Psychiatry Keeps Anti-Authoritarians Off Democracy Battlefields


levine-titleMany young people labeled with psychiatric diagnoses are essentially anti-authoritarians who are pained and angered by coercion, unnecessary rules, and illegitimate authority. Anti-authoritarians question whether an authority is legitimate before taking that authority seriously. When they assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority—sometimes aggressively and sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes wisely and sometimes not.

Teenagers often have an affinity for anti-authoritarianism, but the majority of them do not act on their beliefs in a manner that would make them vulnerable to reprisals by school, police, and mental health authorities. However, young people diagnosed with mental disorders—perhaps owing to some combination of integrity, fearlessness, and naïvity—often have acted on their anti-authoritarian beliefs in ways that threaten authorities.

A potentially huge army of young anti-authoritarians are being depoliticized by mental illness diagnoses and by attributions that their inattention, anxiety, depression, and disruptiveness are caused by defective biochemistry, not by their alienation from a dehumanizing society. These diagnoses and attributions, leveled at them often before they have an opportunity to gain political consciousness, make them less likely to organize democratic movements to transform society.

Pathologizing Rebellion

A frequently used psychiatric diagnosis for rebellious young people is oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). This so-call “disorder” was created by a committee within the American Psychiatric Association and listed, in 1980, in the APA’s diagnostic manual, the then DSM-III. ODD’s symptoms include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” Since 1980, ODD has become an increasingly popular psychiatric diagnosis for young people, with an increasing number of those diagnosed being drugged for this “condition.”

In 2012, the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that between 1993-2009, there was a seven-fold increase of children 13 years and younger being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs (which include Haldol, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Abilify, and Seroquel) and that nonpsychotic “disruptive behavior disorders”—which includes ODD—were the most common diagnoses in children medicated with antipsychotics, accounting for 63 percent of those medicated. Antipsychotics are extremely tranquilizing and subduing and they are among the most dangerous psychiatric drugs, causing obesity, diabetes, and “life-shortening adverse effects” (reported in the American Family Physician in 2010).

Along with ODD, psychiatry also considers attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to be a “disruptive behavioral disorder.” Psychologist Russell Barkley, one of mainstream mental health’s leading ADHD authorities, states that those afflicted with ADHD have deficits in what he calls “rule-governed behavior” as they are less responsive to rules of authorities and less sensitive to positive or negative consequences. It is extremely common for young people to have a “dual diagnosis” of AHDH and ODD.

The question for society is do we really want to diagnose and medicate all young people with “deficits in rule-governed behavior”? By today’s standards, Saul Alinsky, the legendary organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, would have certainly been diagnosed with ODD. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said, “I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.”

Not only have many of the worlds’s most influential activists had “deficits in rule-governed behavior,” so have many of the word’s great artists and scientists. Albert Einstein as a youth would have likely received an ADHD diagnosis, and maybe an ODD one as well; as he didn’t pay attention to his teachers, failed his college entrance examinations twice, and had difficulty holding jobs.
Many young anti-authoritarians who are not disruptive are diagnosed with anxiety disorder or depression. Often a major pain of their lives that fuels their anxiety and/or depression is fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalized. At the same time, they fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cost them their self-respect. This conundrum for these young anti-authoritarians results in painful anxiety that can fuel depression.

Sascha Altman DuBrul is the anarchist author of Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer. DuBrul, several times diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has lived in rebel communities in Mexico, Central America, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, worked on community farms, participated in Earth First! road blockades, and demonstrated on the streets in the Battle for Seattle. Dubrul reports that many of his anti-authoritarian and anarchist friends also have been diagnosed with mental illness.

While DuBrul and his friends have political consciousness, my experience is that most rebellious young people diagnosed with mental disorders do not, and so they become excited to hear that there is an actual political ideology that encompasses their point of view. They immediately become more whole after they discover that answering “yes” to the following questions does not mean that they suffer from a mental disorder but instead have a social philosophy called anarchism:

  • Do you hate coercion and domination?
  • Do you love freedom?
  • Are you willing to risk punishment to gain freedom?
  • Do you instinctively distrust large, impersonal, and distant authorities?
  • Do you think people should organize themselves rather than submit to authorities?
  • Levine-2Do you dislike being either an employer or an employee?
  • Do you smile after reading the Walt Whitman quote “Obey little, resist much?”

Anti-Authoritarians Diagnosed With Mental Illness

In my career as a psychologist, I have talked with hundreds of people previously diagnosed by other professionals with ODD, ADHD, anxiety disorder, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric illnesses. I am struck by how many of those diagnosed are essentially anti-authoritarian, and how those professionals who have diagnosed them are not.

Gaining acceptance into graduate school or medical school and achieving a PhD or MD and becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist means jumping through many hoops, all of which require much behavioral and attentional compliance to authorities, even to those authorities that one lacks respect for. The selection and socialization of mental health professionals tends to breed out many anti-authoritarians.

Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities. Thus, for many MDs and PhDs, people different from them who reject this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one.

I have found that most psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are not only extraordinarily compliant with authorities, but also unaware of the magnitude of their obedience. The anti-authoritarianism of their young patients can create enormous anxiety for these professionals and that anxiety fuels diagnoses and treatments.

When young anti-authoritarians are labeled with a psychiatric diagnosis, they get ensnared in a trap. Authoritarians, by definition, demand unquestioning obedience, and so any resistance to their diagnosis and treatment causes professionals to feel out of control. This often results in their labeling that patient “non-compliant with treatment,” increasing the severity of their diagnosis and upping their tranquilizing medications. All this can be enraging for anti-authoritarian patients, sometimes so much it makes them appear quite crazy.

The Resistance

In the history of American psychiatry, there have been several shameful periods where groups—including Native Americans, assertive women, and homosexuals— have been medicalized, patho- logized, dehumanized, and meted out oppressive treatments in an attempt to alter their basic being.

In 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) infiltrated a conference of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) where a film was demonstrating the use of electroshock treatment to decrease same-sex attraction. GLF members shouted “torture” and seized microphones to scold psychiatrists. Gay activists effectively forced the APA to abolish homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973.

However, while gay Americans were able to organize and liberate themselves from psychiatric oppression, such organization and liberation is far more difficult for minors. And so anti-authoritarian young people need help from adults.

Levine-1Today, communities of ex-psychiatric patients—for example, MindFreedom and the Icarus Project—are helping young anti-authoritarians resist their mental illness labeling and coercive treatments. It has been my experience that many rebellious young people labeled with psychiatric disorders don’t reject all authorities, simply those they’ve assessed to be illegitimate ones, which just happens to be a great deal of society’s authorities. Often, these young people are craving a relationship with mutual respect in which they can receive help navigating the authoritarian society around them.

There are at least two ways that mental health professionals can join the resistance. One, they can speak out about the political role of mental health institutions in maintaining the status quo in society. Two, they can depathologize and repoliticize rebellion in their clinical practice, which includes helping young anti-authoritarians navigate an authoritarian society without becoming self-destructive or destructive to others, and helping families build respectful, non-coercive relationships.

If a young anti-authoritarian is dragged by parents into my office for failing to take school seriously or challenging illegitimate authorities but is otherwise excited by learning, I tell parents that I do not believe that there is anything essentially “disordered” with their child. This sometimes gets me fired, but not all that often. It is my experience that while many parents may think that believing a society can function without coercion is naïve, they agree that this belief is not a mental illness, and they’re open to suggestions that will create greater harmony and joy within their family. I help parents understand that their attempt to coerce their child to take school seriously not only has failed—that’s why they’re in my office—but will likely continue to fail. And increasingly, the pain of their failed coercion will be compounded by the pain of their child’s resentment, which will destroy their relationship with their child and create even more family pain.

While there are career risks for mental health professional dissidents, these are relatively small ones, and so as a psychologist, I find it embarrassing that there are so few professionals involved in the current resistance. Today’s psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors would do well to recognize that historians do not look kindly on mental health professionals who in the past participated in the oppression of Native Americans, assertive women, homosexuals, and others. Modern mental health professionals who pathologize and drug rebellious young people may want to consider the strong possibility that they too will be on the wrong side of history.

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Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His latest books are Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite. His website is www.brucelevine.net.