So begins this excellent radio show by Claudia Hammond that thows new light on the experiment: Rosenhan’s focus was not so much on the difficulty of diagnosis as it was an anthropological – you will hear him talk about how he regretted how diagnosis featured so prominently in his final paper. Rosenhan was most interested in finding out about life inside psychiatric wards and how it was experienced by those inside.
Drawing on unpublished material and interviews with colleagues we get to see how once inside everything we might do is conditioned by the belief that everything that happens, everything the patient does is confirmation of the diagnosis. Once we have placed people into a category the person no longer exists except as an personification of the category.
It is easy to dismiss both Rosenhan’s experiment and the movie by saying that those asylums are now closed, that nowadays most people are treated more humanely in the community – and it is cozy to hide behind that myth.
But we have to ask ourselves is the way things work now fundamentally different?
Once diagnosed, people still find themselves trapped – once a person is given a psychiatric diagnosis everything they do or experience is viewed through a lens that they have no choice – they are the unfortunate victim of chemical imbalance . But they are also trapped by that same myth: that same chemical imbalance strips them of hope of finding and learning a way out, of living a life. All they can do is be a good patient and keep taking the medicine – just like in Rosenhan’s experiment and just Like in Cuckoo’s nest.
And while most people may no longer be storehoused in asylum wards they do find themselves bouncing between services, eventually storehoused in supportively housed poverty, living drug-subdued, drug-limited and drug-shortened lives and increasingly dependent on a growing army of experts – workers , therapists, counsellors, nurses, doctors – and just as effectively segregated from society as if they were locked up.
If Rosenhan’s experiment were repeated today would the result be so very different?
You’d likely have a mountain of a job getting a University ethics board to approve it so try it yourself – go stand on a street corner and tell people you hear voices saying “thud”.
But you know that you don’t need to, you know already how that will likely turn out.
So, is the situation today really that different from when Rosenhan ran his experiment?
How much progress have we really made?
Is our current approach really the best we can come up with?
…and if it is then what does it say of us?
David Rosenhan’s famous experiement shows just how easy it is to get in – go try for yourself, then you decide if you think that what we have is the best we can do…
Listen to Claudia Hammond’s excellent piece here..