Next week is MHAW (Mental Health Awareness week) so I’ve decided to devote this post to the history of mental health.
Notions of insanity arouse when the world began to question behaviour, and what is considered normal. This ultimately comes down to what is deemed to be acceptable or indeed unacceptable.
At primary school we’re trained to abide the norms and values of society. Conform as your peers do, share with others and most importantly, respect authority without question. These core values don’t vary that much throughout life.
I don’t disagree. Every community needs a strong code in order to function. But I also think that there should be shades of grey. Strict rules expose those who are slightly different, without mercy or shame.
Tell me, historically what happens to people who are different?. . . They are separated from the rest of the ‘normal’ population. Hence, asylums were introduced as a place to house the unfortunate ones. Treatment was either moral of medical depending on how lucky you were.
The Victorian era of domestic bliss gave great focus to mental illness and coined my favourite word of all time ‘HYSTERIA.’ A woman who rebelled against the standard family ideal risked being declared insane. Refusing to submit to her husband or undertake maternal duties would land her in an asylum, and she had no right to contest or appeal. In fact, she lost all of her rights once committed. But what kinds of rebellious and hysterical behaviour did these women display? Well it depends. According to J Goldstein;
Hysteria, from the ancient Greek word for uterus, was a nervous illness. Symptoms differed from patient to patient, but they always involved both the body and the mind. Some characteristic symptoms included shortness of breath, heaviness in the abdomen, muscular spasms and fainting. Anxiety, irritability and embarrassing or unusual behaviour were also noted.
So basically ME on an average day.
The cure? Simple – find a husband. Or if you already had one, then have a baby. Domestic bliss was the ultimate treatment for hysteria. Fortunately I’m engaged, so maybe this time next year I’ll be cured. I’ll keep you updated. I could also go into Plato’s theory of the floating uterus, but I’ll leave that for another time!
I would like to say that this ridiculous notion of insanity died after the Victorian period, but the basic principles continued well into the 1970s. ‘Mother’s little helpers,’ does this phrase ring a bell? Women who did not stay at home and behave properly, risked being thrown into psychiatric care. The cure? Tranquilisers – to suppress all of those pesky emotions.
So let us summarise – if a woman doesn’t want to stay at home, clean, cook and have babies then there is clearly something wrong with her. She’s insane and must be locked away.
If a woman cannot alter her personality to be sweet, quiet and happy 100% of the time, then she must be unstable.
Trying to live up to the world’s ideal of perfection? No wonder so many struggled to the point of a melt-down.
The 1950s actress Frances Farmer was incarcerated for five years because she didn’t want to be famous and wouldn’t conform to the ideals of the Hollywood starlet, (her life story is both epic and tragic.) Marilyn Monroe also found herself banged up for a period after a ‘break down.’
Fast forward to the noughties and asylums have been replaced by psychiatric wards. Funnily enough I ended up next to one after an office Christmas party. A colleague got so drunk that she needed to be taken to hospital. Being the mug who volunteered because nobody else would leave the party a nice person, I accompanied her. Every time the Doctor came by I used really big words to seem intelligent and completely sober, (which always works. NOT). Yes she’s inebriated Doctor and hasn’t said anything coherent at this stage.
For over an hour a woman in the next room was screaming I’m a racoon and everything I see is purple – on loop. It was like Chinese water torture! When I looked at the security guard he just shrugged and said psych ward. Eventually she tired herself out.
Ironically, these days it’s often a challenge to gain the necessary help. One could even argue that personal care has been replaced by drugs. Why spend countless hours listening to a patient when you can sedate them? Or perhaps that’s unfair? The world has changed faster than the medical industry could keep up. Is a two month waiting list for CBT acceptable? No it isn’t, but the health budget can only stretch so far. Let us hope that the next government will bridge the gap.
When I think of the future I look forward to the complete abolishment of stigma. The stereotypes associated with mental health will vanish, and I hope that one day anxiety or depression will be spoken about with the same level of indifference as a headache.
Next week I shall be celebrating MHAW with a party and a donation to the charity Mind. Granted, the party might just consist of me in my pyjamas watching Dare Devil and eating pizza, but it’s still a party dammit. I’ll bring the roof down!