On Being Sane In Insane Places

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them? While we may be convinced we can tell the normal from the abnormal, evidence is not compelling. A great deal of conflicting data exists on the reliability, utility, and meaning of “sanity,” “insanity,” “mental illness,” and “schizophrenia.”

As early as 1934, Benedict suggested that normality and abnormality are not universal. Thus, notions of normality and abnormality may not be quite as accurate as people believe they are. To raise these questions is in no way to question that some behaviors are deviant or odd.

Nor does raising such questions deny the existence of the personal anguish that is often associated with “mental illness.” But normality and abnormality, sanity and insanity, and the diagnoses that flow from them may be less substantive than many believe them to be.

At its heart: Do the salient characteristics that lead to diagnoses reside in the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them? The belief has been strong that patients present symptoms, that the sane are distinguishable from the insane.

However, more recently, based on theoretical, anthropological, philosophical, legal, and therapeutic considerations, the view has grown that psychological categorization of mental illness is useless at best and downright harmful, misleading, and pejorative at worst.

Gains can be made in deciding which of these is more nearly accurate by getting normal people (that is, people who have never suffered symptoms of serious psychiatric disorders) admitted to psychiatric hospitals and see whether they were discovered to be sane and, if so, how.

If the sanity of such pseudopatients were always detected, there would be prima facie evidence that a sane individual can be distinguished from the insane context in which he is found. Normality is distinct enough that it can be recognized wherever it occurs, for it is carried within the person.

If, on the other hand, the sanity of the pseudopatients were never discovered, serious difficulties would arise for traditional modes of psychiatric diagnosis. Such an outcome would indicate psychiatric diagnosis says little about the patient but much about the environment they are observed in.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Experiment 1: 8 sane people (psychologists, paediatrician, psychiatrist, painter, and housewife) gained secret admission to 12 different hospitals. Beyond alleging symptoms, falsifying name, occupation, employment, no alterations of the person, history, or circumstances were made.

The events of the pseudopatient’s life history and relationships were presented as they had occurred. Frustrations and upsets described along with joys and satisfactions. These facts are important: they biased the results in favor of detecting insanity since none were pathological.

Apart from short-lived nervousness, the pseudopatient behaved on the ward as he “normally” behaved. The pseudopatient spoke to patients and staff as he might ordinarily. Because there is uncommonly little to do on a psychiatric ward, he attempted to engage others in conversation.

When asked by staff how he was feeling, he indicated that he was fine, that he no longer experienced symptoms. The pseudopatient, very much as a true psychiatric patient, was told that they would have to get out by their own devices, essentially by convincing the staff he was sane.

The psychological stresses associated with hospitalization were considerable, and all but one of the pseudopatients desired to be discharged almost immediately. They were, therefore, motivated not only to behave sanely, but to be paragons of cooperation.

‘The normal are not detectably sane’: Despite their public “show” of sanity, the pseudopatients were never detected. Admitted, except in one case, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, each was discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission.”

The evidence is strong that, once labeled schizophrenic, the pseudopatient was stuck with that label. If the pseudopatient was to be discharged, he must naturally be “in remission”; but he was not sane, nor, in the institution’s view, had he ever been sane.

The uniform failure to recognize sanity cannot be attributed to the quality of the hospitals, for, although there were considerable variations among them, several are considered excellent. Nor can it be alleged that there was simply not enough time to observe the pseudopatients.

Finally, it cannot be said that the failure to recognize the pseudopatients’ sanity was that they were not behaving sanely. While there was clearly some tension present, their daily visitors could detect no serious behavioral consequences — nor, indeed, could other patients.

It was quite common for the patients to “detect” the pseudopatient’s sanity. Patients voiced their suspicions, some vigorously. “You’re not crazy. You’re checking up on the hospital.” The fact that the patients often recognized normality when staff did not raises important questions.

Failure to detect sanity may be due to the fact that physicians operate with a strong bias toward what statisticians call the Type 2 error. This is to say that physicians are more inclined to call a healthy person sick (a false positive, Type 2) than a sick person healthy (a false negative, Type 1).

The reasons for this are not hard to find: it is clearly more dangerous to misdiagnose illness than health. Better to err on the side of caution, to suspect illness even among the healthy. But what holds for medicine does not hold equally well for psychiatry.

Psychiatric diagnoses carry with them personal, legal, and social stigmas. It was therefore important to see whether the tendency toward diagnosing the sane insane could be reversed.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Experiment 2: was arranged at a research and teaching hospital whose staff had heard these findings but doubted that such an error could occur in their hospital. The staff was informed, one or more pseudopatients would attempt to be admitted into the psychiatric hospital.

Each staff member was asked to rate each patient according to the likelihood that the patient was a pseudopatient. Attendants, nurses, psychiatrists, physicians, and psychologists – were asked to make judgments.

Forty-one out of 193 patients were alleged, with high confidence, to be pseudopatients: 23 by at least one psychiatrist; 9 by one psychiatrist and one other staff member. Actually, no genuine pseudopatient presented himself during this period.

Therefore, the tendency to designate sane people as insane can be reversed. Were these people truly “sane”? There is no way of knowing. One thing is certain: any diagnostic process that lends itself too readily to massive errors of this sort cannot be a very reliable one.

Beyond the tendency to call the healthy sick –
Once a person is designated abnormal, all of his other behaviors and characteristics are colored by that label. The label is so powerful that many pseudopatients’ normal behaviors were overlooked entirely or profoundly misinterpreted.

The data speak to the massive role of labeling in psychiatric assessment. A psychiatric label has a life and an influence of its own. Once the impression has been formed that the patient is schizophrenic, the expectation is that he will continue to be.

Such labels are as influential on the patient as they are on his relatives and friends; the diagnosis acts on all of them as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, the patient himself accepts the diagnosis, with all of its meanings and expectations, and behaves accordingly.

There is enormous overlap in the symptoms and behaviors of the sane and the insane.
The sane are not “sane” all of the time. They lose their tempers “for no good reason.” They are occasionally depressed or anxious, again for no good reason. Similarly, the insane are not always insane.

If it makes no sense to label one permanently depressed for occasional depression, then it must take better evidence to label all insane or schizophrenic for bizarre behaviours or cognitions. It seems more useful to limit discussions to behaviors, what provokes it, and their correlates.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Adapted from: On Being Sane in Insane Places by David L. Rosenhan. Originally published in Science, New Series, Vol. 179, No. 4070. (1973).

Now you know the power of Trauma Informed Care. Let’s turn this framework into a mindset for personal, social and political change. If you are unable to, you might need help first, to get safe or become ‘unstuck’ from trauma. Reach out for trauma informed care. #YouBelong

With love,

Dr Louise Hansen
PhD in Psychology
Human Rights Activist

#HealingTrauma #Justice4Australia #YouBelong

Gary Jules – Mad World (2001):

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for the daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I wanna drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world
Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy birthday, happy birthday
And I feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello, teacher! Tell me, what’s my lesson?
Look right through me, look right through me
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world
Enlarging your world
Mad world.”


For Colin (Metropolis).

“The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation from First Nations to all Australians to realise a better future. Learn more and help us educate other Australians.”



“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
“Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of support we received overnight! We’re able to fund one more Indigenous Psychology student for a full three year Psychology degree from just a 10 minute appearance on ABC #TheDrum.” – Dr Tracy Westerman AM

If you would like to donate, please visit:

My partner Marcelo Alegre Rubic who taught me do not let anyone control your life. #YouBelong

Trauma Informed World was inspired by Kopika and Tharnicaa; two faces that remind us everyday of Australia’s cruel refugee system. One of many systems in Australia that remind us of the negative operation of power. #HomeToBilo

Kopika (left) and Tharnicaa (right) were kept at Christmas Island Detention Centre for nearly two years despite trauma informed calls to return them to Biloela, Queensland. Tharnicaa has spent most of her life detained by the Australian Government and is still in community detention to this day. #YouBelong


***Since the creation of this website the Biloela family were released from detention, returned to Biloela and granted permanent protection in Australia. However, hundreds more people still remain stuck in a system that requires urgent reform.***

Welcome to the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. Join us to make positive changes for refugees around the world.


New Kaldor Centre policy brief proposes reforms to Australia’s temporary protection system | Kaldor Centre:


You can listen my talk with Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, President of Blue Knot Foundation on my own healing journey, training and study and how it has informed my work and advocacy for a trauma informed world here:

Trauma Informed World acknowledges and respects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which this educational resource was inspired. I acknowledge and respect Elders past, present and emerging. I honour the continuation of educational, cultural and spiritual practices and celebrate the extraordinary diversity of people and relationships worldwide. This website contains images of deceased persons. There are also swear words in some of the songs presented that portray intense emotions. This website is not intended to trigger people who have experienced trauma. However, if you do find any of the content triggering, each page has a link to Australia’s National Helplines and Websites for immediate mental health support. These are my own personal views and comments and may not reflect the views of my employer.

Australia’s National Helplines and Websites:


To provide the best information possible, Beyond Blue has listed national helplines and external services. All services linked to Beyond Blue are reviewed before they are posted.

Published by Dr Louise Hansen

This is a free educational website on Trauma Informed Care for survival and wellbeing. While each injustice differs, all stories share the same trauma: the negative operation of power. Let’s break the cycle of injustice and trauma together one day at a time. The byproduct of clarity is peace. Joy is peace dancing. Trauma is disconnection. Empathy fuels connection. Knowledge is power: “Love is the absence of judgment.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama. #YouBelong

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