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Are the Young People That Shrinks Label as Disruptive Really Anarchists with a Healthy Resistance to Oppressive Authority?

Many young people diagnosed with mental disorders have acted on their beliefs in ways that threaten authorities.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on May 17, 2013, in “ Mental Health Surveillance Among Children—United States, 2005–2011,” reported: “A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.”

Is there an epidemic of childhood mental illness, or is there a curious revolt? My experience is that many young Americans, feeling helpless, hopeless, bored, scared, misunderstood, and uncared about, ultimately rebel; but given their wherewithal, their rebellion is often disorganized, futile, self-destructive, and appears to mental health professionals as a disorder or illness. Underlying many of psychiatry's diagnoses is the experience of helplessness, hopelessness, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization. Does society, especially for young people, promote:

  • Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
  • Empowerment—or helplessness?
  • Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
  • Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
  • Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom?

Emotional and behavioral problems are often natural human reactions to a society that cares little about: 1) autonomy—self-direction and the experience of potency; 2) community—strong bonds that provide for economic security and emotional satisfaction; and 3) humanity—the variety of ways of being human, the variety of satisfactions, and the variety of negative reactions to feeling controlled rather than understood. Young anarchists are especially sensitive to American society’s absence of autonomy, community, and humanity—and this can result in overwhelming anxiety and depression.

While giant pharmaceutical corporations promote psychiatry’s authority as a vehicle for increased drug sales, the whole of the corporate state supports psychiatry so as to maintain the status quo. In the old Soviet Union, political dissidents were diagnosed by psychiatrists as mentally ill, then hospitalized and drugged. Even more effective for those at the top of the hierarchy is what now occurs in the United States: diagnosing and treating anti-authoritarians before they have reached political consciousness and before they have created communities of resistance.

One reason that there is so little political activism in the United States is that a potentially huge army of anti-authoritarians are being depoliticized by mental illness diagnoses and by attributions that their inattention, anger, anxiety, and despair are caused by defective biochemistry, not by their alienation from a dehumanizing society. These diagnoses and attributions make them less likely to organize democratic movements to transform society.

In the early 19th century in the United States, a network of secret routes, conductors, and safe houses were used by African Americans to escape from slavery. This network was commonly called the Underground Railroad, organized by runaway slaves, free African-American abolitionists, and white abolitionists. Today, communities of ex-psychiatric patients (see MindFreedom and the Icarus Project) are helping young anti-authoritarians resist their mental illness labeling and coercive treatments. There are also a handful of mental health professional dissident organizations that, while not promoting the social philosophy of anarchism, do oppose dehumanizing diagnoses and coercive treatments (for example, the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry).

While there are career risks for modern-day mental health professional dissidents, these are small risks compared with those taken by slavery abolitionists. So as a mental health professional, I find it quite embarrassing that there are so few professionals involved in the current resistance. In American history, there have been several shameful periods where groups—including Native Americans, homosexuals and assertive women—have been pathologized, dehumanized and given oppressive treatments by mental health professionals in an attempt to alter their basic being. Today’s psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors would do well to recognize that historians do not look kindly on those professionals who participated in institutional dehumanization and oppression.