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Break On Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture

Break On Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture

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Publication Date: December 8th, 2020
The MIT Press
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“Antipsychiatry,” Esalen, psychedelics, and DSM III: Radical challenges to psychiatry and the conventional treatment of mental health in the 1970s.

The upheavals of the 1960s gave way to a decade of disruptions in the 1970s, and among the rattled fixtures of American society was mainstream psychiatry. A “Radical Caucus” formed within the psychiatric profession and the “antipsychiatry” movement arose. Critics charged that the mental health establishment was complicit with the military-industrial complex, patients were released from mental institutions, and powerful antipsychotic drugs became available. Meanwhile, practitioners and patients experimented with new approaches to mental health, from primal screaming and the therapeutic use of psychedelics to a new reliance on quantification. In Break on Through, Lucas Richert investigates the radical challenges to psychiatry and to the conventional treatment of mental health that emerged in the 1970s and the lessons they offer for current debates.

Drawing on archives and government documents, medical journals, and interviews, and interweaving references to pop (counter)culture into his account, Richert offers fascinating stories of the decade's radical mental health practices. He discusses anti–Vietnam War activism and the new diagnosis of post–traumatic stress disorder given to some veterans; the radical psychiatrists who fought the system (and each other); the entry of New Age–style therapies, including Esalen's Human Potential Movement, into the laissez-faire therapeutic marketplace of the 1970s; the development of DSM III; and the use of LSD, cannabis, and MDMA.

Many of these issues have resonance today. Debates over medical marijuana and microdoses of psychedelics echo debates of the 1970s. With rising rates of such disorders as anxiety and depression, practitioners and patients continue to search for therapeutic breakthroughs.

About the Author

Lucas Richert is George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Strange Trips: Science, Culture, and the Regulation of Drugs and coeditor-in-chief of Social History of Alcohol and Drugs: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Praise for Break On Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture

"In the 1960s and 1970s new pharmacology revolutionized psychiatry. But radical social, economic, and political formations simultaneously demanded a very different kind of mental medicine. This lively and richly interdisciplinary book charts how profound shifts within both medicine and society — and in relations between them — transformed modern American attitudes."
– Rab Houston, School of History, University of St Andrews; author of Autism in History (with Uta Frith)

"Break On Through is a fascinating history of the blossoming of ‘countercultural’ approaches to mental illness and its treatment in the 1970s. By exploring the mental health ‘fringe‘ — radical psychiatry, the human potential movement, parapsychology, and psychedelic drugs — Lucas Richert offers a bold, fresh perspective on ‘mainstream’ psychiatry and psychology in the late twentieth century. Break On Through will interest not only scholars of post-1970 America but also policymakers seeking insight into today’s mental health care challenges."
– Nancy Tomes, SUNY Distinguished Professor of History, Stony Brook University

"This book is a trip, in the best sense"
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture offers a refreshing and important contribution to our understanding of the 1970s from the perspective of mental health."
Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Break On Through reminds us that the fringes have in fact had a marked impact on orthodox medicine since the mid-20th century, especially within American psychiatry."
Canadian Bulletin of Medical History