From autism to anorexia, people with mental illnesses or neurodivergent brains have long experienced stigma. The extent of what they endure depends on their culture—for example, some Nepalis are placed in restraints, and some Americans are incarcerated when they should be in treatment—but for centuries, humans have placed less value on humans who need more help. In fact, mental illness categories were first invented in Europe during the industrial revolution, to separate those who were not productive workers.
“We’ve long idealized the autonomous individual, dignified those who produce the most capital, and stigmatized those who produce the least,” writes anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker. In the fascinating and illuminating Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, Grinker explores the origins of this stigmatization.
Much of how Americans think about mental illness stems from the traumas of war and our nation’s woeful response to troops’ needs. At the beginning of World War II, the U.S. Army only had 35 psychiatrists, most of whom were doctors with minimal training in mental health. In 1973, Vietnam veterans began lobbying for more attention to their psychological needs, as they experienced homelessness, substance use disorder and depression.
Yet even as society began recognizing mental illness as a real issue, there remained significant controversy about how to treat it. Grinker recalls the grim midcentury period when a neurologist in Washington, D.C., performed thousands of lobotomies by inserting an ice pick into patients’ eye sockets. His patients included Rosemary Kennedy, who was institutionalized for the remainder of her life after this surgery.
Pharmaceuticals have, of course, helped individuals with mental illness live fulfilling and stable lives, and Grinker explores how use of drugs and therapy has evolved over time. His compassion shines through in this meticulously researched and carefully written book, a passionate call for humans to think about how we view those with mental illness. “Of course, it is impossible to end stigma completely—every society can find something to demean and marginalize,” Grinker writes. “But we can still resist, name, mute, and shape it. Stigma is not a thing but a process, and we can change its course.”