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Changing psychiatric perception of African Americans with psychosis


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In the years before the American Civil War, medical observers deemed psychosis to be rare in slaves, but common in free blacks of the North. After 1865, the prevailing psychiatric perception of African Americans was that psychosis was increasing at an alarming rate. Reasons for the increasing rates were initially ascribed to the effects of emancipation, but as researchers reported rates of psychosis to be on the rise through the first half of the 20th century, the stress of internal migration and social adversity were increasingly invoked as explanatory factors. After 1970, however, attitudes influencing the psychiatric assessment of African Americans changed profoundly. Psychiatrists no longer reported differential rates of psychosis by ethno-racial category. Observed racial differences were attributed, instead, to misdiagnosis with clinician bias emerging as the principal cause. Hence, in the new way of thinking, African Americans were over-diagnosed with psychosis, thereby creating a false impression of high rates. These changes in attitude and perception have taken place in the context of historical trends that have increasingly viewed African Americans as equal to rather than inferior to whites. Links from past to present will uncover racial stereotypes that continue to influence the psychiatric diagnosis and treatment of African Americans today.

Keywords: African American; diagnosis; history; psychosis; rates; stereotypes

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: ulture and Mental Health Research Unit.

Publication date: October 16, 2008

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  • The European Journal of American Culture (EJAC) is an academic, refereed journal for scholars, academics and students from many disciplines with a common involvement in the interdisciplinary study of America and American culture, drawing on a variety of approaches and encompassing the whole evolution of the country.
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