Historic Rosenhan Study Revisited

Dr David Rosenhan’s pseudo-patient experiment is back in the news. Anybody who hasn’t read On Being Sane In Insane Places, his report on the research he and his students had undertaken, can find the text of the paper published online. The Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, directed by Alaskan lawyer Jim Gottstein, has posted a copy of this report on it’s website. The study was a highly controversial study in its time, it continues to be controversial, and I highly recommend the reading of Dr. Rosenhan’s paper for anybody who is unfamiliar with this study.

An article entitled Have Psychiatric Wards Changed? published in the July 27th edition of The Times Online, a British news journal, authored by Claudia Hammond, a radio host, returns us to this study and the troubling questions it raised.

Between 1969 and 1972 the team of “pseudo-patients” presented themselves at 12 different US hospitals in five states on the East and West coasts. What would a sane person have to do to convince a doctor they were insane? Not a lot, it seems.

Apparently, unpublished notes from Dr Rosenhans private archive have further revelations to make regarding this historic study.

Now aged 79 and barely able to speak after a stroke, Rosenhan, who lives in a nursing home in Palo Alto, California, allows me to look through the boxes containing his archive of papers.

She then goes on to relate some of Dr. Rosenhans personal reflections of the experience taken from his notes.

I have one minor criticism of this article, and that deals with it’s concluding sentence.

While the psychiatric profession did take notice of the pseudo-patient study, it is sad that it required healthy people to live through the experience before anyone listened.

This study is ‘sad’ because ‘healthy’ people had to ‘live through’ it!? I don’t think the study is ‘sad’ because ‘healthy’ people had to ‘live though’ what ‘unhealthy’ people ‘live through’ all the time. Prejudice and discrimination are realities that people who have been institutionalised face everyday of the week. Conditions on state hospital wards can be pretty horrific. People who have been impacted by the mental health system, often marginalized, are thought of as being different from other people, and this is part of the problem. The last sentence of this article partakes of the same prejudice. Just as you get ‘innocent’ people incarcerated in a state penitentiary, you can get ‘mentally well’ people admitted into a state hospital. A more disturbing conclusion of the study itself is that some of the patients we formerly thought of as ‘sick’ might not be so ‘sick’ after all.

For more details about the study you are to urged listen to her programme, Mind Changers: The Pseudo-Patient Study, that can be found at the BBC Radio 4 website.

Related link: Wikipedia Rosenhan experiment