Why are They Called “Shrinks?”

By Sean Jackson, B.A. Psychology; B.A Social Studies Education; B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; Reading level: Grade 10. Questions about psychology? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

The terms used to identify mental health professionals are as numerous as they are diverse. The terms “counselor,” “therapist,” and “psychologist are often interchangeable, even if the scope and practice of work are different for each. Related terms like “social worker,” “psychoanalyst,” and “clinician” are often thrown around, too, usually without much thought about how those professions differ.

Of course, psychiatrists are another type of professional who helps people with mental health needs. The difference between a psychiatrist and the mental health professionals listed above is that a psychiatrist has formal medical training. With an MD in hand, psychiatrists not only have the clinical expertise to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, but they can also prescribe medications – something that many other mental health professionals cannot do.

Despite these differences in title and job duties, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are sometimes lumped together with the colloquial term “shrink.” It’s obvious that “shrink” isn’t a shortened version of psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or any other term, so where does it come from?

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Origin of the Term “Shrink”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the term “shrink” is short for “headshrinker.” Headshrinker, in turn, refers to the practice of literally shrinking heads. South American and Southeast Asian indigenous tribes did this for centuries as part of their rituals. These rituals often focused on healing and religious purposes.

The Ritual of Headshrinking

The ritual of shrinking a head began by separating the skin and hair from the skull. After sewing the eyelids shut and closing the mouth with a wooden peg, the heads were boiled in an herbal liquid. The next step involved turning the head inside out and removing any flesh that remained. Once that task was completed, the head would be turned right side out again. The slit in the back would then be sewn together. A gruesome process, to be sure.

The process continued by placing hot rocks and sand inside the head. The heat from the rocks allowed the head to shrink further. It also served to tan the inside of the shrunken head. This is like the process of tanning an animal hide to preserve it. Hot rocks would be used on the outside of the head as well. The purpose was to preserve the shape and features of the head and to seal the skin for a more durable finish. Typically, charcoal from the fire was used to darken the skin. This was viewed as necessary to prevent the person’s soul from seeping out.

The final part of the process was to hang the head over an open fire to blacken and harden it. Once done, the wooden peg in the lips would be removed, and the lips would be tied with string to close the gap.

Headshrinking to “Shrink”

The question is, how did the practice of shrinking a head come to be associated with mental health? There are two components to the answer.

First, the literal practice of headshrinking serves as a metaphor for the figurative process in therapy of “shrinking” one’s problems by getting inside the head. Where ancient tribes went through a painstaking process to reduce the size of a human head, mental health professionals like psychiatrists work hard with their clients to reduce the effects of mental health problems.

Second, mental health issues and their treatment have long suffered from stigmas. For example, the notion that people with severe mental illnesses are dangerous is a pervasive stigma in modern American society (though stigmas surrounding mental health are far less common than they once were). However, stigmas, prejudice, and discrimination related to mental illness are often borne out of a lack of understanding and fear. The same can be said for headshrinking among indigenous tribes – it, too, was a process greatly misunderstood and feared by European explorers.

This common thread of fear and misunderstanding extended to the years after World War II. As Warner (1982) posits, “headshrinker” became a slang term to “devalue a psychiatrist” and likely devalue their work, too. However, Warner also notes that using the slang term “headshrinker” or “shrink” might have served a more useful purpose. “Shrink” could have been as a mechanism for patients to reduce their anxiety about the power a psychiatrist had over them in therapy. In other words, “shrink” might have come into the lexicon as a vehicle for patients to feel more powerful in the therapeutic relationship.

One of the first connections between a headshrinker and psychiatrist came in Time magazine. The article in question was published in the November 27, 1950 edition. The article reviewed the success of Hopalong Cassidy, a fictional character in short stories, novels, and, later, a television series. It mentioned that anyone who could have predicted the popularity of the character would have to be sent to a headshrinker or a psychiatrist.

However, it wasn’t until 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause that the term headshrinker really became synonymous with psychiatry. In the movie, the central characters discuss visiting a headshrinker. The specific line in the movie reads, “The boy ever talked to a psychiatrist? A head-shrinker?

A third significant event in the headshrinking-to-shrink timeline is the 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. In that book, Pynchon describes the character Dr. Hilarius, who was a psychiatrist, as a “shrink.”

Though each of these references is slightly different, they possess the common thread of being dismissive of mental health treatment and providers. This is much like the term “shark” being used as derogatory term for attorneys. Again, this fear of the unknown, in this case, mental health treatment, is similar to the fear Westerners harbored when they first learned of indigenous headshrinking practices.

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The Waning Power of “Shrinks” and Mental Health Stigmas

The good news is that the use of “shrink” to describe psychiatrists and other mental health professionals has all but disappeared in popular culture. This is largely because the stigma of mental illness has been greatly reduced. This is especially true in recent years, via efforts to encourage people to speak openly and honestly about their mental health.

As a result, mental health professionals are viewed less as holders of power in the therapeutic relationship and more as guides or companions on a journey with their clients. Likewise, there is a much greater understanding amongst the general public of mental health treatment and procedures. This has helped reduce the perception that mental health providers possess some sort of magical or mystical power to heal unseen wounds.

Still, it’s important to understand the context of “shrinks.” The term is a symbol of the shame once associated with mental illness. It also serves as a warning against viewing mental health professionals as witch doctors with otherworldly powers.

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