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Societies’ Views on Mental Illness

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Societies have been dealing with social issues throughout history. Whether it has been social class, civil rights, tradition, or religious conflict, societies have been trying to either over come the issues or change them all together. One social issue, in particular, that societies of been trying to deal with is people having some sort of mental illness. Historians, researchers, and psychiatrists, such as Karl Menninger, can date cases of mental illness in India from when “the Children of Israel were still in Egypt and the Greeks [were] three hundred years away from their Trojan exploit” and after a millennium, a case of witchcraft emerged in 1489 (16). Often times people see mental illness as something horrible or as some sort of embarrassment to have to encounter, but little do they know that sometimes it is society itself that causes some cases of mental illness. Societies need to learn the history of mental illness, how it has been treated throughout history, and how they should actually be treating people with mental illnesses.

In ancient times, people had assumed that supernatural powers were part of anything and everything, and when it came to someone having a mental illness, people believed it was caused by “demons and spirits that had taken possession of the person’s mind and body” (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). It wasn’t until about 400 B.C.E. when humanity took its first step towards the scientific approach of classifying or treating mental illness with Hippocrates, a Greek physician (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). Hippocrates stated that mental illness is an “imbalance among the four body fluids called ‘humors’: blood, phlegm (mucus), black bile, and yellow bile” (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). His idea that mental illnesses had natural causes, not supernatural ones, was very simple, but incredibly revolutionary; for example, according to Hippocrates, people who had more black bile were more prone to depression, while people who had more blood were warmhearted (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). With this concept, Hippocrates integrated mental disorder into medicine, and this inspired people until the end of the Roman Empire (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533).

However, in the Middle Ages, thanks to the influence of the medieval Church, superstition overpowered the Hippocratic model there once was (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). Physicians and clergy were told to go back to the old ways of explaining certain abnormalities in terms of witchcraft and demons. Society then believed that people who had unusual behavior was the work of the devil and there were attempts to “drive out the demons that possessed the unfortunate victims soul” (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). Due to that mentality, thousands of people who had a mental illness were being tortured and executed all across Europe (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). With that same mindset, the first case of witchcraft was reported in 1489 (Menninger, 16). Accusations of witchcraft continued for over two hundred years, as epitomized in a young colony in Salem, Massachusetts.

Society would accuse individuals of witchcraft, find him/her guilty, and would have him/her executed (Zimbardo, Johnson, and McCann, 533). The mention of witchcraft is also in books or plays, such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. Miller’s four act play is set in early 1692 in the “Puritan New England town of Salem, Massachusetts” (Sparknotes Editors). Miller states that the play is “not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian … however, I believe the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history” (345). In “The Crucible”, “Reverend Parris’ daughter Betty, falls into a coma-like state” and because there can be no medicinal practice to be found to treat Betty, rumors of a collection of girls performing witchcraft are beginning to spread (Sparknotes Editors). This shows that just because there is no “cure” for Betty, society automatically starts to believe that witchcraft is involved and start to accuse and execute innocent people.

Mental illnesses and the people who have a mental illness has been treated various ways throughout history. Patients are now seen as social outcasts as compared the ancient ways of thinking that supernatural powers controlled the human body. As seen in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” society does not know how to react towards an individual that has a mental illness, let alone a woman. Back in 1890, when the short story was written, society did not know how to cope with someone being diagnosed with a mental illness, especially because society did not even know that there was such a thing as a mental illness. The doctors of that time thought they knew everything there was to know about any sort of illness there was and how to treat it. As the narrator explains, “so I take phosphates and phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics … and I am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change would do me good” (Gilman, 462). The doctors are having her do all these other things, but they never seem to listen to what the narrator has to say. They never believe that she could know anything about what is going on inside of her. Another thing society deals with is the embarrassment that a family member, friend, or loved one has a mental illness, “it is so hard to talk to John about my case because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (Gilman, 467). John, the narrator’s husband, is a physician that works on her case with the other physicians at the hospital. The fact that she is the wife of one of the physician’s makes it incredibly embarrassing the she is being treated there. John is not wanting her to be around anyone that could ultimately make fun of him.

This social struggle is also seen in an article written by A. Erdner, et al. in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. “Our [philosophical] premise is that a person’s view of life cannot be grasped from a single perspective … how people perceive humankind and the world influences their overall outlook on life.” Erdner, et al. also states in this journal article that “to understand what it means for people with mental illnesses to feel alienated, one needs to ask about their values and how they see themselves and others in relation to society.” The purpose of this study done by Erdner, et al. was to “explore views of life among people with long-term mental illnesses.” This study showed that: The participants’ lives could have been different if there had been more harmony, especially between their parents, when they were children. They would have had more self-confidence and trust in others [due to the fact that] most participants expressed distrust in others because they had ‘befriended the wrong type of person’ or had negative experiences in their relationships with others. (Erdner, et al.) This shows that these people who have a long-term mental illness seemingly did not have one person to go and talk to or discuss existing problems with (Erdner, et al.).

In today’s society, individuals with certain mental illnesses are starting to get treated as actual human beings, instead of a social outcast. However, with other mental illnesses, society still treats an individual hesitantly.

A cartoon shows how people of today’s society views individuals with a mental illness (Sakai).

Instead of pushing these individuals away, society should accept these individuals for who they are by learning more about all types of mental illnesses. This will not only educate society about how to detect mental illnesses, but it will also teach society a more humane way of treating the individual, as well as the illness. As stated in journal entry written by Erdner, et al., “the findings of this study indicate that people with long-term mental illnesses may want to feel a connection with the world from which they feel excluded, and to find meaningful relationships on their own terms.” Nevertheless, when someone is seen as “mentally ill,” societies tend to steer clear of that individual because they are not normal. When an individual with any type of mental illness is pushed away, this “increases the gap between how they perceive themselves and their ideal selves” (Erdner, et al.).

Often times people see mental illness as something horrible or as some sort of embarrassment to have to encounter, but little do they know that sometimes it is society itself that causes some cases of mental illness. Societies need to learn the history of mental illness, how it has been treated throughout history, and how they should actually be treating people with mental illnesses. In ancient times, society thought that supernatural powers controlled the human body, especially when it came to mental illnesses. Then, Hippocrates, a Greek physician, started to change the view into more of a medical problem. However, society’s view began to change once again when the Middle Ages’ medieval church took control of how society should view issues. The church was making society view mental illness in terms of witchcraft and demons. Later in history, society started to ignore those accusations and see individuals with a mental illness as social outcasts and as an embarrassment. In spite of this view, society should start to accept individuals for who there are, rather than seeing him/her for his/her mental illness. Thus, finding ways to integrate and include all those of varying abilities into the mainstream of society is a far more civil and just way of living than seclusion and separation.

Works Cited

Erdner, A., et al. “Varying Views Of Life Among People With Long-Term Mental Illness.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 16.1 (2009): 54-60. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Story and its writer: an introduction to short fiction. Eighth Edition ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. 462-473. Print. Menninger, Karl A.. The vital balance; the life process in mental health and illness. New York: Viking Press, 1963. Print. Miller, Arthur. “The Crucible.” Collected plays, 1944-1961. New York: Library of America :, 2006. 343-454. Print. Sakai, Charles. “Bloodthirsty Warmonger: July 2010.” Bloodthirsty Warmonger. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Crucible.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. Zimbardo, Philip G., Robert L. Johnson, and Vivian McCann. Psychology: Core Concepts. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2009. Print.

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