Monday, October 6, 2008

Psychiatric Terror!

While looking for books for my first honors paper last week, I found this book “Psychiatric Terror – How Soviet Psychiatry Is Used to Suppress Dissent”. Exciting! As you may have guessed, this tome is about how the Soviet government has misused psychiatrists and mental hospitals to suppress political dissent. In my opinion, with which the book agrees, psychiatry is in many ways the most dangerous field of medicine. One pill can change the chemical make up of your brain and thus your entire personality; the potential to misuse this power is profound. 

The book begins by defining the parameters of psychiatry – or rather – pointing out that the parameters of psychiatry are rather ill defined. Furthermore, the very definition of mental illness has changed over time and there is still no general consensus on it. For example, homosexuality was in the handbook of mental illnesses until the 1970’s. And there are some professionals who declare it was only stricken because of political pressure. See how impossible it is to come to any sort of consensus? Anyway, how does this apply to Russia?

While the book explains that there has been widespread misuse of mental diagnostics, no where else has it been a systematic government policy to use psychiatry to suppress political dissent. Basically, whatever other regimes can do, Russia can do better. “With the development of various modes of dissent by Soviet citizens in the 1960s, reports began to emerge that substantial numbers of human-rights activists, nationalists, religious believers, and would-be emigrants, almost all mentally healthy in the eyes of their families and friends, were being declared insane by the psychiatrists and thereupon confined compulsorily for indeterminate periods to psychiatric hospitals.” 

It has struck me how similar Russia’s methods are to Spain’s during the Inquisition. In Russia political dissidents were declared insane, and in Spain they were declared heretics. It seems that even as we learn history to avoid repeating it, history finds new and interesting ways to repeat itself. So, how did all this get started?

It would seem apparent that our collective idea of mental illness is influenced by the cultural norms of our society. In Russia, these cultural norms were dictated by two primary sources – the Church and the government. In fact, monasteries were the original haven for the insane in Russia. Later, a ruling by Peter the Great transferred this responsibility to psychiatric institutions. At least, that was the theory. He didn’t actually develop any mental hospitals during his reign, but I guess he got the ball rolling. 

Eventually Russia took its health services up a few notches, and everything was going dandy. Then things got really interesting when some administrative reform created local government councils. These councils were responsible for overseeing health services. Put the government in charge of who they call crazy? Can you even imagine if we gave that power to the democrats and the republicans? I think Sarah Palin is a real sweetheart, but if Obama wins, her ass will be locked up for sure. 

Anyway, I don’t want to make this blog tediously long. So basically, you’ve got a short history of Russian psychiatry. It was religious, then medicinal, and then came under the jurisdiction of government. Then the government began to misuse it in the same way the Church, or any strong armed, power hungry, pseudo-idealistic machine has used its power anywhere; to impose its version of societal norms on everyone else. Anyway, isn’t it crazy how they run things over in the Middle East? We should do something about that. 

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