I think nowadays more and more people are aware that sexism connects with and is compounded by other factors such as racism, economic insecurity, homophobia etc. However few people are aware of the links between misogyny and the psychiatric complex. I’d go a step further and say a majority of people are reluctant to examine or criticise the psychiatric complex at all. However this ignorance is harming the most vulnerable among us at their lowest points, and threatens to affect all of us should we experience a mental health issue (as an estimated 1 in 4 people will every year). So let’s have a brief look at the relationship between misogyny and the psychiatric complex:
Throughout history psychiatry has been used majorly to uphold societal values. As such the history of psychiatry is entrenched with sexism. The most obvious example of this was the epidemic treatment of ‘hysteria’ in women. Hysteria has been described from the second millennium BC, but it was not until Freud – a man – that it was officially considered an exclusively female disease, though it’s important to note women were disproportionately institutionalised for hysteria for hundreds of years before this. It may surprise you to know that it was not until the DSM-3 (the DSM is the leading book used for the classification and diagnosis of mental disorders) that ‘hysterical neurosis’ was deleted.
The treatment of hysteria can be very generally described as using natural remedies to calm the nervous system until the renaissance period, notably the end of the 16th century. This is also notably where it became considered much more of a ‘female’ disease’. Around this time hysterical women would be treated by a physician interesting their fingers into genital organs to try and produce an orgasm and semen production (which raises serious questions about consent and abuse in the history of psychiatry which still pervade to this day. Some people considered suffering women to be witches or possessed with demons around this time also. For doctors at the time the uterus was their explanation for hysteria in women – claiming it caused them to be psychologically and physiologically inferior.
During the 16th century physicians and philosophers such as Thomas Sydenham, Rene Decartes, and Ambroise Pare started to recognise that hysteria was connected to the brain and other organs also, not just the uterus, but the idea of a uterine, female disease continued. For example, Joseph Raulin in the 1700s suggested hysteria was due to the fumes of big cities, so in theory it could affect both sexes but women were just weaker.
Perhaps the most famous outbreak of hysteria is the Salem witch trials in 1692. Marion Starkey related it to more contemporary events after WW2 with the theory that classic hysteria was actually a reaction to social conflict and restriction, such as the puritanism in Salem. Note she’s the first woman mentioned. Much evidence would support that mental illness and the classification of it is intrinsically tied to the pressures of the world we live in, notably under hyper capitalist values nowadays, so I would not think it too much of a stretch to think that women during these times under such enormous pressure to conform would present symptoms of hysteria. But they were labelled as mad – their individual character was named as the problem, not as a symptom of a societal issue. And they were labelled mad by men.
This general hypothesis of hysteria, especially during this period, seems to make sense in the majority of cases when you consider that women could be committed to mental institutions – which were comparable to jails at the time and arguably still are – by their male relatives simply for not conforming to the standards expected of them. The inhumane conditions in many of these asylums are well documented, and I personally think some treatments could be considered comparable to torture. As Angela Davis so eloquently put it: ‘Studies indicating that women have been even more likely to end up in mental facilities than men suggest that while jails and prisons have been dominant institutions for the control of men, mental institutions have served a similar purpose for women. That is, deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane.’
While psychiatry may have changed – yes, in some ways for the better and in some ways just more palatable to a modern society – its roots cannot be ignored as they are the foundation upon which modern psychiatry is directly built and this harm still exists. Let’s have a look at the current day now, through the lens of BPD diagnosis, aka Borderline Personality Disorder.
Women are disproportionately diagnosed with BPD. There’s a 3:1 female to male ratio in the diagnosis of BPD which is quite pronounced for a mental disorder, and has led to speculation about its cause by professionals. However critics of the diagnosis have gone as far to say it is the modern day version of hysteria – a label extremely loaded with stigma that judges the emotional reactions of women. Think even of the title ‘personality disorder’ – the name itself suggests it is solely an individual issue, a defect of their character, not linked to anything in the outside world.
I write on mental health from a place of personal experience, and I will admit that because of this I am biased in how I view mental illness. There appears to be some research that genetics plays a factor in BPD for example, which would be an individual trait. However I believe it is essential that we also look at how the world as it is is unsuitable for people with that genetic component. Can we answer the question of whether that genetic and neurobiological component would present in the way it does if that individual was not subjected to trauma and systemic pressure? Perhaps not in full. But there is ample evidence that sociocultural factors affect mental illness, and that seems to be so often ignored.
A sociocultural factor could explain why more women are diagnosed with BPD, as they often experience more pressures in the world to conform, and are more likely to be the victims of violence and assault that contributes to trauma in BPD. However the stigma surrounding BPD stemming from its symptoms may explain this too. Hypersexuality for example is a trait of BPD; being sexual as a woman is still less acceptable than being sexual as a man, so for example a woman’s behaviour may be labelled as hypersexual while for a man it’s just seen as a strong expression of his sexuality, or perhaps not even noticed at all. Likewise anger is also a symptom of BPD, and we are much faster to label women as problematic for expressing anger than we are men. So the social misogyny impacts when we start to consider a person’s behaviour as more than just odd, more than just problematic, but actually disordered.
It would be unjust to write this article without drawing attention to the disparity in mental health care between races. Like aforementioned, psychiatry and misogyny are intrinsically linked with other social justice issues. If we ignore this intersectionality we are ignoring the full picture. For example, Black women are more likely to struggle with mental health issues, less likely to get treatment, more likely to be misdiagnosed, and more likely to be sectioned (an example of the criminalisation of mental illness, but that’s a story for another day). In fact detention rates under the Mental Health act during 2017/2018 were four times higher for people in the ‘Black’ or ‘Black British’ groups than those in the ‘White’ group, and 29% of Black/ Black British women experienced a common mental disorder in the past week, higher than for White British women or Other White women. Clearly we can see the link between the pressures and pain of racism to the experience of mental illness in Black women, and their subsequent further incarceration and abuse in the mental health industry. Likewise we can see a mirror image effect in the LGBTQ+ population – almost half of trans people (46 per cent) have thought about taking their own life in the last year, 31 per cent of LGB people who aren’t trans said the same. This is not a stand alone issue.
Another example of misogyny in the psychiatric complex is the recognition of neurodiversity in women and trans people. Early autism research was based on white boys from middle class backgrounds. Outdated tests, and a lack of understanding of how autism presents in other races and genders in the general population still result in late diagnosis or misdiagnosis of women and trans people everywhere. And here seems to be a good time to put all of this information into context – the misogyny in the psychiatric complex damages and ends lives. Whether from the trauma of institutionalisation from stigmatised diagnoses, or the pain of leading a life without understanding or accommodations, individuals and communities suffer every day. As a late diagnosed autistic myself I can attest to how painful it is to grow up being bullied, misunderstood, and confused without any path forward. I can’t imagine how different my life might have been if I had known I was autistic and had the resources to help me and my family as I navigated a world not built for me. And I had it easy!
Yet if we take a look at neurodiversity through the lens of knowledge that gender is a construct, we can see clearly how much the pressures of the world to conform to gender norms affect people. I was taught to be a girl, while autistic. So the way my autistic brain processed that (for lack of a better phrase) was to make me mask so heavily I couldn’t see myself through it all. This is common in those who identify in genders other than male. The world taught me to be a woman and because I learnt to do it, in a system that ignores neurodiverse women, I had no idea how my brain worked. I had no idea who I was, and I was in pain. And to add a little history again, a major leader in the foundation of autism research was Hans Asperger – a man with well associated ties to the eugenics programme of the nazis. Asperger’s and autism aren’t different, but Asperger’s was used to basically say they were more intelligent, and therefore more worthy to society. These messed up roots run deep in all directions.
However, diagnoses aren’t all great. In fact they can be downright damaging in themselves. As mentioned, a BPD diagnosis is highly stigmatised, and disproportionate in women. Having a diagnosis of any mental health issue or neurodiversity can lead to people’s experience being invalidated. If you’re labelled as mad, how can you ever convince someone you are sane? For one it can be very hard to get out of hospital and escape that system if you are committed, and extremely hard to report any abuses taking place there as they often do because concerns can simply be brushed aside as delusional, symptomatic. Any legitimate problems in interpersonal relationships can be labelled as a symptom. Any very real feeling is simply boiled down to a mental illness. Women – already more likely to experience violence – see their diagnosis weaponised against them when they try to report violence; and people with a mental illness are significantly more likely than the general population to experience violence!
The sexism in society and psychiatry doesn’t just adversely affect women and trans people though. It also affects men who are significantly less likely to come forward if experiencing a mental health issue. In 2021 men were three times more likely to commit suicide than women. And much of this can be traced to the stigma of men expressing emotions in fear of being seen as weak (translate: as fear of being seen as expressing a feminine trait). Everyone, including men, are being harmed by the systems men built.
And yes, the modern psychiatric complex was built by men. Built on the foundations of male researchers at a time when women were denied an education, and continuing to be led by men. I’ll end on a story about how the DSM – that book used to diagnose mental illness – was created. The DSM-III was the version of the DSM that formulated how we see and diagnose disorders nowadays. It included innovations such as explicit diagnostic criteria and multidimensional diagnostic systems. But the formulation of it was hardly clear or scientific. Robert Spitzer was appointed editor of the DSM 3 and by his own admission the editorial meetings over six years between 1974-1980 were chaotic. New Yorker’s journalist Alex Spiegel reported that the psychiatrists invited would yell over each other, and the loudest voice tended to win out, while no one took minutes. People would yell out names of new diagnoses and possible checklists for symptoms, and if the cacophony in the room seemed to agree it would be typed out, set in stone. The diagnoses in that book still have very real implications for very real people nowadays, and diagnoses are removed and added in each edition following. It’s not an exact science; it doesn’t centre the lived experience of people.
If you take nothing else from reading this article I hope you remember this – sexism is systematic; it affects all of us in all aspects of our lives. But our distress, our joy, our love and our pain? That’s not just symptomatic of a system, that’s symptomatic of being human.
- NHS, Mental Health Act Statistics, Annual report 2017-2018
- NHS, Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey
- Stonewall UK
- ‘Are prisons obsolete?’ By Angela Y Davis
- ‘The Psychopath Test’ by Ron Jonson