A critical feminist analysis of madness

Pathologising femininity through psychiatric discourse

Authored by: Jane M. Ussher

Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138225473
eBook ISBN: 9781315399584
Adobe ISBN:


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For centuries, women have occupied a unique place in the annals of insanity. Women outnumber men in diagnoses of madness, from the ‘hysteria’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to ‘neurotic’ and mood disorders in the twenty and twenty-first centuries. Women are also more likely to receive psychiatric ‘treatment’, ranging from hospitalisation in an asylum, accompanied by restraint, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and psychosurgery, to psychological therapy and psychotropic drug treatments today (Ussher 2011). Why is this so? Some would say that women are more mad than men, with psychiatric treatment a beneficent force that sets out to cure the disordered female mind. In this chapter I will proffer an alternative explanation – that women are subjected to misdiagnosis and mistreatment by experts whose own pecuniary interests can be questioned, as can their use (or abuse) of power. This is not to deny the reality of women’s experience of prolonged misery or distress, which undoubtedly exists. However, if we examine the roots of this distress, in the context of women’s lives, it can be conceptualised as a reasonable response, not a reflection of pathology within (Ussher 2011).

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