Psychiatry and the control of dangerousness: on the apotropaic function of the term “mental illness”

Journal of Medical Ethics 29 (4):227-230 (2003)
The term “mental illness” implies that persons with such illnesses are more likely to be dangerous to themselves and/or others than are persons without such illnesses. This is the source of the psychiatrist’s traditional social obligation to control “harm to self and/or others,” that is, suicide and crime. The ethical dilemmas of psychiatry cannot be resolved as long as the contradictory functions of healing persons and protecting society are united in a single discipline.Life is full of dangers. Our highly developed consciousness makes us, of all living forms in the universe, the most keenly aware of, and the most adept at protecting ourselves from, dangers. Magic and religion are mankind’s earliest warning systems. Science arrived on the scene only about 400 years ago, and scientific medicine only 200 years ago. Some time ago I suggested that “formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic”.1We flatter and deceive ourselves if we believe that we have outgrown the apotropaic use of language .Many people derive comfort from magical objects , and virtually everyone finds reassurance in magical words . The classic example of an apotropaic is the word “abracadabra,” which The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines as “a magical charm or incantation having the power to ward off disease or disaster”. In the ancient world, abracadabra was a magic word, the letters of which were arranged in an inverted pyramid and worn as an amulet around the neck to protect the wearer against disease or trouble. One fewer letter appeared in each line of the pyramid, until only the letter “a” remained to form the vertex of the triangle. As …
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DOI 10.1136/jme.29.4.227
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