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1. Athens Mental Health Center, “The History of Mental Illness,“ Ohio University.

2. Jenkins, P., Moral Panic, Yale University Press, 1998.

Ethical Treatment for All Youth
Email: etay@ethicaltreatment.org

About the author


When someone is ill, we turn to the experts. We rely on them to tell us what must be done to cure him or her. But what if the experts are wrong? What if their methods actually harm rather than help the patient? How can we tell?

Two examples from the past

1. Mental illness

Historically, Americans have feared those who suffer from mental illness. Mentally ill people have been stereotyped as violent and criminal, and mental health organizations continue to fight that stereotype.

In the 1930s, experts justified the use of an extreme method called “trans-orbital lobotomy” to cure mental illness. This procedure involved inflicting two quick shocks to the patient's head to render him or her unconscious, inserting a pencil-like device underneath the upper eyelid, tapping the device with a hammer into the patients’ brain, and swiping the device back and forth within the patient’s head.

Eventually, reports of the resulting deaths, and moves to treat mentally ill people more humanely, resulted in the abandonment of this method.1

2. Homosexuality

In the 1950s, fears over homosexuals and “sex psychopaths” were commonplace throughout the U.S. Some experts claimed that homosexuals were violent and dangerous. One police psychiatrist said, “The homosexual will murder his victim during an act of sexual frenzy and afterwards rob him.” The media reported shockingly high statistics about the occurrence of sex crimes, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote that they were the most rapidly increasing type of crime. Experts justified the use of aversion therapy with electric shock or nausea-inducing drugs to cure this dreaded illness.

In reality, the proportion of sex crimes that were violent had been exaggerated. Most offenses were non-violent: consensual homosexual activity, exhibitionism, statutory rape, or sex play among children.2 However, these behaviors were considered immoral, and therefore seen as pathological and often even violent, justifying extreme means.

The lesson to be learned

Let us be skeptical of what the experts say when

  1. there is a shortage of knowledge

  2. their responses are based on fear rather than knowledge

  3. they claim that frightful dangers justify the use of extreme, ethically problematic measures.

Understanding the Issue

When experts are wrong
Casualties of war
   Lack of knowledge
   Confused definitions
   Invalid instruments
   Humiliation as therapy
   Arousal reconditioning
   Dangerous drugs
   Sriking comparisons
   Sample materials
   Convos with providers
Ethical violations
Deja vu