller of the economy) and the people (consumers in the economy) have a lot of the same basic elements.

      I wonder about the causal relationship between poverty and “mental illness” – which comes first and why.

      Thanks again, Chaya.

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      • Faith

        There are no current examples of GENUINE socialism or communism to compare with modern capitalism. The historical summations of the two major socialist experiments (the Soviet Union and China which are now clearly functioning as capitalist economies and oppressive societies) have been written by those who would have us believe that capitalism is the highest pinnacle of human social organization.

        This would be like having the APA sum up the first attempt at a Soteria House type program (or any program attempting to create an alternative paradigm to Biological Psychiatry) where there may have occurred early problems or mistakes, and then they declare the entire enterprise a disaster and inherently flawed, never to be attempted again.

        The theoretical principle of Communism is “From each according to your abilities to each according to your needs.” In other words you give all you can (work, creativity etc.) to advance the society in which you live and only take from it what you need. Why can’t human beings create a society that operates in this way?

        Of course it might take many generations perhaps, several hundred years of social transformation, to transform human nature in this fashion. Isn’t this possible?

        Faith, there are many people who write on this website, including yourself, who seem to profess high moral values of human sharing ,love and cooperation as part of a search for a better world. These represent very lofty goals. For those of us who dream of such things: are we just human mutations that run counter to the true genetically based and inherently selfish nature of human beings? The defenders of capitalism would most definitely have us believe this is true.

        “I wonder about the causal relationship between poverty and “mental illness” – which comes first and why.”

        Of course they both interpenetrate with each other, but I would place more emphasis on the environment in which human beings live. Poverty creates more overall stress on the human mind and spirit. The stress of daily survival, the higher instances of various forms of trauma, poor nutrition, and the overall sense of powerlessness and the inability to control or predict what may occur in their environment- all this would naturally push human beings beyond their limits of psychological tolerance.

        The symptoms that get labeled as “mental illness” or “addictions” are actually coping mechanisms (often quite creative) that are usually very effective in the short term but unfortunately they sometimes get stuck in the “ON” position and then over time turn into self-defeating and socially unacceptable behaviors.


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  6. Indeed most people who have mental health diagnosis are the poor. Money is a great buffer against mental distress. It’s often possible to flee your persecutors with money but much more difficult without.

    There is a whole field of research on how the bigger the difference between the rich and poor in any country the larger number of social problems (crime, drug addiction, alchololism, mental health problems).

    Great article, the idea that those with most mental distress in a family are the ones with the least money is certainly interesteing and something I shall consider and measure against my experience in the next few days.

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  7. Thanks Faith Richard Lookaround and John! I agree that being poor can aggravate stress and all kinds of health issues (of course!)…It can also make people more vulnerable to being dominated/labeled/ostracized by others and called mentally ill. Subtle distinction-people are more likely to be called mentally ill vs. people are more likely to experience the symptoms of trauma and stress, Of course these 2 can go hand in hand, and often do, yet often times it is the power imbalances themselves that are the root cause of these symptoms. Of course power imbalances affect every other aspect of life, so it is hard to isolate them from anything else…though I was addressing these power imbalances as being the root cause of labeling. They are why anyone feels the entitlement to label anyone else. Thanks everyone for reading and for your comments. Thanks Richard for fleshing out the economics! It’s comforting to know that I got my point across about that at least to some, although I didn’t explain it thoroughly in the article as you do here. 🙂

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  8. Thanks for this very interesting and helpful post. Perhaps one way to think about power is as a sort of fractal (a geometric pattern that recurs at multiple scales). Power relationships occur in couples, families, communities, countries, the world. So, as others have suggested, it’s entirely possible to be wealthy, to have power in one way, but to be oppressed in personal relationships and so disempowered and vulnerable. Of course, the poor can get hit at both societal and familial levels, so I expect are, on average, more vulnerable. But definitely there can be great suffering among the wealthy, as others have said. I’d even go so far as to say that, in some important sense, even the dominant (socially and familially) are actually ill when they are…dominant and cause suffering or trauma. Causing suffering in others is hardly a mark of a joyous life or, I would argue, even of “sanity” (whatever that is!).

    To give my own personal-familial take on this… My family is nicely nonconformist and has been downwardly mobile for three or four generations. “We” used to be loaded to the gills. My great-grandparents had an estate with 27 servants. My grandfather was abusive, certainly emotionally and I’m quite convinced sexually, as well. He also suffered greatly, there is no question about this. We don’t know if he killed himself or if my great-grandmother killed him (I suspect the latter, related to sexual abuse of my grandmother.) Whatever the particulars, my grandmother was a deeply traumatized woman and she became the family matriarch and contolled all the money. She in turn caused great trauma among her children, especially her daughters, one of whom was my mother. Though I believe she also loved them as best she could given her own deep wounds.

    My father (now to the other side of the family) was by all objective accounts a privileged, dominant white male. He also was deeply wounded, in part because his own father was a horribly depressed alcholic who, by the way, given the audience here…received ETC in the 50s when, I gather, it was a pretty awful business. To really round it out nicely, my father was fired at the age of 50 from Smith, Kline, and French, now SmithKline-Glaxo (and as the V.P. of Marketing, no less!). So clearly, in terms of objective roles vis. mental illness, about as bad a guy as you can get. But he was fired because, as he sadly admitted to me many years later, he “just wasn’t up to it.” I finally realized, after his death, that he was simply too decent a man to thrive in such an awful environment. He was a deeply decent man who was wounded and caught, yes, in a capitalist system. (During the war he was a pilot and flew in the Ploesti raids, which I understand were horiffic. He was brave and calm beyond call, won the distinguished flying cross; so context is everything, and capitalism is just a lousy context, while common cause for a purpose is a good one.)

    And lastly, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I am definitely the poorest of my siblings and one of the poorest among my 21 cousins. Not that I’m starving, but no European vacations for me, thank you. And while I wish I had some more money, I would trade places. Most of the ones with money are rather crippled, as far as I can see. And I have, in my sixth decade (oh, that does hurt!) finally started to learn what love and joy actually are and what they mean. Life is not a bed of roses, but I shudder to think where I’d be if I had had a “smoth” road to conventional success.

    None of which is at all to argue against the view of power given here or the idea that economic status and capitalism are hugely important. I don’t see what I’ve written as a counter-argument at all, just as filling in something others have already mentioned. Perhaps it comes down to trauma, and the fact that people are traumatized when they lack power…and power comes in many different forms.

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  9. Let me also add that I am fully on the anti-capitalist wagon, lest what I wrote above give the impression that I think the suffering of the wealthy is somehow equivalent to the domination and suffering of the poor.

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    • Looking at this a day later I am struck by the juxtaposition of complexity and subtlety of the overall issue and my simplification into categories like “the poor” and “the wealthy.” We do have to use categories and they always simplify, but as with “mental illness” we seem to need new language, or at least more careful use of what we’ve got.

      I also want to say how very helpful it is that this site and this post in particular are so aware of social and political-economic context. I teach political-economy to environmental studies students and they all have such an embedded separation of the psychological and the social. A divide that so badly needs to be bridged, from both ends, and these discussions are a great help.

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  10. Thanks Danny! I appreciate you sharing some details about your family. What you do here is a good example of what we all would benefit from doing: looking at each situation for what it is rather than labeling and diagnosing people and referring to them without context. The more we can understand about ALL of the socio-political context around a person and their family and place in the world, the safer we are from seeing ourselves as sick individuals. “Sick individuals” always reflect sick communities, yet the more we are willing to look at and unravel things, the more we can learn and liberate ourselves, and others in our COMMUNAL quest for better and deeper health.

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