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Psychiatry limited : hyperactivity and the evolution of American psychiatry, 1957-1980

Smith, Matthew (2008) Psychiatry limited : hyperactivity and the evolution of American psychiatry, 1957-1980. Social History of Medicine, 21 (3). pp. 541-559. ISSN 0951-631X

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Abstract

Hyperactivity is the most commonly diagnosed childhood psychiatric disorder in north America. Most physicians believe that the disorder is a neurological dysfunction which is best treated with stimulants, such as ritalin. Accounts of the history of hyperactivity written by physicians, psychologists and even historians suggest that the disorder was always conceived as such. This paper argues that, on the contrary, the notion that hyperactivity was a neurological condition only emerged after vigorous debate during the 1960s between three competing fields within American psychiatry: specifically psychoanalysis, social psychiatry and biological psychiatry. Biological psychiatry won the debate, not because its approach to hyperactivity was more scientifically valid, but rather because its explanations and methods fit the prevailing social context more readily than that of its rivals. American psychiatry's refusal to draw pluralistic conclusions about hyperactivity undermined the development of a deeper understanding of the disorder. The history of hyperactivity provides an ideal lens through which to view the evolution of psychiatry from a field dominated by Freudian psychoanalysis to one rooted in the neurosciences.