David Rosenhan’s experiment, conducted in several psychiatric institutions throughout the USA, served to be the topic of his well-known article “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (1973). The experiment has uncovered some serious issues in the field of patient treatment in psychiatric hospitals as well as determining the diagnosis of those who really need psychiatric treatment. With the outcome of the experiment shaking the ground of trust to and competence of psychiatrists, it gave much food for thought in terms of improving ways of identifying psychiatric patients and providing them with suitable conditions for effective treatment.
According to the experiment, 8 people, who were psychiatrically sane and called “pseudopatients” by Rosenhan, requested an appointment at 12 psychiatric hospitals in different parts of the USA. They all pretended to experience hallucinations with the voice of the same sex pronouncing the words “hollow”, “empty” and “thud”. In contrast to their life stories, these were the only fraudulent symptoms and information that the pseudopatients presented to the doctors, which, as it turned out, was enough to regard those people insane.
As soon as they were assessed and admitted to the hospitals, pseudopatients acted as normal and healthy people, showing no abnormal or schizophrenic signs of conduct. In the course of their hospital stay pseudopatients tried to communicate with other patients, reacted well to instructions from attendants, assured doctors that hallucinations had disappeared, but none of the staff paid particular attention to their words. Instead, they were easily identified as sane by other patients. Rosenhan mentioned some of their suspicions, like “You’re not crazy. You’re a journalist, or a professor (). You’re checking up on the hospital” (252).
When their hospitalization period (an average of 19 days) was over, pseudopatients were diagnosed with schizophrenia “in remission”, which proved that they weren’t carefully examined during their last medical check. Furthermore, the experiment unveiled staggering consequences of a psychiatric label that, as Rosehnan stated, “has a life and influence of its own” (253). Since hospitals don’t usually take much time to recognize their patients, they choose an easy strategy of labeling them “insane” by distorting their biographies and making all the puzzles fit into the jigsaw of the most credible psychiatric disease.
The whole experiment can be summarized in an eloquent proverb that says “Don’t judge the book by its cover”. The issue of psychiatric labels shows a negative tendency of adopting a certain attitude to people having assessed a single aspect of their personality. It seems obvious that psychiatric labels conjure up negative associations of people who suffer from mental illnesses and trigger estrangement and alienation in the way we treat them. As soon as someone is tagged “mentally ill”, you know exactly what he/she is like and what to expect from him/her, but it won’t occur to you that psychiatric patients, as well as healthy people, are all different, and the severity of their illness may vary greatly. Therefore, careful examinations of mentally ill patients are important, as they help doctors determine the course of treatment a patient has to undergo or whether a patient needs any hospitalization at all.
Apart from that, labeling is common in everyday life and what is really interesting, it often happens unconsciously. People just judge other people by the clothes they wear, the car they drive, the salary they earn, the movies they watch or the opinion they express. To my mind, the only advantage of labeling is that you can easily learn something you want about other people, but this doesn’t mean what you think of him/her is true. Thus, labeling is more about depriving people of a chance to make a statement about themselves and prove that we might have taken some facts wrong about them. In the same way, when pseudopatients used to make notes about their hospital stay, nobody from the staff cared what they had been writing and interpreted it within the frame of their schizophrenic diagnosis.
Rosehnan noted that “once a person is designated abnormal, all of his other behaviors and characteristics are colored by that label” (253). Therefore, reading the article, we have to give it a thorough second thought to get rid of labeling and prejudice towards other people. To understand their nature and needs, forget about their diagnosis and look who they really are.
Rosenhan, David. “On Being Sane in Insane Places”. Science, New Series 179. 4070 (1973) : 250-258. Print.