On being sane in insane places

Building communities of care

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  • Published 20200204
  • ISBN: 9781925773804
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

I’VE BEEN THINKING about how my body inhabits place and how it changes – fluctuating between comfort and pain – depending on the state of my illness. While reading Chris Kraus in bed, I’m caught by an obscure reference to a study where people who are not experiencing mental illness are admitted to psychiatric institutions. The idea feels like a transformation I need to seek out, one that unpicks the very conception of mental illness. Could this study answer questions that have been bubbling beneath my skin for months? I spend half an hour searching for it, my body filled with an odd urgency until it is before me: ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’, published in 1973. The first line reads: ‘If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?’ It’s a surprise, finding this kind of language in an academic study: I’ve spent years reading medical journals in search of answers about my own obscure diagnosis, so I’m used to both absolutes and qualifications. But I’m still left with questions: how does place influence our minds? And if sanity and insanity do exist, how can we be sane in an insane place?

In ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’, psychologist David Rosenhan and seven of his friends and colleagues gained admission into psychiatric institutions across America by saying, falsely, that they had experienced auditory hallucinations. By Rosenhan’s instructions, the participants said something along the lines of, ‘I am hearing a voice. It is saying thud.’ The ‘pseudopatients’, as the study called them, then reported that they felt well, experienced no more hallucinations and behaved in a way that most would consider ‘normal’. Nonetheless, each pseudopatient spent an average of nineteen days admitted – the lowest was seven days, the highest fifty-two. Six out of seven were diagnosed with schizophrenia and all agreed to take antipsychotics as a condition of their release.

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