The Difference Between Mental Illness And Healthy Resistance

protestersVia Popular Resistance, psychologist Bruce E. Levine on when questioning authority is seen as a psychiatric disorder:

My experience as a clinical psychologist for almost three decades is that many young people labeled with psychiatric diagnoses are essentially anarchists in spirit who are pained, anxious, depressed, and angered by coercion, unnecessary rules, and illegitimate authority.

An often-used psychiatric diagnosis for children and adolescents is oppositional defiant disorder (ODD); its symptoms include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.”

I have encountered many people who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, and who are now politically conscious anarchists. Teenagers often have an affinity for anti-authoritarianism, but most do not act on their beliefs in a manner that would make them vulnerable to violent reprisals by authorities. However, I have found that many young people diagnosed with mental disorders—perhaps owing to some combination of integrity, fearlessness, and naïvity—have acted on their beliefs in ways that threaten authorities.

My experience is that most rebellious young people diagnosed with mental disorders do not [yet have political consciousness], and so they become excited to hear that there is actual political ideology that encompasses their point of view. They immediately become more whole after they discover that answering “yes” to the following questions does not mean that they suffer from a mental disorder, but instead have a certain social philosophy:

  • Do you hate coercion and domination?
  • Do you love freedom?
  • Are you willing to risk punishments to gain freedom?
  • Do you instinctively distrust large, impersonal and distant authorities?
  • Do you think people should organize themselves rather than submit to authorities?
  • Do you dislike being either an employer or an employee?
  • Do you smile after reading the Walt Whitman quote “Obey little, resist much”?

There are at least two ways that mental health professionals can join the resistance: 1) speak out about the political role of mental health institutions in maintaining the status quo in society; and 2) depathologize and repoliticize rebellion in one’s clinical practice, which includes helping young anarchists navigate an authoritarian society without becoming self-destructive or destructive to others, and helping families build respectful, non-coercive relationships.

9 Comments on "The Difference Between Mental Illness And Healthy Resistance"

  1. Charlie Primero | Jun 23, 2013 at 9:15 am |

    How could anyone ~not~ answer yes to those questions?

    I taught self-defense and restraint techniques to hundreds of psychiatrists working at mental institutions over the course of two decades. On lunch break they always laughed about my DSM-IV diagnosable anarchist mental problems. I laughed at their submissive compliance and rule-worshiping tendencies. One does not earn an M.D. without superior boot-licking skills.

  2. Microhero | Jun 23, 2013 at 10:21 am |

    Well I guess anything out of order can be called a disorder… The question is why it should matter to anyone the labels these assholes keep sticking on people…
    Their power comes from the fact that you accept the label and that it is a bad thing,..

    What I mean is any relation of power is a dialectic one. Sometimes being opressed is not a passive state..

    I advise Etienne De La Boetie: “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” or some of Michel Foucault’s essays on the mechanics of power, as good reading on this subject..

  3. I imagine this is the kind of thing a recruiter would say.

  4. InfvoCuernos | Jun 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm |

    “Do you think people should organize themselves…” when does that ever happen? A leader always emerges, and a lot of times that leader is a govt. plant. You ever wonder at how seemingly “grass roots” movements end up getting hijacked(I’m looking at you tea party)? Its crazy to think that most protest organizations are headed by undercover feds, but there it is.

    • Rhoid Rager | Jun 23, 2013 at 5:39 pm |

      I don’t agree with this. The opinion that a ‘leader naturally emerges’ is so often mindlessly regurgitated without careful contemplation of the _conditions_ for making a leader–willing submission by ‘subordinates’. But to reword this, I’d have to say that ‘being’ a ‘leader’ is situational in nature, and it is precisely the stuffy rules and regulations and laws we are convinced to believe are objectively true outside ourselves that make ‘leaders’ seem as though they ‘command’. ‘Leaders’ ’emerge’ because humans, these days, are not accustomed to thinking about the physical reality in which they live. We are constantly swimming in a dreamworld of reifications piled on top of reifications.

      Anarchists, such as Bakunin and Kropotkin for example, have often spoken of the continuity of everything–wealth is not a result of individual efforts, but collective cooperation; knowledge is not a result of individual brilliance, but collective trial-and-error; modern infrastructure and technology are not sui generis, but born out of the labour of countless others that came before us. Such is the same for ‘leadership’, it rests on the cooperative spirit that instinctively dwells in all of us. ‘Mental disorders’ associated with being rebellious arise from an instinctual understanding that our own cooperative tendencies–our very sociality–is being used against us by an anonymous force that exists all around us.

      • InfvoCuernos | Jun 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm |

        Well, Adam, you can disagree with it all you want. What you are disagreeing with is nothing less than primate behavior and no number of anarchists is going to change that. Even in very egalitarian systems like the Native Americans had prior to Columbus, they elected chiefs to speak for the people. Leaders happen because only so much would ever get done through general consensus. Even people of similar mind will eventually disagree. I hate to say it, but anarchy only exists as a highly artificial and temporary construct. I’m not sure about this “cooperative spirit” that you speak of, but I do know very well that it is Man’s nature to follow or lead. Just look through recorded history. I can’t think of any time that was free of leaders. Even the names you site are leaders in their own right. There is a difference between “Leadership” and communal anarchy. Leadership is a fundamental principle of group psychology and does not indicate sheepish thinking, only a desire to get shit done without arguing without end.

  5. Ted Heistman | Jun 23, 2013 at 12:49 pm |

    I thought all adults were absolute geniuses?

  6. In the 1850s “drapetomania” was the mental disorder that supposedly caused slaves to flee captivity.

  7. Anyone familiar with the history of the APA knows that it’s the poster child for unhealthy adherence to authority. It’s possible to be a member in good standing of the APA while counseling interrogators in Gitmo on more effective torture.

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