Is Psychiatry a
Political Tool of the State?
Why are professional
psychiatric organisations in the rest of the world reluctant to be
critical of Russian Psychiatry, when it abuses diagnosis and turns
it into a political tool?
A new paper in the academic journal
'International Psychiatry' published by the Royal College of
Psychiatrists explores the issue: 'Is there a resumption of
political psychiatry in the former Soviet Union?' by Robert van
Robert van Voren
(1959) is Chief
Executive of the Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry (FGIP)
and Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Ilia State
University in Tbilisi (Georgia) and at the Vytautas Magnus
University in Kaunas (Lithuania). He is a Sovietologist by
education and graduated from Amsterdam University (modern and
theoretical history + Russian language) in 1986,
and defended his doctoral dissertation in Kaunas (Lithuania) in
Starting in 1977 he became active in the Soviet human rights
movement. For many years he traveled to the USSR as a courier,
delivering humanitarian aid and smuggling out information on the
situation in camps, prisons and psychiatric hospitals. The
information was used in Western campaigns for the release of Soviet
dissidents. Van Voren led the international campaigns against the
political abuse of psychiatry in the USSR, as well as in defense of
individual political prisoners such as Irina Grivnina and Anatoly
Koryagin. He also organized eight annual Sakharov Congresses in
Amsterdam as a contribution to the campaign to bring about the
release of this Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In 1980 Robert van Voren co-founded the International Association
on Political Use of Psychiatry (the predecessor of GIP) and became
its General Secretary in 1986. He was Director of the Second World
Center in Amsterdam and board member of many organizations in the
field of human rights and mental health.
In 1997 Robert van Voren was elected Honorary Fellow of the British
Royal College of Psychiatrists, and in 2003 he was given Lithuanian
citizenship in recognition of his contribution to a democratic
Lithuanian State. In 2005 he was knighted in the Order of
Oranje-Nassau on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of GIP. Van
Voren has written extensively on Soviet issues and, in particular,
issues related to mental health and human rights, and published
more than a dozen of books.
FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION OFFICIAL DOCUMENT:
PSYCHIATRY AS A TOOL FOR COERCION IN POST-SOVIET
During the 1960-1980s in the USSR, psychiatry was turned into a
tool of repression. Soviet psychiatry was cut off from world
psychiatry and developed its own - highly institutional and
biologically oriented – course, providing at the same time a
“scientific justification” for declaring dissidents mentally ill.
Since the collapse of the USSR there have been frequent reports of
persons hospitalized for non-medical reasons, mostly in the Russian
Federation and Ukraine.
The abuses are caused by an underdeveloped mental health
profession with little knowledge of medical ethics and professional
responsibilities of physicians; by a system that is highly abusive
and not able to guarantee the rights of patients; because of
corrupt societies where also psychiatric diagnoses are for sale;
because of lack of financing and interest by the authorities and in
some cases because of a deteriorating political climate in which
local authorities feel safe to use psychiatry again as a tool of
Through targeted interventions from outside the situation could
be considerably ameliorated and a clear break with the past could
be made possible. In this respect the European Parliament can play
a crucial role in empowering those who wish to make a clear break
with the Soviet past.
Is there a resumption of political psychiatry in the former
Robert van Voren
INTERNATIONAL PSYCHIATRY VOLUME 11 NUMBER 3 AUGUST 2014
After the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in
the spring of 2014, the former Soviet Union
again became front-page news. The sequence
of events led to an atmosphere reminiscent of
the Cold War. In Russia itself it led to a hunt
for ‘national traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’ and
observers both inside the country and abroad
fear a return to Soviet-style repression. For the
outside world this may come as a surprise, but
human rights activists have been ringing the
alarm bells for a few years. Ever since Vladimir
Putin took power, the human rights situation
has deteriorated. One of the warning signs was
the return of the use of psychiatry for political
purposes, to ‘prevent’ social or political activism
or to ostracise an activist.
A RELATED ARTICLE IN THE HUFFINGTON POST WHICH MAY BE OF
Does the Disappearance of Ameila Earhart's Aeroplane, and Similar
Enigmas, Reveal Your Psychology?
When puzzling things happen which cannot be readily explained by
official accounts - how does the public decide what to believe?
What you end up accepting as true, about what really happened when
a plane goes missing, for example, might reveal more about your
personality, than you realise.
New research has examined in unprecedented detail the public's
beliefs over the disappearance of famous aviator Amelia Earhart and
her navigator Fred Noonan, 70 years ago. This remains one of the
most notorious flight disappearances. Speculation over what
happened to their missing plane has spawned a small industry in
books and theories.
Psychologists investigating pubic beliefs about what truly happened
to Amelia Earhart have now found that conjecture over similar
events, is associated with your intelligence, and even how
agreeable your personality is.
Amelia Earhart, was an aviation pioneer, the ﬁrst woman to receive
the Distinguished Flying Cross; setting numerous aviation records.
In 1937 Earhart attempted to fly around the world with second
navigator Fred Noonan. On July 2, Earhart and Noonan departed from
Lae, New Guinea, destined for Howland Island in the central Paciﬁc
Ocean. But radio transmission with them was lost, and, despite an
unprecedented search, no physical evidence of Earhart, Noonan, or
their aircraft was found.
Explanations for the disappearance range from those generally
accepted by researchers and historians (that they ran out of fuel
and crashed at sea, or landed on an uninhabited island), to
unsupported claims (that Earhart and Noonan were in fact spying on
the Japanese in the Paciﬁc), to the bizarre (that they landed
safely and assumed new identities or were abducted by aliens).
Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham investigated the beliefs, over what
really happened to Amelia Earhart's missing plane, of 433 women and
481 men from London.
The study entitled 'Examining Conspiracist Beliefs About the
Disappearance of Amelia Earhart', found that only 32% of
participants in fact selected the most plausible explanation, as
ranked by experts with knowledge about Earhart or aviation history.
This theory is that their aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed at
sea, not far from Howland Island.
The research published in 'The Journal of General Psychology',
found just under 13% of the public shun this most accepted view,
and believe instead that the pair survived the flight, returned to
the United States, and assumed new identities (a theory deemed
relatively implausible by historians), while 4.5% believed that
Earhart and Noonan were abducted by aliens.
Almost 10% of the public believe Earhart and Noonan intentionally
downed their aircraft near Japanese occupied territory, so that the
US Navy could spy on the Japanese during the subsequent rescue
mission, and were safely picked up by the Navy.
When official or mainstream accounts struggle to account for a
significant event, so-called 'conspiracy theories' offer
Conspiracy theories might offer a voice for the powerless or
disadvantaged, particularly during crises when mainstream accounts
have become erroneous or unreliable - a chink in the armour of the
On the other hand, 'conspiracy theories' may serve to bolster
self-esteem - 'I'm cleverer than the official man on TV because I
can work out what's really going on'. The ability to express an
arresting alternative account might impress an audience, and gain
attention as well as respect socially.
But do such alternative theories about what really happened merely
reveal the believer to be paranoid?
This study suggests it is personality and other psychological
traits that are associated with conspiracist ideas.
Perhaps the more mistrustful believe in a vast, insidious,
effective international conspiratorial network, perpetrating
fiendish acts. Evidence that believing in conspiracy theories
simply means more paranoia, rather than deeper insight, comes from
studies which find those who subscribe to conspiracy theories, are
more likely to start believing plots that are definitely fictional.
These are conspiracy theories that have been made-up for the
purposes of conducting psychology experiments on them, but do not
in fact exist outside the laboratory.
Previous psychological research has found that being attracted to
conspiracy type theories, for example, over what really happened
when a plane goes missing, might be associated with greater
alienation from those around you, more distrust in authority,
elevated political cynicism, a deeper sense of powerlessness and
The new study, from authors based at University College London and
the University of Westminster, on what people consider really
happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, found that believing in
less plausible, or less accepted, theories was associated with your
personality being more 'disagreeable', which means your character
could be more suspicious and antagonistic.
The study also found that that trust in less reputable explanations
for the disappearance of the plane was associated with faith in
other conspiracies, and possibly with lower intelligence.
It has been suggested that the more simplified explanations of
complex phenomena offered by conspiracy theories, are more readily
accepted by those with lower intellectual ability.
Perhaps the most sobering finding of the Amelia Earhart study is
that only 32% of participants selected the most plausible
explanation for her missing plane, as ranked by Earhart or aviation
This minority might indicate a significant, and even growing gap,
between official or expert accounts of mysterious or unexplained
phenomena, and what the public believe.
One should be cautioned against drawing links between the Amelia
Earhart example and the missing Malaysian Airlines Jet, as they are
very different types of event.
But Governments are concerned about the spread of rumours, when
official explanations struggle to convince. This can cause panic,
undermining public confidence in leaders and social order.
'Someone's suppressing the truth' begins to grow as a conviction
explaining this type of enigma.
So significant puzzles that gain world attention, even after the
mystery is resolved, could have wider repercussions.
Perhaps missing planes and similar incidents are evidence that the
authorized versions of reality need to be scrutinised a lot more
closely, than we would otherwise routinely feel comfortable, given
how much we rely on official reassurance over what is safe, and
It's only if we are prepared to confront this discomfort, that we
might discover, the truth is not always as it is presented.
Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud
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This podcast has been made
on behalf of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) by Raj Persaud
and Peter Bruggen
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