Mental Illness and Stigma in History

2009 March 30
by moritherapy

This is a guest post by Ian Campbell. Ian is a psychology student and blogger, diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety, who can be found at Graveyard Contemplations.

As the date for Mental Health Camp approaches, I find myself more and more excited. I’m not excited at attending; unfortunately, being a poor student doesn’t lend itself to travel so much. But what I’ve read so far, and the very prospect of discussing the stigma of mental illness and how to combat it with emerging technology, really make me hopeful, not to mention glad that someone is taking up the cause.

I’m a firm believer in developmental models; aspects of our culture don’t just appear, they develop from previous and current cultures rather organically. Views of mental health, and accompanying stigma, are no different. Current cultural perceptions of mental health are connected to those of the past, and in confronting the stigma we deal with today, it’s important to look at all three spots on the timeline: past history, present realities, and future possibilities. This is by no means a comprehensive view; more, what I consider an interesting snippet of the subject.

Mental Illness in History

Most of us are familiar with some aspects of the history of abnormal psychology. The theory of humours is well-documented, and while important, doesn’t have as much of an effect on current opinion as cultural and religious views. Humours were the topic of physicians and philosophers, the experts of their time; for present purposes, it’s more important to consult the non-experts. I want to ferret out a few cases and aspects that I think are important to note.

When looking at the history of medical science, few cultures were more important than the ancient Greeks. They provided, arguably, most of the underpinnings that allowed step-by-step progression from religion and superstition to empiricism. However, it needs to be acknowledged that what have come to be seen as game-changing philosophies weren’t representative of the culture at large, only a select few (harkening back to the “experts versus non-experts” theme). To get a better cultural cross-section of the Greeks, an example from their literature and mythology is warranted. Aeschylus’ Eumenides, part of his Oresteia, presents us with the story of Orestes being pursued by the three Erinyes (Furies), goddesses intent on driving him mad in revenge for killing his mother. Another story has one Erinye, Tisiphonie, drive mad King Athamas for a wrong committed against the goddess Hera. Further mythology about the three dreaded goddesses follow suit. The Erinyes are seen in Greek mythology as beings of balance who act out of revenge for universal wrongs. The implication is clear: madness was inflicted upon mortals for transgressing against universal norms as well as deities.

The Greeks’ was not the only religious viewpoint that spoke along those lines. Saint Augustine, arguably one of the most important figures in western Christianity, considered depression to be a sign of disfavor from God. To that can be added the Job reference about being tested by God; given that context, depression becomes something to endure but not complain about. The Quran of Islam carries a similar philosophy of purification through trial, as well as punishment for misdoings, that have been applied to depression and similar topics.

However, there are some cases that throw any absolutist statement about any religion or culture in history out the window, as regards treatment of mentally ill. Often, society’s reaction to an individual’s mental illness depended on that individual’s position and finances. But there were rare cases where social status had nothing to do with the acceptance or at least tolerance found. Socrates himself spoke of the benefits of mental illness, believing it was a divine gift. But up until the 18th century, the general view was both theological and stigmatic.

Consider Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224). Christina was a Belgian who (likely) suffered from epileptic seizures. Just as much or moreso than purely mental illnesses, seizures were often viewed through a demonistic lens, and epileptics were treated accordingly, often shut away or thrust out of communities. However, Christina was venerated by many, and her condition explained in a uniquely theological fashion: during her seizures, she descended to purgatory to provide some respite for sufferers there. Such an explanation set her apart from the normal “lunatics,” as did her periods of calm and rationality between seizures and her embarrassment and shame. While one could say that she internalized the stigma of the time, she also represents a valid exception to it.

There are a number of cases like Christina the Astonishing; sadly, there are many more that conform to the general principle of mental illness especially being demonistic. Such views contribute to the stances we take today, which may be more secular than those of twelfth century Belgians, but that doesn’t mean they’re better.

Views and Stigma in Current Culture

Obviously, stigma’s still a problem. Otherwise we wouldn’t need things like Mental Health Camp (as awesome as it is). People with a range of different diagnoses are described as lazy, spoiled, entitled, frail, weak, or otherwise negatively. We still deal with shock jocks and conservative pundits that describe depressives as “lazy” and tell us to “get over it.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons that, according to a NIMH/Harvard Medical School study, non-Latino white males were the most likely to perceive mental illness stigmatically. It’s hard not to notice a correlation when looking at the racial makeup of conservative talk show listeners like Rush Limbagh and Michael Savage.

Stigma isn’t just media-based, either. It’s sometimes hard to focus on the interpersonal level when everything screams global in this day and age, but it’s necessary. Research done by a nationwide stigma campaign in the UK found that your partner is four times more likely to leave you if you have a mental illness rather than a physical disability. Four times!

We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but all is not lost. Campaigns are increasingly springing up all over the place, Mental Health Camp being one of them. Others are nationwide like UK’s Time for Change. Still others are vocation-based, targeting stigma between police officers or in the military and utilizing technologies like YouTube to spread the message that getting help is okay.

The Future of Stigma….

…is up to you. If you’re reading this, you’re involved. You don’t have to hold a degree or attend a conference. If you’re reading this, you’re involved in the current and future directions that our cultures may adopt regarding mental illness.

Technology can assist us on all sorts of levels. The first is awareness, and relates directly to Mental Health Camp’s goal of integrating destigmatization with social media. Using the web, and specifically facilities like Facebook and Twitter to network and inform, we’re seeing facts and stories being distributed and discussions springing up all over the place. This helps interpersonally as well, as long as we encourage it. The availability of information to a partner, as well as an active support system to be there in the bad times made up of people that have been there, may help save some otherwise untenable relationships.

The second level technology can help us is experiential. Stigma takes a toll, causes isolation. By progressively working from virtual social interactions to real ones, I think virtual reality type technologies can help beat back that five-hundred pound gorilla that perches on your shoulders and constantly shouts “you’ll just embarrass yourself, things will go wrong, just stay home!”

As for me, I’m looking forward to the future. There are a lot of motivated, empowered people out there working for a better one. It’ll be interesting not only to see what the future brings, but how our current attitudes look in hindsight.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 March 31

    Very inspiring! Nice post.

  2. 2009 March 31

    Thanks Sand!

    Ian’s last blog post..Mental Illness and Stigma in History

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