A Clinical Psychiatry News reader wrote in recently to object to the use of the term "shrink" in our column name. The writer noted, "We spend a lot of time trying to destigmatize the field, then use terms like this among ourselves. It’s odd and offensive." The feedback made me pause and wonder to myself if the term "shrink" is, in fact, stigmatizing.
Let me first give a little history of the decision to name our column "Shrink Rap News." In 2006, I was sitting at the kitchen table and decided I wanted a blog. I didn’t know what a blog actually was, but I wanted one. I went to blogger.com to set up a free website and was asked what I’d like to call my blog. On an impulse, I titled it "Shrink Rap." There was no debate or consideration, and no consultation. I liked the play on words with "shrink wrap," which is used for food storage, and I liked the connotation of psychiatrists talking, or "rapping." In a matter of hours, my impulsive thought was turned into the Shrink Rap blog.
Over the next few days, I invited Dr. Steve Daviss and Dr. Annette Hanson to join me in this venture, and Shrink Rap has continued to publish regular blog posts for 8.5 years now. Steve initially balked at the use of "shrink," but when he went to start our podcast, he titled it "My Three Shrinks" and modified the logo from an old television show, "My Three Sons." When we went to title our book, I wanted to call it "Off the Couch," but I was told that there was no room for couches anywhere. After many months of lively debate, we ended up in a restaurant with our editor and a whiteboard, and by the end of the evening we were back at Shrink Rap for a title for the book.
When Clinical Psychiatry News and Psychology Today approached us to write for their sites, we decided to remain with an image that was working for us, and used Shrink Rap News and Shrink Rap Today for column titles. Because the term may imply something less than a serious look at psychiatric issues, the umbrella name for all our endeavors is The Accessible Psychiatry Project.
So, is the term "shrink" actually stigmatizing? When I think of words as being part of stigma, I think of racial and religious slurs, and those induce a visceral response of disgust in me. For whatever reason, I personally don’t have a clear negative association to the term "shrink" or even "headshrinker." To me, it evokes something lighthearted and includes having a sense of humor about the field. I imagine if psychiatrists ever had actually shrunken heads, I might feel differently. Others may well have another response to the term, but the emotional link to something negative is just not there for me.
From a site called World Wide Words – Investigating the English Language Across the Globe, which is devoted to linguistics and run by a British etymologist, I found the following history of the term "headshrinker":
The original meaning of the term head-shrinker was in reference to a member of a group in Amazonia, the Jivaro, who preserved the heads of their enemies by stripping the skin from the skull, which resulted in a shrunken mummified remnant the size of a fist. The term isn’t that old – it’s first recorded from 1926.
All the early evidence suggests that the person who invented the psychiatrist sense worked in the movies (no jokes please). We have to assume that the term came about because people regarded the process of psychiatry as being like head-shrinking because it reduced the size of the swollen egos so common in show business. Or perhaps they were suspicious about what psychiatrists actually did to their heads and how they did it and so made a joke to relieve the tension.
The earliest example we have is from an article in Time in November 1950 to which an editor has helpfully added a footnote to say that head-shrinker was Hollywood jargon for a psychiatrist. The term afterward became moderately popular, in part because it was used in the film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Robert Heinlein felt his readers needed it to be explained when he introduced it in "Time for the Stars" in 1956: " ‘Dr. Devereaux is the boss head-shrinker.’ I looked puzzled and Uncle Steve went on, ‘You don’t savvy? Psychiatrist.’ " By the time it turns up in West Side Story on Broadway in 1957, it was becoming established.