Drapetomania, from the Greek drapetes (runaway slave) and mania (mad or crazy), literally means “the disease causing slaves to run away.” Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, an eminent surgeon in the antebellum American South, coined the term to express the idea that runaway slaves exhibited symptoms of mental disorder. Cartwright's position–that sanity meant accepting the condition of enslavement, whereas fleeing slavery was insane–illustrates the role of prevailing sociocultural norms in the construction of psychiatric diagnoses.

Thomas S. Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness, referenced drapetomania in describing the political function of psychiatry in his 1971 essay “The Sane Slave.” Szasz asserted that psychiatric diagnoses emerge from normative standards of a given historical era as mechanisms of social control. The pathologizing of deviations from social norms ...

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