Thursday, November 9, 2023

The History of Institutionalized Psychiatric Violence

Victoria Pedraza | 11/2/2023

Institutionalized psychiatric violence, when viewed from a feminist perspective, reveals a deeply gendered history of mistreatment, abuse, and neglect within psychiatric institutions. This exploration is crucial, as it sheds light on the intersections of mental health treatment, gender, and power dynamics.

Early History of Institutionalized Psychiatric Violence

In the early history of psychiatric treatment, the experience of women who displayed behaviors outside societal norms was a grim reflection of the prevailing gender norms and expectations of their times. Women who challenged or deviated from these norms often found themselves subjected to punitive measures, especially if their actions were seen as disruptive or non-conforming to traditional gender roles.

Mental illness, for women, was frequently linked to perceived failures to adhere to rigid gender roles and societal expectations. Women who showed signs of non-conformity were often labeled as "hysterical" or "mad," reflecting a broader cultural tendency to pathologize women who defied the norms of the day. This pathologization was a way of reinforcing traditional gender roles, suggesting that women who did not fit the mold were inherently unstable or unfit.

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the establishment of asylums as the primary form of psychiatric care. Unfortunately, rather than challenging these stereotypes, these institutions often perpetuated and exacerbated the gender-based violence against women. Many women were institutionalized for reasons that, by contemporary standards, would be considered deeply discriminatory and unjust. Such reasons included being outspoken, challenging authority, refusing to conform to expected gender roles, or merely expressing unconventional beliefs. These women faced severe physical and emotional violence within the confines of asylums.

In these asylums, women were not only subjected to the restraints and isolation that were common practices, but they were also often victims of the power imbalances that existed within these institutions. The predominantly male staff held significant authority over female patients, leading to further exploitation and abuse. The mistreatment of women within these asylums reflected a broader societal failure to recognize women as autonomous individuals with unique needs and experiences.

It is important to understand this history through a feminist perspective, as it sheds light on how deeply rooted gender biases and stereotypes have shaped the treatment of women with mental illnesses. Recognizing these historical injustices underscores the urgency of advocating for gender equity within the field of mental health care and working towards an approach that respects the autonomy and dignity of all individuals, irrespective of their gender. By acknowledging these historical wrongs, we can make strides toward a more compassionate and equitable future for women's mental health.

The Eugenics Movement and Psychiatric Violence

The eugenics movement, a disturbing chapter in the history of psychiatric violence, was deeply entwined with patriarchal ideologies and had far-reaching consequences on psychiatric practices, particularly concerning the treatment of women. During this period, women who did not conform to traditional notions of femininity and motherhood were frequently labeled as "unfit" or "undesirable" in the context of eugenics, which aimed to control human reproduction to achieve a perceived genetic ideal.

Eugenic policies included forced sterilization, a practice that disproportionately targeted women. Women who were seen as not meeting societal expectations, whether due to their mental health, disability or simply their non-conformity to gender roles, were subjected to these invasive procedures. This reflects the intersection of psychiatric violence, gender discrimination, and the broader eugenic agenda.

Psychiatrists, who held positions of authority within the medical establishment, played a significant role in endorsing and facilitating these eugenic practices. By doing so, they not only contributed to the perpetuation of psychiatric violence but also reinforced oppressive gender norms that deemed women as having a singular role in society—reproduction, and caregiving. Psychiatric professionals, like other proponents of eugenics, saw women who did not adhere to these roles as a threat to societal stability and progress.

The eugenics movement's influence on psychiatric practices had a profound and lasting impact on women's mental health care. It resulted in the continued stigmatization and mistreatment of women who did not fit the mold of the "ideal woman." Their mental health struggles were often dismissed, and they were labeled as "genetically flawed" or "undesirable." The eugenics movement perpetuated the idea that women's worth was intrinsically tied to their reproductive abilities, and those who fell short of this narrow definition were subjected to violence and discrimination.

The historical dismissal of issues that many women suffer from, such as postpartum depression, reflects a long-standing pattern of sidelining women's health concerns. Throughout history, women's mental health challenges were often stigmatized or overlooked, reinforcing societal stereotypes that relegated women to their prescribed roles. By minimizing these issues, society has perpetuated a culture of silence and shame surrounding women's mental health, further compounding the difficulties they face. 

Examining the eugenics movement through a feminist lens underscores the importance of recognizing the gendered dimensions of psychiatric violence. It highlights the need to address not only the history of psychiatric violence but also the deeply rooted patriarchal ideologies that have contributed to the systemic mistreatment of women. 

The Anti-Psychiatry Movement and Its Impact

The anti-psychiatry movement, which emerged in the mid-20th century, represented a significant turning point in the discourse surrounding mental health treatment. This movement, often characterized by its criticisms of the psychiatric establishment, played a crucial role in unveiling the ways in which traditional mental health treatment perpetuated gender-based violence. When viewed through a feminist lens, the impact of the anti-psychiatry movement takes on a profound and unique dimension.

The anti-psychiatry movement was deeply critical of the power dynamics within the psychiatric establishment. It argued that these power imbalances contributed to the perpetuation of oppressive gender norms and the abuse of female patients. This perspective aligned with the feminist critique of the broader healthcare system, which often treated women as passive subjects of medical intervention, particularly in the realm of mental health.

One of the central issues highlighted by the anti-psychiatry movement was the overuse and misuse of drugs and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) within psychiatric treatment. These treatments were often administered without the informed consent of patients, reflecting a significant violation of their autonomy. This lack of consent disproportionately affected women, who were already marginalized within the psychiatric system. Many women were subjected to these treatments against their will, further reinforcing their status as passive subjects, devoid of agency over their own bodies.

The anti-psychiatry movement challenged these practices, emphasizing the need for informed consent, respect for individual autonomy, and a more patient-centric approach to mental health care. The movement exposed the ways in which traditional psychiatric practices often pathologized and controlled women, effectively suppressing their voices and experiences.

The impact of the anti-psychiatry movement on modern psychiatric practices is still felt today, particularly in the realm of women's mental health. The movement contributed to a shift in the mental health field toward more patient-centered and rights-based care. It also influenced the development of feminist psychology, which recognizes the unique challenges and experiences faced by women in mental health care.

It advanced the cause of informed consent, patient autonomy, and a more nuanced understanding of the intersection of gender and mental health, leaving a lasting imprint on modern psychiatric practices and women's rights. This legacy serves as a reminder of the need to continue advocating for gender equity in mental health care, focusing on empowering and respecting the autonomy of all patients, regardless of their gender.

Current Issues and Moving Forward

In the present day, modern mental health care continues to grapple with gender disparities and violence against women, highlighting the pressing need for reform. While significant progress has been made in recognizing and addressing these issues, there are still crucial challenges that must be met. 

Gender disparities persist in mental health care, with women often facing unique challenges that are rooted in societal expectations and stereotypes. The overmedication of women is a notable issue, as psychotropic medications are sometimes prescribed excessively, even when non-pharmacological interventions might be more appropriate. Women are also more likely to experience side effects from these medications, further compromising their well-being.

Promoting informed consent is central to a feminist approach to mental health care. Ensuring that patients are fully informed about their treatment options, potential side effects, and the right to refuse any treatment is crucial. Informed consent empowers people to make choices about their own bodies and minds, providing them with a sense of control and agency over their mental health care.


Examining the history of institutionalized psychiatric violence through a feminist perspective underscores the persistence of gender disparities and violence within modern mental health care. It emphasizes the urgency of reform that respects the autonomy, dignity, and rights of women. By challenging oppressive gender norms and power dynamics, mental health care can evolve into a system where women are treated as equals, fostering a more compassionate, respectful, and inclusive approach to mental health. This approach is not only a path toward justice but a means to advance the well-being of all individuals receiving mental health care.

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