Thursday, 24 March 2016

Exploring Madness | Mental Illness in the Past

One of my main fears when it comes to my mental illness is THE ASYLUM. Yes, it deserves to be written in capital letters. And yes, I know that it's not what we call psychiatric wards and hospitals nowadays. But when I think of the word ‘asylum’ I feel fear. It's one of those powerful words that automatically conjures up images....
- Locked away
- Straitjackets
- Dangerous
- Insane
- Deviant
- Moral degenerates
- Incurable
- Mania
- Lobotomy
- Deranged
- Melancholia
Often I find myself stuck in past perceptions of mental illness. It’s a fascinating topic; the treatment of patients, how much changed over a short period of time. But it’s scary when you live with the knowledge that just over 100 years ago, I would have been one of those locked up patients. It sounds silly to find yourself stuck in thoughts about a past you did not experience, but it's something I have found myself thinking about this month. The past continues to shape how mental illness is discussed today.

Mental hospitals continue to be depicted as old-fashioned, out-of-touch insane asylums in movies and on TV, continuing to reinforce the modern day images of mental illness. (See my post on Asylums at Halloween for more.)

I still have to listen to jokes about padded cells and straitjackets when someone acts in a way deemed to be ‘crazy’, abnormal or different. It makes me uncomfortable. It should make everyone uncomfortable, but instead these perceptions are commonplace.

How mental illness was treated in the past shapes how it is viewed in society today. So I've decided to explore the madness.

Mental illness isn’t a recent discovery. It’s been around ever since people began keeping records. You'll find reference in the classical Ancient Greek texts to people being mentally tortured by the gods. You’ll find reference to towns and cities that were filled with lunatic asylums and madhouses to keep the insane away from society. Shakespeare's Macbeth references a 'mind diseased'. His other plays also explore mental illness; such as King Lear and Hamlet.
 One was often deemed 'mad' by a loved one or in a court of law. There was no hope of treatment or a cure for these ailments until the Nineteenth Century. Finding a cure wasn’t even considered.
"Insanity is the scourge brought down on sinful men by the wrath of the Almighty" - George Man Burrows
The Spanish Inquisition involved the torture and execution of people with mental illness.
Heretics, often people with psychosis, were burned at the stake during the Renaissance. (Source)
A play mocking mental illness called Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) was published in the 1600s.
In Bedlam's Hospital for the Insane in London, inmates were displayed for the public in the hospital's gardens for a fee in the 1700s. You could observe them as if animals in a zoo.

Charlotte Bronte’s depiction of a savage lunatic, a 'mad' wife living in the attic, in Jane Eyre mars the romantic story and further reinforces misconceptions about mental illness. The character, and mental illness itself, is something to fear, to lock away, to keep out of sight.

In 1900s England and America under the concept of eugenics there were discussions to sterilise asylum patients to prevent the ‘insane’ gene being passed on. Such a policy was later adopted by Nazi Germany.

Homosexuality was treated as a mental illness until the late 1900s; it was seen as something that could be cured.

The twentieth century saw scandal after scandal in the asylums emerge. The use of chains, straight-jackets, forced ECT treatment, the physical and sexual abuse of patients. It’s easy to take advantage of the vulnerable. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which made me fear ever being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, continued to portray mental health staff in this way. Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' similarly describes inhumane ECT treatment.
"The popular media images, whether in films, television, or in books about lunatic asylums tend towards bleak views of imprisonment, harsh uncaring attendants, and patients wandering around in a dazed, detached state, wearing straight jackets or having frenzied psychotic fits." - 'A space of their own: The Archaeology of Nineteenth Century Lunatic Asylums', Susan Piddock
Until 1993, suicide was a criminal offense in Ireland. That's the not so distant past; one in which I was already alive.

Treatment of those with a mental illness has come a long way. At least at home in Ireland, mental health and suicide are increasingly discussed in the media. There is still a stigma attached to the topic, and to particular aspects of the topic especially, but a growing number of conversations are working to defeat that.

However, other parts of the globe continue to treat those who can be labelled as 'mad' inhumanely. Just this week the Guardian published a story on how mentally ill Indonesians were being chained and confined to small cells. The very past practices we eradicated continue to be implemented in other countries. It's scary and dehumanizing. I go from fearing having been born 100 years ago, to fearing what would have happened if I were born in places like Indonesia. How would my madness have been treated?

Looking at how far we've come gives me a sense of gratitude; but we still have a long way to go to tackling stigma across the globe. But living in fear of 'what ifs' helps no one. I'm lucky to have been born when and where I was. I'm lucky that I was never committed to a stereotypical asylum.
Acknowledging and exploring the past does not have to be a negative thing. It can remind us of how far we've come, what we have to be grateful for, and inspire us to cultivate further change. And that's how I want to view the history of madness.

Next month I want to free myself from the past; both my own past experiences and my fears with April's resolution Be Free.

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