What the APA Apology Means for Black Psychiatry By Dawn Kamilah Brown, MD on 3/25/21 - 9:27 AM

On January 18, 2021, the world of psychiatry experienced something historic when the American Psychiatric Association acknowledged and issued an apology for their part in a history of racism¹. There is no doubt it was time for this monumental moment, which markedly took place on this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

This apology doesn’t erase all of the history that is behind it, and it doesn’t solve everything that may come. Yet after the history that has led to the APA’s need for an apologetic statement, this is an important step forward. This is a milestone for Black psychiatry and for all of us, really, in the African American community. I believe it may even deserve its own place in the history books.

For Black American, the history of our country has been paved with injustices, many of which have had a lasting effect on every facet of mental health, from assessment to treatment. The trauma of the African American community goes back many generations to slavery. The history behind the need for the APA’s apology goes deep into our past and can still be seen in the current practice of psychiatry². Going back all the way to the very beginning, the necessity of this apology is painfully clear.

The roots of racism in the psychiatric field go back a very long time. Diagnoses of mental illness were used to justify the view of Black slaves as inferior human beings. A supposed mental illness invented by Samuel Cartwright called “dysaethesia aethiopica” was used to explain a slave’s “laziness” and disinterest in their forced lifestyle³. In those days, the work of mental health professionals was only used to harm Black Amercians, not help, as it is meant to do.

The APA was meant to be an institution that kept racism from being fully actualized. The organization should have been there for the mental health support of all Amercians. Instead it was founded on principles that allowed Black patients and White patients to receive separate and vastly different levels of quality in care. It should be clear who was given real support, and who was left to suffer.

Time and time again, injustices were suffered by the Black community, and APA was among those who remained silent. Again and again, the mental health of Black Americans was both damaged and neglected while society stayed silent. Racism remained an issue within American psychiatry and someone should have spoken up, but APA didn’t.

APA repeatedly did not support civil rights legislation meant to improve psychological conditions for Black people. They neglected at the most crucial of times to do anything more than offer mere consolation to the people who were really hurting. Regardless of how widespread race-related inequality was at the time, the APA has missed many opportunities to speak up before this recent apology.

This history has piled onto the state of mental health for Black patients today, and it is about time that we hear the APA take accountability for its actions and inaction. Racist beliefs were integral to the damage that has been caused in the long history of Black psychiatry in this country. African Americans were declared biologically inferior, and that bias never fully went away. From Cartwright’s categorization of an entire race of people as simple and lacking emotional complexity, to the still very recent disproportionate diagnosis of schizophrenia in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community?, systematic racism runs through the field of mental health and has done so for a very long time.

The APA’s apology is a small step in the right direction. The damage done has been far too great, but this is not insignificant. Truly, it represents something incredible. Mental health treatment is so important for people, especially for those in the Black community. This is the work that helps people heal from trauma and address the disorders and mental struggles that make everyday life difficult. With the apology we have received from APA, we can gladly find ourselves so much closer to reaching what the mental health system in this country should be.

What this represents is hope. We have made it a great deal forward, and now we can continue to find hope for better in our future. On the day that I saw this apology, I celebrated, not just for the moment itself, but for what this means for what may come. While I’m glad for the APA’s apology, I’m excited to see more medical organizations stepping up to do the same. I have hope that this is only the beginning, and that this apology truly represents a positive move towards improved mental wellness in our community.

American Psychiatric Association. (2021, January 18). APA apologizes for its support of racism in psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/apa-apologizes-for-its-support-of-racism-in-psychiatry.

American Psychiatric Association. (2021, January 18). Historical addendum to APA's Apology to Black, Indigenous and People of Color for Its Support of Structural Racism in Psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association.

In 1851 a scientist “discovered” a disease that caused slaves to run away, this was the prescribed cure… (n.d.). Watch the Yard. Retrieved 16 March, 2021, from https://www.watchtheyard.com/history/drapetomania-dysaesthesia-aethiopica/.

Schwartz, R. C., & Blankenship, D. M. (2014). Racial disparities in psychotic disorder diagnosis: A review of empirical literature. World Journal of Psychiatry, 4(4), 133–140. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v4.i4.133

File under: Musings and Reflections