The psychiatric profession and the Australian government: the debate over collective depression syndrome among asylum-seeking detainees
William W Bostock
School of Government, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Abstract: Psychiatrists have long had involvement with the political process, both individually and as a profession. They have made valuable contributions to debate over such issues as war, conflict, terrorism, torture, human rights abuse, drug abuse, suicide and other public health issues. However, they have also been complicit in some gross atrocities. Over several years there has been debate over the Australian Government’s treatment of asylum seekers, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the Australian Government’s policy on grounds of its toxicity leading to a diagnosis of collective depression syndrome, particularly among child detainees, but also adult detainees. The official Ministerial response was to deny that collective depression exists and to assert that the concept is meaningless. Can this intervention by psychiatrists be interpreted as a product of earlier political behaviors by psychiatrists? The willingness of psychiatrists to cooperate with other professions, notably psychologists, pediatricians, physicians and lawyers, is noted, as is presence of minority voices within the Australian psychiatric profession. The significance of the debate over the mental condition of asylum-seeking detainees is that its outcome has implications for how Australia sees itself and is seen by the rest of the world, that is, its national identity.
Keywords: collective depression syndrome, psychiatric profession, political intervention, asylum seeker, Australian national identity
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