CaMD Scholar Anushka Bhat ’22 Sheds Light on Anti-Black Racism in Psychiatry

Historically medical terms such as “mad” and “insane” reflect a state of social alienation, particularly that of Black people in the face of Western psychiatric pseudoscience, according to CaMD scholar Anushka Bhat ’22. After months of research, Bhat presented “Political Insanity: Colonial Psychiatry and Social Control, 1820-1940” on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to upwards of 250 people and a private audience of family, friends, and fellow CaMD scholars over Zoom. Bhat’s research centered around anti-Black medical racism, and its use to institutionalize, dehumanize, and exploit Black people in both the U.S. and colonial Africa.

Bhat focused much of her presentation on the race-based pseudoscience of 1820-1940. Bhat explained that the use of phrenology, the study of the shape of the brain, was used to determine intelligence and social capability. Many Black Americans were placed in “insane asylums” based on these practices.

Bhat said, “[Phrenology] was taught at dozens of medical schools across the Global North and it became deeply embedded in European and American society. Eventually, the idea that Black peoples’ intelligence was inherently inferior to white peoples’ began to be seen as a reality, and not just some racist, unfounded theory.”

She continued, “Pseudoscience and the institutionalization of madness has perpetuated that the Black brain is inferior to the white. Not only has it done unimaginable damage to the United States, but it has to individual African and African-American communities as well. Since its very beginning, the psychiatric field dehumanized, controlled, and exploited Black people.”

Among the presentation’s viewers was Brian Chica-Herrera ’24, who found these racial pseudosciences interesting yet terrifying. He echoed Bhat’s points and questioned the logic of scientists at the time who practiced racist medicine.

“One of the most memorable moments from the presentation was definitely when [Bhat] talked about how scientists would come up with a medical diagnosis on why non-white races were inferior based off of skull size, a branch within the falseness of pseudoscience. It was honestly quite horrifying. How could something so trivial decide intelligence? Even among white people, skull sizes can still vary, so did the ‘scientists’ apply this logic to them too?” said Chica-Herrera.

Bhat, alongside other CaMD scholars, spent her summer collecting information to formulate a paper. After the research and writing process, Bhat was faced with the struggle of condensing her report into a digestible presentation that students and staff could understand.

Bhat said, “I feel like I did a lot of research over the summer that provided me with a lot of details on the topic, but making it simpler and making it still into a cohesive storyline was probably the hardest part for me.”

In addition to researching the effects of medical racism in the U.S., Bhat connected her findings to the global impacts of racist psychiatry, particularly in colonial Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana. However, Bhat recognized that the main difference between other asylums and those within the U.S. was the labor exploitation of those in captivity.

“Now, it is important to note that all of these things do not only happen within the United States. In fact, racist psychiatry is a Western concept and its study should not only be contained to the U.S. We’ve seen this with phonology as it was learned in America as well as Europe… The key difference between European institutions and American institutions is that European asylums did not exploit their patients for labor like the U.S. did. This is because the colonies were not founded upon enslavement… [Black patients] were a method of promoting white supremacy and preserving whiteness throughout colonial Africa,” said Bhat.

Attendee Victoria Darling ’22 explained that the presentation was an educational experience. The modernization of these colonial issues was new to Darling, and she made connections to current mental health treatments regarding race.

“Before, I definitely knew that there were problems with how the U.S. addresses and deals with mental health issues, but I didn’t really know how it tied into race and political insanity. I also didn’t realize how prevalent the issues still are in the present day. I wouldn’t say it shocked me, but I just never thought of it that way,” said Darling.

Bhat concluded her presentation with an emphasis on these modern issues. She explained the responsibility that the world has today to foster justice for Black Americans who still experience biased medical resources.

Bhat said, “There are many social contexts that go into consorting each medical case idea and treatment. These issues are prominently still visible throughout our world today. Africans and African-Americans alike deserve to recover their traditional healing practices. They deserve to be empowered to better access proper, unbiased health care. Only by doing so may Black minds experience true liberation.”

Editor’s Note: Anushka Bhat ’22 is a Copy Editor for The Phillipian.