November 18, 2023

Content warning: This post mentions psychiatric institutionalization, police violence, rape, and racism.

It’s not insignificant that in the first chapter of Britney Spear’s memoir, she writes about the institutionalization of her grandmother. Britney Spears’ conservatorship of 13 years recently ended, but the threat of institutionalization and psychiatric coercion has always haunted her, and indeed, has always hovered over any woman who has defied social norms or pissed off the wrong men. That’s why it was not at all surprising that on a stage, just a few days after the release of The Woman in Me, Timbaland said Justin Timberlake should have “put a muzzle on that girl,” and the audience laughed.

Another legendary artist, the late Sinead O’Connor, was also haunted by the threat of institutionalization from a very young age. In Ireland, tens of thousands of women were sent to the Magdalene Laundries, where they were not only incarcerated, but subject to abuse and forced labor. As O’Connor’s former music teacher recounts in the documentary film, Nothing Compares, “Very often… they had been raped by maybe the local priest, the doctor, the father, or some pillar of society. They had to pay the price and were locked away for their whole lives.”

At the age of 13, Sinead O’Connor was sent to live in a Catholic boarding school for girls, which was housed next to one of the laundries. In the film, she recounted that “[The nun] sent me to sleep in the hospice part of the laundry as punishment a couple of times, to remind me that if I didn’t behave myself, I was going to end up like these women.”

Because the Catholic institutions that ran these asylums still hold their records in secrecy, there are no public records of the women who died there. They were effectively erased from history.

In 2007, as Britney Spears suffered increasing abuse and exploitation from the media, the public, and the people in her circle — the people that she thought she could trust — it’s not surprising that it erupted in behavior that seemed irrational to the public at the time. Just as society derided Sinead O’Connor as “the crazy baldheaded woman” and effectively disappeared her from American airwaves after she ripped apart a photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live as a protest against child abuse, the press speculated that Spears was having a “mental health crisis” when she shaved her hair. But as we now know about the exploitative and misogynistic people surrounding Spears, it seems a bit too flattening to describe what Spears was experiencing as a mental health crisis.

When Stokely Carmichael declared, “I think it’s a cop-out when people talk about the individual,” he was enjoining us to look beyond individualizing explanations of people’s confounding behaviors, and to rather examine critically the “established and respected forces in the society” that dictate the boundaries of acceptable, even “reasonable,” behavior. When Britney Spears shaved her head, the public labeled her “crazy” and no one thought to question the behaviors of the people around her or to think that maybe Spears was demolishing an instrument of her objectification.

As Jonathan Metzl describes in his book, The Protest Psychosis, the history of psychiatry has, since its inception, been one of disappearing and silencing women, and later, Black men, who had stories to tell. As Metzl writes, the social upheavals of the civil rights movement provided white society with the rationale to help schizophrenia evolve in the public consciousness from a disease of mostly white patients who were considered “generally harmless to society” to a “violent social disease” that was primarily assigned to Black men.

Henceforth, psychiatry became a potent state weapon of social control, as schizophrenia became synonymous with Black protesters, “whose symptoms of social belligerence required chemical management.” The effects of this psychiatrization and criminalization of Black protest continue to reverberate through the present, as witnessed in the mass incarceration of Black men and the epidemic of police killings of Black men and disabled Black people, which are a direct consequence of mass indoctrination to viewing Blackness and mental illness as threats.

When Stokely Carmichael entreated us to look at the “established and respected forces in the society,” he could have easily been talking about modern-day psychiatry. As Caralena Peterson writes in Teen Vogue, women are diagnosed and labeled more than men, because “their challenges to the status quo seem more threatening.” For the same reason, Black men are more likely to be institutionalized than white men, and people in the LGBTQ+ community are diagnosed more often than cis-hetero men. If white men determine the status quo, it follows that white men’s behaviors will be less constrained by the status quo.

I don’t identify as male, but I’ve been privy to male spaces for long enough to know that the reason why men avoid mental health services is not because of stigma per se or appearing weak, which is an oversimplification. It’s because men intuitively know that psychiatry has long been a tool of power and patriarchy – a tool that was meant to be used against disempowered others. The history of psychiatry is well documented as a history of white men sitting around a table and categorizing “others.” Asking a man to use psychiatric services would be like asking if he wants to stay in the prison with the very people he has harmed and holds captive.

The white men who do get institutionalized are often men who also have stories to tell, like Adrian Schoolcraft, who was forcibly taken to a psychiatric hospital after exposing racist stop-and-frisk practices in the New York City Police Department.

To be clear, our distress as marginalized and traumatized people is real, and mental health services can absolutely be helpful, especially in communities affected by trauma, disinvestment, and racism. We mustn’t forget, however, that while a judge had ultimate authority to place Spears under conservatorship, it was a psychiatrist’s assessment that fortified the judge’s decision and enabled the injustice perpetrated against Spears and countless others in America who have been forcibly institutionalized, drugged, or placed under conservatorship.

We need mental health services. But until psychiatry fully reckons with its long history of racial, political, and gendered power dynamics, it will never be a safe option for men who intuitively understand its carceral and punitive design nor for women and other marginalized people who continue to be harmed by its carceral and punitive practices.

Please read about Dawn Dziuba’s case here.


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