“An agile history…anecdotally rich…a highly readable, thoughtful study of how we perceive and talk about mental illness—with luck, ever more respectfully.”

A broad-ranging history of psychiatry, examining trends in how mental diseases are increasingly less stigmatized as we acknowledge that so often “the sufferer is innocent.”

Even today, English offers a rich lexicon of stigmatizing terms in the semantic domain of mental illness—one bit of evidence, writes cultural anthropologist Grinker, that “stigma isn’t in our biology; it’s in our culture.” Given its cultural locus, we can alter our behavior to use less alienating language, and, as the author illustrates, in some instances we have, especially regarding other illnesses. As we learned about HIV/AIDS, for example, “the fear and secretiveness…began to decrease,” even as obituaries now acknowledge the once-whispered term cancer and even suicide. Grinker, a professor of anthropology and international affairs, comes from a long line of psychiatrists and was brought up to believe that everyone suffers from some sort of mental illness at some point in life. Given its universality, the “discredited identity” that often accompanies mental illness is misplaced. The author offers an agile history of mental health and efforts to control it. For example, the Puritans of New England “believed that anyone without reason” needed to be controlled as if an animal, a category that included not just the mentally ill, but also babies. It was not until the 19th century that the realization became widespread that the mentally ill could be treated rather than merely punished. Interestingly, Grinker observes in his anecdotally rich narrative, many advances in psychiatric treatment came by way of military medicine, with so many soldiers shattered by the horrors of conflict. Indeed, it was the U.S. Army’s medical manual for mental disorders that formed the basis of the first DSM in 1952, a volume that represented “a marriage of military experience and psychoanalytical theory.”

A highly readable, thoughtful study of how we perceive and talk about mental illness—with luck, ever more respectfully.

– Kirkus Reviews

“Impactful…enlightening….this book will fascinate anyone drawn to the subjects mental illness, psychology, and psychiatry.”

Grinker (Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism), an anthropology professor at George Washington University, examines modern ideas around mental illness in this impactful book. He proposes that “mental illness and stigma were born together” of capitalism, under which the mentally ill were understood in opposition to the “ideal modern worker.” As a result, up until WWI, the insane were considered unfit for society; the war, however, exposed the general population to the idea that even brave men could be diagnosed with problems such as shell shock or neurasthenia. Grinker then looks at the development of medical means for treating mental illness over the 20th century, resulting in both effective and ineffective measures, such as, respectively, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies. He also includes some family history—his grandfather was psychoanalyzed by Freud and later became a famous psychoanalyst himself. Readers sympathetic to Grinker’s concern for the mentally ill will find an enlightening brief for the positions that “both normality and abnormality are fictional lands” and that the idea of a mental health spectrum leads to more humane care than strictly drawn divisions between the mentally healthy and unhealthy.

This book will fascinate anyone drawn to the subjects of mental illness, psychology, and psychiatry. (Jan.)

– Publisher’s Weekly

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