Professor explains history of mental illness stigma in latest book

An author and professor spoke about his latest book on stigma associated with mental illness Wednesday.

Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology, human sciences and international affairs who specializes in psychological anthropology, discussed his new book, “Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Sarah Wagner, an associate professor of anthropology and international affairs, moderated the discussion, which was part of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Book Launch Series.

The first part of the book deals with capitalism, the second part with wars and the third part with present attitudes surrounding mental illness, Grinker said.

In case you missed the event, here were the main topics of discussion:

Grinker’s family history
He said he wrote the book because he has seen the struggle through his daughter’s life since her autism diagnosis in 1994, a period when people viewed it as a “horrible tragedy.” He said the stigma around mental illness has historically caused people to keep their illnesses secretive.

Grinker said his book is “overly ambitious” because it covers three centuries of mental illnesses relating to his family history, though he said he picked key moments and experiences to chronicle to be coherent in his storytelling.

Grinker’s father and grandfather were both famous names in American psychiatry, and his marriage to a psychiatrist led him even closer to the field, he said.

“To some extent, this book was a way for me to tell family stories and perhaps personally also to try and integrate myself into it, because I did disappoint my family tremendously by choosing a field other than psychiatry,” he said.

Wars and mental illness
Grinker said he attempts to balance his anti-war stance with the benefits of how wars have facilitated new ideas, work and cultural products like arts and fictional works. Wars ultimately led to new methods of treatment and research around mental illness, he said.

He said mental illnesses as a result of war, like post-traumatic stress disorder, enabled people to think about mental illness outside of an asylum. This allowed many to realize that mental illnesses were not a sign of weakness but a situation for normal people under abnormal circumstances, Grinker added.

“There is value in a medical diagnosis,” Grinker said. “And it is that diagnoses drive treatments, diagnoses drive interventions, diagnoses drive insurance coverage, and so we have to balance our obsession with coming up with new disease categories with the fact that they actually are necessary.”

Mental illness in society today
Grinker said medical terms for mental illness have been less associated with shame in today’s society and are becoming more “colloquially” integrated into daily conversations.

“I think when somebody says ‘I’m a little OCD,’ it tells us that they know what OCD is,” Grinker said. “It becomes part of our everyday life. No one on this call can say that they don’t know somebody with a mental illness.”

He said today’s society has a “huge umbrella” for people to talk, share and accept others’ mental illness because people are talking about their diagnoses. He said there is an openness among many GW students toward telling people about their experiences with mental illness.

“When it comes to the future of mental health, I would like it to go into a situation in which we continue to do all the incredible neuroscientific research that is going on but don’t lose sight of the person in which we see psychotropic medicines as just one kind of tool in our toolkit and that we don’t give up the effort to have social supports and talk therapy,” he said.

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