Racism, mental illness and the limits of diagnosis

hate_knuckles.jpgThe Washington Post reports that a group led by psychologist Edward Dunbar are pushing to get extreme prejudice, such as intense racism or homophobia, diagnosable as a mental illness.

It may seem a little ridiculous to medicalise what are essentially extreme opinions, but the move is interesting for what it says about psychiatric diagnosis in general. In particular, it cuts to the very idea of what defines a mental disorder.

For example, the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia are based around two ideas:

The first is that there are behaviours and experiences present that are atypical or culturally anomalous (e.g. ‘hearing voices’ or delusions), the second is that the disorder involves some form of disability – in the case of schizophrenia, the criteria specify social or occupational dysfunction.

It could be argued that extreme racism could involve both. Extreme racism is indeed uncommon, and in today’s multicultural society, might involve a significant social deficit if contact with other races or cultures is consistently avoided or becomes distressing.

In fact, considering that about 11% of healthy adults score above the average of delusional inpatients on measures of delusional thinking, it could be argued that extreme racism (at least in some countries) might be more atypical than the sort of beliefs that are typically diagnosed as signs of mental disorder.

In other words, it’s quite hard to refute the idea that extreme racism isn’t a mental disorder within the general philosophy of the current diagnostic system.

This highlights the social relativity of the diagnostic system, which you might either use to argue for the inclusion of a new diagnosis of ‘racist disorder’, or, perhaps, more realistically, to draw attention to the fact that the current system does not adequately define mental pathology in all cases.

Link to article ‘Psychiatry Ponders Whether Extreme Bias Can Be an Illness’.

One Comment

  1. Theresa42
    Posted December 15, 2005 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    “the social relativity of the diagnostic system”
    Indeed. What always makes me giggle is the DSM definition of delusion >>
    “A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g. it is not an article of religious faith).”
    So, a ‘false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality’ held by the group is ok? That is NOT a delusion??


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