Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill

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A riveting social and medical history of madness in America, from the seventeenth century to today.

In Mad in America, medical journalist Robert Whitaker reveals an astounding truth: Schizophrenics in the United States currently fare worse than patients in the world's poorest countries, and quite possibly worse than asylum patients did in the early nineteenth century. With a muckraker's passion, Whitaker argues that modern treatments for the severely mentally ill are just old medicine in new bottles, and that we as a society are deeply deluded about their efficacy. Tracing over three centuries of "cures" for madness, Whitaker shows how medical therapies have been used to silence patients and dull their minds. He tells of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practices of "spinning" the insane, extracting their teeth, ovaries, and intestines, and submerging patients in freezing water. The "cures" in the 1920s and 1930s were no less barbaric as eugenic attitudes toward the mentally ill led to brain-damaging lobotomies and electroshock therapy. Perhaps Whitaker's most damning revelation, however, is his report of how drug companies in the 1980s and 1990s skewed their studies in an effort to prove the effectiveness of their products. Based on exhaustive research culled from old patient medical records, historical accounts, numerous interviews, and hundreds of government documents, Mad in America raises important questions about our obligations to the mad, what it means to be "insane," and what we value most about the human mind.

Author Biography: Robert Whitaker's articles on the mentally ill and the drug industry have won several awards, including the George Polk Award for Medical Writing and the National Association of Science Writers' award for best magazine article. A series he co-wrote for the Boston Globe was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Editorial Reviews

American Scientist
Whitaker does not employ the exaggerated prose of the antipsychiatry movement...Serious and well-documented.
Baltimore Sun
The book's lessons about the medical dangers of greed, ego and sham are universal and couldn't be more timely.
Mother Jones
Passionate, compellingly researched polemic, as fascinating as it is ultimately horrifying.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
People should read this excellent book and learn which questions to ask—before filling that "miracle" prescription.
Seattle Times
[Whitaker] does an intelligent and bold job.
Philadelphia Inquirer
[Mad in America] is mandatory reading and raises valid issues.
New Scientist
A humdinger of a important book that every psychiatrist should be compelled to read.
In These Times
The most important bit of mental health muckraking since Deutsch's The Shame of the States was published in 1948.
Publishers Weekly
Tooth removal. Bloodletting. Spinning. Ice-water baths. Electroshock therapy. These are only a few of the horrifying treatments for mental illness readers encounter in this accessible history of Western attitudes toward insanity. Whitaker, a medical writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist, argues that mental asylums in the U.S. have been run largely as "places of confinement facilities that served to segregate the misfits from society rather than as hospitals that provided medical care." His evidence is at times frightening, especially when he compares U.S. physicians' treatments of the mentally ill to medical experiments and sterilizations in Nazi Germany. Eugenicist attitudes, Whitaker argues, profoundly shaped American medicine in the first half of the 20th century, resulting in forced sterilization and other cruel treatments. Between 1907 and 1927, roughly 8,000 eugenic sterilizations were performed, while 10,000 mentally ill Americans were lobotomized in the years 1950 and 1951 alone. As late as 1933, there were no states in which insane people could legally get married. Though it covers some of the same territory as Sander Gilman's Seeing the Insane and Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady, Whitaker's richer, more detailed book will appeal to those interested in medical history, as well as anyone fascinated by Western culture's obsessive need to define and subdue the mentally ill. Agent, Kevin Lang. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Investigative journalist Whitaker tells the story of the treatment of schizophrenia in the United States from 1900 up until the present day. While many would recognize his tales of forced lobotomies, electroshock therapies, and other past "treatments" to be shameful reminders of an ignorant past, Whitaker saves his greatest outrage for the practices of the present. Noting the disturbing facts that outcomes for schizophrenics are worse today than they were 25 years ago and that outcomes are worse in the industrialized nations than they are in the developing world, he argues that the current regime of anti-psychotics (called "atypicals") is not based on good science and has been pushed by companies more concerned with raking in profits than with concern for patients. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
An absorbing, sometimes harrowing history of the medical treatment of the mentally ill in the US, from its roots in England-think Bedlam-to the present, and a scorching indictment of the status quo.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780738207995
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/27/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Whitaker’s articles on the mentally ill and the drug industry have won several awards, including the George Polk Award for medical writing and the National Association of Science Writers’ Award for best magazine article. He is also the author of The Mapmaker’s Wife and The Lap of the Gods. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Revised Edition xiii

Acknowledgments xvii

Part 1 The Original Bedlam (1750-1900)

1 Bedlam in Medicine 3

2 The Healing Hand of Kindness 19

Part 2 The Darkest Era (1900-1950)

3 Unfit to Breed 41

4 Too Much Intelligence 73

5 Brain Damage as Miracle Therapy 107

Part 3 Back to Bedlam (1950-1990s)

6 Modern-Day Alchemy 141

7 The Patients' Reality 161

8 The Story We Told Ourselves 195

9 Shame of a Nation 211

10 The Nuremberg Code Doesn't Apply Here 233

Part 4 Mad Medicine Today (1990s-Present)

11 Not So Atypical 253

Epilogue 287

Afterword to the Revised Edition 293

Notes 305

Index 337

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2008

    A Threat To Believers

    After reading Mad In America and discussing it with friends, I realized how difficult it is to change strongly held beliefs about psychiatry in general and the safety and effectiveness of so-called miracle drugs. Regardless of the SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE, believers in worthless, dangerous and ineffective psych drugs and other treatments are like religious zealots: no amount of evidence will convince them that they've been conned by snake oil salesmen with impressive credentials and nothing to back up their claims but fraudulent research and heart-felt testimonials. I was once a true believer myself and it was a blow to my ego to admit that I my fundamental beliefs about psychiatric care was founded on marketing hype masquerading as science. Anyone who discounts Whitaker's findings needs to do more reading about the corruption of scientific research 'Dr. Marcia Angell', the FDA and meaningless psychiatric diagnoses.

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