In 1843, when the 13 founders of what is now the American Psychiatric Association met to discuss improvements in mental health care delivery, the treatment system they created, and the organization they founded aligned with that era’s racist social/political policies. In this system, Black patients received psychiatric care separately from White patients. Prevailing Black stereotypes in psychiatry included fallacies that patients were hostile, unmotivated for treatment, had primitive character structure (i.e. not psychologically minded), and were child-like. These misconceptions were perpetuated by a now-debunked diagnosis of Drapetomania which was centered around the idea that Black Americans who did not want to be slaves were mentally ill. Early leaders of Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, the first psychiatric care facility in what is now the United States which was founded in 1773, accepted payment for psychiatric care in the form of enslaved people.
Later, the American Psychiatric Association did not speak out against the lynching of African Americans or racial segregation in the nation’s schools and did not voice support for the major civil rights bills of the 1960s.
For all of this past history, the American Psychiatric Association recently apologized for the organization’s behavior. In a statement released on January 18, 2021, the organization said that the “APA Board of Trustees apologizes to its members, patients, their families, and the public for enabling discriminatory and prejudicial actions within the APA and racist practices in psychiatric treatment for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.”
The statement continued by noting that “since the APA’s inception, practitioners have at times subjected persons of African descent and Indigenous people who suffered from mental illness to abusive treatment, experimentation, victimization in the name of ‘scientific evidence,” along with racialized theories that attempted to confirm their deficit status.”
Looking forward, the statement concluded by saying that “the APA apologizes for our contributions to the structural racism in our nation and pledges to enact corresponding anti-racist practices. We commit to working together with members and patients in order to achieve the social equality, health equity, and fairness that all human beings deserve. We hope this apology will be a turning point as we strive to make the future of psychiatry more equitable for all.”