Part III: Mental Heath Care As Mental Warfare

4 min readJul 20, 2018

The Birth of Mental Health: When Mental Health Is Weaponized

In Part I, the function and field of Mental Health was outlined. In Part II, I showed how a new concept of Mental Healthfare can be used to bring out its abuse and misuse in a criminological analysis. Here, in Part III, we give a brief history of the origins of mental health in the U.S. and the role psychology plays in its weaponization.

The term ‘mental health’ was first made popular in the United States in an outgrowth of the Mental Hygiene Movement. Founded by Clifford Beers in 1908, the movement was later institutionalized under the name, National Committee for Mental Hygiene (NCMH) in 1909, then re-baptized as it is known today under the moniker Mental Health America (MHA). The original movement was envisaged by Beers as waging an “educative war” on behalf of mental hygiene. The belief of its members was based on a politically conservative notion of science and a psychiatric notion of salvation:

“where every human being is perfectly adjusted to his environment, himself, and others.”

C. Beers, Mental Hygienist

In 1946 Harry Truman passed the National Mental Health Act making the mental health of the population a federal concern. This led to the creation of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and opened the way for government funds to be used in research and treatments for mental illness.

When Mental Health Is Weaponized

The use of the term ‘mental health’ is never neutral and goes well beyond the denotation of ‘well-being’ or the common signification of a field of care for those in need or with mental problems. It was born out of what is essentially problems of modern warfare and has always been spoken of in terms of a combat of the individual against both an exterior and interior enemy of the organism. Since the early twentieth century the practice of mental healthfare has aimed to introduce healing in a more modern and pro-active way, one that weaponizes it in the face of the enemy — mental illness — and the urgency “to do something”.

Writing on the goals of education and mental health in terms of objectified aggression, the celebrated mental hygienist, Stewart Paton, summed up a vision of mental healthfare:

If the brain is the only organ to be used effectively in the fight against the foul fiend of ignorance, it is not creditable to American universities that they have thus far given so little attention to the proper study of the weapons to be used.

“University Reforms,” Popular Science Monthly 78 (1911): 70.

We should now accept the fact that democracy is now on trial and try to make the democratic system safe for the world by finding out what the essential factors of temperament and character are and then directing these forces intelligently, so that full expression may be given to normal, well-balanced personalities.

“The Essentials of an Education,” Mental Hygiene 3 (1920), 280.

In the wake of WWI and WWII, much of modern psychology had turned away from the golden age of 19th and early 20th century fundamental research on perception and the faculties. Instead, modern psychology began to carry out experimental research into problems of aggression, violence, criminality, and the control of a population, while offering its services to the government, military, and private industry.

A New Twist to an Old Experiment

The social psychologist Stanley Milgram devised a now infamous electric shock experiment showing that if someone in the study were given power by an authority, they would deliver extreme levels of electrical shock to participants who answered questions incorrectly. You can find a you-tube video of Milgram’s experiment here:

Phillip Zimbardo — a contemporary emeritus psychology professor at Stanford University — commented upon the those given power in Milgram’s experiment this way, “They semantically change their perception of victims, of the evil act, […] so ‘killing’ or ‘hurting’ becomes the same as ‘helping’. For a psychologist like Zimbardo, the scientific observer, Milgram, is not implicated in his own experiment. It is only a question of what and who is observed: it is a question of determining how good people can become bad and obedient to forms of authoritarian power. In no instance, does Zimbardo ask why the experiments of 20th century psychology moved away from fundamental research to operational studies on violence, warfare and torture; or whether the experimenter himself was, knowingly or not, a good Dr. Jekyll who could turn into a bad Dr. Hyde in obedience to his job and science. Indeed, if Zimbardo had asked such a question, then he would have had to ask the more critically aware question: do modern psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists ‘semantically change their perception of victims […] so ‘killing’ or ‘hurting’ becomes the same thing as ‘helping’? Rather than saying a ‘good’ psychological experiment can become a ‘bad’ one, or a ‘good’ psychologist a ‘bad’ one, or vice versa, he would have had to ask a question that goes beyond a disgruntled client:

Under what conditions can a state of warfare, or even criminality, be normed during times of peace, then scientifized under the alibi of psychological care, treatment, and mental health?

We turn to respond to this question in Part IV: Psychology, Psychotherapy, Psychiatry Might Help. But It Is Only Possible …




Researcher in le temps perdu: sex, race, ethics, the clinic, logic, and mathematics. Founder and analyst at PLACE