Not Broken: Rethinking Psychiatric Labels - By Shaun Riley

Not Broken: Rethinking Psychiatric Labels

Labels as Mechanisms of Control

We are living in a society that has constantly sought to categorize practically every aspect of existence. It should be no surprise then that human beings, as well as the experience of human consciousness have not been spared the rigid and narrow- minded definitions that pervade the mental health system.

As well as being stigmatizing and de-humanizing, labels such as "mental illness," "mental disorder," "emotionally disturbed," or “broken” are mechanisms utilized by social institutions that strive to control and subjugate people who do not conform to the mainstream social mold. By branding people with these negative labels, the social elite keeps people searching for internal manifestations of their problems. Instead of questioning the social insufficiencies that create and perpetuate much of what has come to be known as "mental illness," people are lead to believe that the only way to alleviate their distress is with the use of psychiatric services.

In an article published on the Mad in America website, Bruce Levine states that:

(o)ne reason that there is so little political activism in the United States is that a potentially huge army of anti-authoritarians are being depoliticized by mental illness diagnoses and by attributions that their inattention, anger, anxiety, and despair are caused by defective biochemistry, not by their alienation from a dehumanizing society. These diagnoses and attributions make them less likely to organize democratic movements to transform society.

Labels as Self-Marginalizing

The social movement known as Mad Pride was officially launched in 2000, alongside a book titled Mad Pride: A celebration of mad culture.

Mad Pride activists seek to reclaim traditionally negative and stigmatizing labels, such as "mad," "nutter," "crazy," "lunatic," "maniac," and "psycho," by choosing to take pride in them as a part of “mad culture,” as well as using them to challenge discrimination.

However, it is questionable whether these pejorative labels and their connotations can ever truly be transformed into something positive, as they have become so ingrained within the conscious and sub-conscious of society.

What Mad Pride fails to see is that by perpetuating this language it does a disservice to the people who might reject these labels, or labeling in general. It also furthers the division of people within society by giving the impression that people with a “mental illness” are somehow more “special” than other people, which could potentially lead to further discrimination and stigmatization.

While its aims are respectable, the Mad Pride movement inadvertently promotes marginalization, and perpetuates negative labels associated with “mental illness.”

An End to Labeling

Actions that aim to reform the concept of labeling will do little to liberate people from the social imprisonment of pathological categorizations.

Wolfi Landstreicher explains in The Logic of Submission that:

It seems clear to me that the situationists were pointing out that a real revolutionary rupture would break down the social constraints which underlie so much of what is considered “mental illness” and “emotional disturbance”, freeing people to discover their own meanings and methods of thinking and feeling.

What alternative mental health activists might try to strive for instead is an end to mental illness categorization, while continuing to advocate for social diversity, anti-stigmatization, self-respect (which is different from pride) and the empowerment of people who have been aversely affected by the mental health system.


Landstreicher, Wolfi. No Date. "Against the Logic of Submission." The Anarchist Library. Accessed 10 November 2013.

Levine, Bruce. "Psychiatry’s Oppression of Young Anarchists — and the Underground Resistance." Mad in America (June 16, 2013.) Accessed 10 November 2013.


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