Committing someone to a mental health facility against their will is never an easy thing to do. But if they’re truly ill, then they need to get help. If it turns out that they weren’t ill, then you can have faith that the doctors will eventually figure it out and release them…right?
Well, if the results of this 1973 experiment are to be believed, I wouldn’t count on it.
In 1973, Stanford professor Dr. David Rosenhan began to wonder about the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. After some contemplation, he conducted an experiment to test his theory.
For the first part of his study, Rosenhan assembled a small team of “pseudopatients.”
The team was made up of three women and five men (including Rosenhan himself). They each attempted to gain entry to different psychiatric hospitals in five separate states by pretending to hear voices. All of them were admitted.
However, once inside the facility, they acted completely normal and continually told the doctors that they felt fine.
Despite evidence of having sane people in front of them, each member of the team was forced to admit to having a mental illness. They then had to agree to take anti-psychotic drugs as a condition of their release. Nearly all of them were “diagnosed” with schizophrenia. The average time from admittance to release for each of the pseudopatients was 19 days.
After the results of this study became public, a disgruntled hospital administrator maintained that these sorts of mistakes could never happen at his hospital and challenged Rosenhan to test him.
So he did.
He and his team chose a well-known hospital whose staff was familiar with the results of his last experiment. Rosenhan told the staff that over the next three months, one or more pseudopatients would attempt to gain admittance to the hospital. Over the course of the experiment, the staff only identified 41 of the 191 individuals who were supposedly pseudopatients. But here’s the twist. Rosenhan never actually sent them any.
Naturally, Rosenhan’s findings stirred up quite a bit of controversy. When he published the piece, he called for reforms to be put in place, but not many of them actually made it all the way to implementation.