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Week of January 11, 2010

MLK: Misdiagnosed mental illness among black men topic of talk

Black men are overdiagnosed with schizophrenia at least five times higher than any other group — a trend that dates back to the 1960s, says Jonathan Metzl, an associate professor of psychiatry and women’s studies.

In an important new book, Metzl shows how race-based misdiagnosis emerged in the context of the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, when civil rights activism became equated with mental illness. Metzl examined archives of Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and learned that black men, mainly from Detroit during the civil rights era, were taken there and often misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.

“Some patients became schizophrenic because of changes in their diagnosis rather than their clinical symptoms,” says Metzl, who will give a Jan. 13 public reading of his new book, “The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.”

The event, which begins at 2 p.m. at 2239 Lane Hall, is part of the university’s 24th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. Angela Dillard, professor of Afroamerican and African studies and the Residential College, will converse with Metzl about his book.

Events at Ionia, located in a mostly white Northern Michigan community, mirrored national conversations that linked the disease with blackness, madness and civil rights. Many black men came to the hospital during the Detroit riots, dramatically increasing the facility’s black population.

How the psychiatric profession defined schizophrenia also changed during this period. In the 1920s-1940s, Doctors considered the illness as affecting nonviolent white individuals (mainly women), but later changed the language to violent, hostile, angry and aggressive as a way to label black men, he adds.

“It’s an easy thing to say this was racism, but it’s a much more complicated story … that’s still playing out in present day,” says Metzl, director of the Culture, Health and Medicine Program.

He noted that the criminalization of mental illness and misdiagnosis of schizophrenia meant many black men have been placed in prisons rather than psychiatric hospitals. The Ionia facility, for instance, became a prison in 1977.

Despite increased efforts for cultural competency training, overdiagnosis of schizophrenia in black men has remained.

“Multicultural training is important, but it often does little to address how assumptions about race are structurally embedded into health care delivery systems,” says Metzl, a 2008 Guggenheim award recipient.

The MLK event is sponsored by the School of Social Work, Women’s Studies Department and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.



Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, on her greatest passion: “Working to improve the physical and virtual accessibility to all of our community, regardless of individual physical or mental challenges.”


  • Arts & Bodies, Dec. 18-Jan. 15, 2010, Work•Detroit, 3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit
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