Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill, and How This Helps America’s Illegitimate Authorities Stay in Charge

In my career as a psychologist, I have talked with hundreds of people previously diagnosed by other professionals with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, anxiety disorder and other psychiatric illnesses, and I am struck by (1) how many of those diagnosed are essentially anti-authoritarians, and (2) how those professionals who have diagnosed them are not.

Anti-authoritarians question whether an authority is a legitimate one before taking that authority seriously. Evaluating the legitimacy of authorities includes assessing whether or not authorities actually know what they are talking about, are honest, and care about those people who are respecting their authority. And when anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority—sometimes aggressively and sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes wisely and sometimes not.

Some activists lament how few anti-authoritarians there appear to be in the United States. One reason could be that many natural anti-authoritarians are now psychopathologized and medicated before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities.

Why Mental Health Professionals Diagnose Anti-Authoritarians with Mental Illness

Gaining acceptance into graduate school or medical school and achieving a PhD or MD and becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist means jumping through many hoops, all of which require much behavioral and attentional compliance to authorities, even to those authorities that one lacks respect for. The selection and socialization of mental health professionals tends to breed out many anti-authoritarians. Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities. Thus for many MDs and PhDs, people different from them who reject this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one.

I have found that most psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are not only extraordinarily compliant with authorities but also unaware of the magnitude of their obedience. And it also has become clear to me that the anti-authoritarianism of their patients creates enormous anxiety for these professionals, and their anxiety fuels diagnoses and treatments.

In graduate school, I discovered that all it took to be labeled as having “issues with authority” was to not kiss up to a director of clinical training whose personality was a combination of Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, and Howard Cosell. When I was told by some faculty that I had “issues with authority,” I had mixed feelings about being so labeled. On the one hand, I found it quite amusing, because among the working-class kids whom I had grown up with, I was considered relatively compliant with authorities. After all, I had done my homework, studied, and received good grades. However, while my new “issues with authority” label made me grin because I was now being seen as a “bad boy,” it also very much concerned me about just what kind of a profession that I had entered. Specifically, if somebody such as myself was being labeled with “issues with authority,” what were they calling the kids I grew up with who paid attention to many things that they cared about but didn’t care enough about school to comply there? Well, the answer soon became clear.

Mental Illness Diagnoses for Anti-Authoritarians

A 2009 Psychiatric Times article titled “ADHD & ODD: Confronting the Challenges of Disruptive Behavior” reports that “disruptive disorders,” which include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and opposition defiant disorder (ODD), are the most common mental health problem of children and teenagers. ADHD is defined by poor attention and distractibility, poor self-control and impulsivity, and hyperactivity. ODD is defined as a “a pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior without the more serious violations of the basic rights of others that are seen in conduct disorder”; and ODD symptoms include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.”

Psychologist Russell Barkley, one of mainstream mental health’s leading authorities on ADHD, says that those afflicted with ADHD have deficits in what he calls “rule-governed behavior,” as they are less responsive to rules of established authorities and less sensitive to positive or negative consequences. ODD young people, according to mainstream mental health authorities, also have these so-called deficits in rule-governed behavior, and so it is extremely common for young people to have a “duel diagnosis” of AHDH and ODD.

Do we really want to diagnose and medicate everyone with “deficits in rule-governed behavior”?

Albert Einstein, as a youth, would have likely received an ADHD diagnosis, and maybe an ODD one as well. Albert didn’t pay attention to his teachers, failed his college entrance examinations twice, and had difficulty holding jobs. However, Einstein biographer Ronald Clark (Einstein: The Life and Times) asserts that Albert’s problems did not stem from attention deficits but rather from his hatred of authoritarian, Prussian discipline in his schools. Einstein said, “The teachers in the elementary school appeared to me like sergeants and in the Gymnasium the teachers were like lieutenants.” At age 13, Einstein read Kant’s difficult Critique of Pure Reason—because Albert was interested in it. Clark also tells us Einstein refused to prepare himself for his college admissions as a rebellion against his father’s “unbearable” path of a “practical profession.” After he did enter college, one professor told Einstein, “You have one fault; one can’t tell you anything.” The very characteristics of Einstein that upset authorities so much were exactly the ones that allowed him to excel.

By today’s standards, Saul Alinsky, the legendary organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, would have certainly been diagnosed with one or more disruptive disorders. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said, “I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.” Alinsky also recalls a time when he was ten or eleven and his rabbi was tutoring him in Hebrew:

One particular day I read three pages in a row without any errors in pronunciation, and suddenly a penny fell onto the Bible . . . Then the next day the rabbi turned up and he told me to start reading. And I wouldn’t; I just sat there in silence, refusing to read. He asked me why I was so quiet, and I said, “This time it’s a nickel or nothing.” He threw back his arm and slammed me across the room.

Many people with severe anxiety and/or depression are also anti-authoritarians. Often a major pain of their lives that fuels their anxiety and/or depression is fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalized; but they fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cause them existential death.

I have also spent a great deal of time with people who had at one time in their lives had thoughts and behavior that were so bizarre that they were extremely frightening for their families and even themselves; they were diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychoses, but have fully recovered and have been, for many years, leading productive lives. Among this population, I have not met one person whom I would not consider a major anti-authoritarian. Once recovered, they have learned to channel their anti-authoritarianism into more constructive political ends, including reforming mental health treatment.

Many anti-authoritarians who earlier in their lives were diagnosed with mental illness tell me that once they were labeled with a psychiatric diagnosis, they got caught in a dilemma. Authoritarians, by definition, demand unquestioning obedience, and so any resistance to their diagnosis and treatment created enormous anxiety for authoritarian mental health professionals; and professionals, feeling out of control, labeled them “noncompliant with treatment,” increased the severity of their diagnosis, and jacked up their medications. This was enraging for these anti-authoritarians, sometimes so much so that they reacted in ways that made them appear even more frightening to their families.

There are anti-authoritarians who use psychiatric drugs to help them function, but they often reject psychiatric authorities’ explanations for why they have difficulty functioning. So, for example, they may take Adderall (an amphetamine prescribed for ADHD), but they know that their attentional problem is not a result of a biochemical brain imbalance but rather caused by a boring job. And similarly, many anti-authoritarians in highly stressful environments will occasionally take prescribed benzodiazepines such as Xanax even though they believe it would be safer to occasionally use marijuana but can’t because of drug testing on their job

It has been my experience that many anti-authoritarians labeled with psychiatric diagnoses usually don’t reject all authorities, simply those they’ve assessed to be illegitimate ones, which just happens to be a great deal of society’s authorities.

Maintaining the Societal Status Quo

Americans have been increasingly socialized to equate inattention, anger, anxiety, and immobilizing despair with a medical condition, and to seek medical treatment rather than political remedies. What better way to maintain the status quo than to view inattention, anger, anxiety, and depression as biochemical problems of those who are mentally ill rather than normal reactions to an increasingly authoritarian society.

The reality is that depression is highly associated with societal and financial pains. One is much more likely to be depressed if one is unemployed, underemployed, on public assistance, or in debt (for documentation, see “400% Rise in Anti-Depressant Pill Use”). And ADHD labeled kids do pay attention when they are getting paid, or when an activity is novel, interests them, or is chosen by them (documented in my book Commonsense Rebellion).

In an earlier dark age, authoritarian monarchies partnered with authoritarian religious institutions. When the world exited from this dark age and entered the Enlightenment, there was a burst of energy. Much of this revitalization had to do with risking skepticism about authoritarian and corrupt institutions and regaining confidence in one’s own mind. We are now in another dark age, only the institutions have changed. Americans desperately need anti-authoritarians to question, challenge, and resist new illegitimate authorities and regain confidence in their own common sense.

In every generation there will be authoritarians and anti-authoritarians. While it is unusual in American history for anti-authoritarians to take the kind of effective action that inspires others to successfully revolt, every once in a while a Tom Paine, Crazy Horse, or Malcolm X come along. So authoritarians financially marginalize those who buck the system, they criminalize anti-authoritarianism, they psychopathologize anti-authoritarians, and they market drugs for their “cure.”

12 Responses

  1. Mary Good
    Mary Good February 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm |

    Thank you for your article. I’m an anti-authoritarian, however, really, I’m just a 50-something year old good woman, who reads a lot and thinks and feels for herself.

    I don’t want any illegimate “authorities” to micro-manage me or my life and I’ve suffered terribly for this.

    Through the years, they’ve tried to medicate me, intimidate me, threaten me, scare me. I’ve been in car “accidents,” I’ve been food-poisoned, I’ve had many boring jobs where they’ve tried to force me to get with their program, whatever their program was, on any given day or week or year.

    Thank you for your courage.


  2. Melanie Vesser
    Melanie Vesser February 26, 2012 at 3:07 am |

    Before I stumbled across your article on Facebook,I was talking to my husband today saying I feel like Einstein. He thought I was being grandiose comparing myself to genius. I was trying to describe my anti authoritarian bones.
    Six days ago I was booted out of teacher credentialing program/ Masters program and told I could not go and say goodbye to the children the classroom where I am doing my student teaching.Initially, my supervisor got upset when I questioned the curriculum we are using. In Dec. she put me in program improvement and I have been jumping through hoops in good faith never dreaming that it would come to this. I have not missed a class. I have excellent grades. I have done everything to help the classroom teacher. I had the audacity to choose mindfulness as my area to research for my MA. She asked me if I thought the subject appropriate for a school in program improvement. I see mindfulness as allowing us all to discover our inner authority.
    I went to the student disability office 2 weeks before they booted me out of school at the suggestion of a friend. They sent me to an Educational psychologist who gave me 4 hours of testing and said I had some learning disabilities that the university would need to accommodate.Perhaps these disabilities are due to my drug use history; perhaps they are due to my age he said; or perhaps they are congenital. They also suggested that I get tested for ADHD, again at my expense. I do not want their accommodations to entail some pharmaceutical solution.
    When I told the Professors that I qualified for accommodations. One of them said,” I hardly think so. Your grades are good. Five adults find you difficult to work with.
    So now I have no job, no credential, and plenty of debt and plenty of time to “Occupy!!!”
    Thank you for your timely article! If you have any career advice, I am all ears.

  3. David Ferraro
    David Ferraro February 26, 2012 at 5:02 am |

    Thank you for this perceptive article. Some time ago I stumbled upend a press notice that “oppositional defiant disorder” had been added as a diagnosis, and recalled immediately that the Soviets supposedly so institutionalized political prisoners, people of consciene, and other inconvenient types. The authoritarian playbook is nothing if not predictable.

  4. Daniel
    Daniel February 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm |

    Thank you Dr. Levine, for your humanist, anti-authoritarian writings. Another great article; useful, insightful, accurate, and anodyne for all us freethinkers and dissidents.

  5. Shannon Coleman
    Shannon Coleman February 29, 2012 at 11:06 am |

    WOW! Thank you for this, i’ve just blasted your amazing, spot on quotes all over my Facebook page! You have just described my son to the tee! I have an 18 year old who was raised 50% of the time in a very loving, nurturing, free environment, where he was taught that he was special, unique and could do anything that he imagined. The other 50% of the time is was in a home of authoritarian control freaks, not to mention “pill pushers”, that told him to conform so that he could be “successful”. We fought this evil force as much as we could…but guess who finally won out? He was always arguing with teachers in school and labeled “difficult” when the whole time he was BORED and smarter than the majority of his teachers. He is now in an existential crisis in life…frozen in time, not knowing what to do with his life. He thinks that he needs to get a job in order to be productive but also knows that any job he gets will make him miserable because he won’t be able to “fake” it and be a kiss ass.

    He is now depressed and immobilized by the fear that he will be a failure no matter what he does. So thank you for this, I have passed it onto him, I can only hope that the new changes that we are seeing in our time will affect him sooner, rather than later. “Everything that society has told you is wrong with you…is actually what’s right with you” ~The Wayseers Manifesto

    We can BE the change by spreading the word and having courage to stand up and say NO more to those that want to put us in neat little boxes!

  6. Kerry
    Kerry June 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm |

    This article could be used as a test: “How to know if you are a Sheep?” Simple, because if you disagree with this article and agree with “going along to get along”…you are a dam sheep.

    Please check out Michael Tsarion’s work: http://www.michaeltsarion.com

    Tsarion (and others) reveal that this ever increasing Authority that’s coming from the top in society–is of no accident, but is planned in order to manage YOU (Animal Farm).

    People who can’t see this happening are under “Consensus Trance”. And anyone argues that their is no planned agenda of above–is already under the trance. It’s not just “doctors gone wild”.

  7. Alastair McGowan
    Alastair McGowan October 10, 2012 at 11:54 pm |

    It has taken me til now at the age of 48 to realise that i have strong anti-illegitimate-authority tendencies. Thanks to readings of Altemeyer, Levine and others it has finally become clear to me where my own psychology career needs to head…

    I experienced the same conflicts in early in life that Levine so clearly illustrates, defiance of any ‘authority’ not developed with consensus, never held a proper job, failed to do exams or schoolwork, but did my own education instead. At the age of 30 i knuckled down for ten years of various academic study but found psychology the most enlightening. Got a phd but found again i could not handle institutions, still don’t have a job in psychology and work as a self-employed craftsman. In the latter i find the freedom to create and make a living and contribution to society without undue authoritarian influence.

    But you now have me fired up Bruce. My specialism of applied cognition is not much use. I can definitely see some engaging if unpaid career in freelance work related to the psychology of authoritarianism that cuts across so much of our social world. Been reading on authoritarianism for many years out of interest but it never occured to me til now that i ought to shift my psychology ‘career’ towards helping to deal with this blight on humanity

  8. Jane
    Jane October 31, 2012 at 2:37 pm |

    Anyone have an answer for what anti-authoritarians are supposed to do for work/money?

    Shannon wrote: “He thinks that he needs to get a job in order to be productive but also knows that any job he gets will make him miserable because he won’t be able to “fake” it and be a kiss ass.”

    It’s almost immediately obvious to all the meet me that, although, I may look mainstream, I am not, and, usually shortly after they hire me, I’m done, either by my own hand or they discover who I really am and fire me.

    I wasn’t able to make it through the maze of higher education so I could pave my own way and the stress of not being productive or having a reasonable amount of earned money is taking its toll.


  9. kate clark
    kate clark December 2, 2015 at 10:18 pm |

    Self employment in the arts and small scale farming have kept me alive. I can work for others but I always found ways to do the work faster and better. You would think rewards would come but you must be prepared for loneliness. O never minded. I do use pot, but not everyday, and have found lsd
    to be very supportive of my mental health. Being aware and not willing to join is the most liberating life. But watch out for expectations of being part of a corrupt system.

  10. Eric Dynamic
    Eric Dynamic December 2, 2015 at 10:44 pm |

    I’ve said that the people who Invented “ODD”, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, for the DSM, are middle-class sycophants to the established order and have no shame ushering in “kiss the boss’s ass”-ism to justify themselves. They’ve discredited their profession in the act of copying the worst of the Soviet Totalitarian bullying of locking dissidents away as mental cases. Whoever strives to keep this ‘disorder’ defined in the books should be considered as committing Crimes Against Humanity. America was founded with Defiance, lest these traitors to the human race forget it.

  11. Aspy 68
    Aspy 68 March 28, 2016 at 5:42 am |

    Ahhh thank you for describing my entire life and interaction with society, the medical system, the “justice” system, and so many other things!

    My life-long anti-authoritarian friend recently said to me, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is insane.”

    To read a psychologist give a clinical description of my friends quote was inspiring.

    I have have always lacked belief that our authorities (owners?) mean us well, and this has been the basis of my lifelong struggle with society.

    Your paragraph, “Many people with severe anxiety and/or depression are also anti-authoritarians. Often a major pain of their lives that fuels their anxiety and/or depression is fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalized; but they fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cause them existential death.” is especially pertinent.

    I am insane … because I believe most of the world is insanely blind.

    I refuse to accept your insanity.

    Thanks again for your article. Maybe a few more people will understand their insanity … whichever side of it they are on ….

  12. William Ashton
    William Ashton August 14, 2016 at 9:23 am |

    Wow! The same thing happened to me (DCT, problems with authority) in grad school. The only difference was I wasn’t even in the clinical program!

    — A social psychologist.

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