Stigma through the lens of history

I have written before how stigma is more than half the battle against a mental health diagnosis. Today I would like to add that stigma against any kind of mental illness has its roots as far back at the 1800s and early 1900s or before. During the “good old days,” family members with mental illness were sent away quite literally to “lunatic asylums” to suffer and die or to be locked in the attic of their homes. Often times there was not even a diagnosis rendered. There is one such mental asylum in Milledgeville, GA.

For more on Milledgeville, go to http://www.peteearleyhttp://www.peteearley.com/2019/03/15/the-worlds-largest-mental-asylum-from-the-horrors-of-the-back-wards-to-todays-jails-and-prisons/.com/ Sorry if I cannot link up properly here but this is a great blog post by Pete Earley to review. Please copy and paste in your browser if the link is not activating and scroll down till you get to the post above. My apologies for my linkage problems.

In Milledgeville, people who died of mental illness and related complications were buried with no more than a number to their identity. These “unmarked graves” are testimony to the fact that people with mental illness were not people they were numbers in a cog of a wheel that was mostly about doing away with any showing of mental illness in the family through the institutionalization process. There are some powerful pictures at the post above as well.

Here we are in 2021. I would have to say we have made loads of progress in the last one hundred years or even since the 1960s. That being said, the bar for that achievement is really really really really very very low. During this past time, treatment consisted of lobotomies and older renditions of electroshock therapy. Thanks to science and to the pharmaceutical industry we have plenty of medicines to choose from which keep many of us from going into the “mental asylum” or mental health hospital for good. Now we have short hospital stays and more helpful meds. There are some side effects from meds typically including weight gain and that definitely needs to be expressed as an appeal and answered. Also, there are still some of us with persistent or treatment-resistant mental illness.

Why am I harping on and on about the past? I feel the stigma toward mental health is ingrained in our society much like racism. There is no quick fix to either. Both have been on-going for more like 200 to 300 years plus. Mental illness in the home is also something that often is not talked about as are the impacts of slavery on multiple generations of folks who likely came to the US against their free will. Both mental illness and the ongoing impacts of racism are systemic and not easily tackled. In many cases we have only been willing to talk about root cause and reparations for slavery in the very close past weeks and months. I see no such parallel effort to address root cause of mental illness although this stigma is just as prevalent.

I cannot pretend to know the experience of racism in the US. But I do have a clear view of how people can be treated as less than for the color of their skin or the processing speed and accuracy and chemical make-up of their brains. How nice would it be to address stigma against race and stigma against mental illness with the same vim and vigor.