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  • Writer's pictureMaddelynn Hatter


"There is nothing wrong with me—except I was born at least two thousand years too late. Ladies of Amazonian proportions and Berserker propensities have passed quite out of vogue and have no place in this too damned civilized world … here I sit—mad as the hatter—with nothing to do but either become madder and madder else recover enough of my sanity to be allowed to go back to the life which drove me mad." - Lara Jefferson

Who came up with the term mental illness or madness anyway?

How did it start?

Are we unaware of the history, meanings, and definitions we live in daily?

While I was in my early years of school, I asked myself these questions and began to do a self-study interest. I gravitated toward Women and Madness and other feminist studies. What I learned was not what I was learning in medical school.

Medicine and Psychiatry have switched back and forth between science and the spiritual.

In the 1400s, madness was defined as having the devil or evil spirits possessing the human mind. In the 1500s, they began to view women as witches and killed them. This went on until the 1750s. Over 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft, and in those 250 years, 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed.

By the 1700s, madness was no longer seen as being spirit possessed but was considered a human weakness. They stopped executing women for witchcraft after that.

By the 1800s, madness was connected to female hysteria. This was when modern medicine became scientific and biological. Doctors would assert female clitoris' be removed because they thought hysteria was caused by masturbation.

In the 1850s, there was a presumed mental illness called Drapetomania, also known as slave disease. A white male American physician hypothesized this as the cause of enslaved Africans wanting to flee captivity.

The view was that slave life was so pleasant that only the mentally ill would want to run away. 🙄 The ignorance and arrogance in that baffle me.

The desire for freedom is a natural human instinct.

In the 1940s, women began to work outside of the home and started to gain freedom. Physicians would prescribe women to stay home so as to not injure their reproductive organs.

By 1950, clinicians were still being taught that women suffered from penis envy, a Freudian theory that proposes that girls feel deprived and jealous that they don't have a penis. 😒

Women were also seen as subordinate to men, weak, passive, dependent, smothering, faithful to their husbands, and, oh yea, heterosexual.

Homosexuality was illegal until 1963 and considered a mental health disease until 1973 - when it was taken out of the DSM (Diagnostic Tool for Mental Disorders).

No one ever realized that being oppressed was traumatizing. Instead, women were blamed for their misery, rape, or incest. Then diagnostically pathologized as being "seductive," "sick," "crazy," "mad," wanting attention, or being manipulative. Women were viewed as a mental illness, hysterical, and driven mad by their hormones.

Did you know that "hysterics" comes from the word, "Hystero", meaning womb. In fact, psychiatry originated from the disciplines of women's issues.

Men were viewed as mentally healthy in the 1950s/1960s.

Sexual predators, mass shooters, serial killers, pedophilia were not diagnostic categories yet and men were not pathologized for being drug addicts, alcoholics or abusive.

Researchers blamed the mother, never the father, for sending their sons over the edge. But really, there was an understanding and forgiveness of these "super manly men" and letting "boys be boys."

In the 1800s and 1900s, European and North American men had the legal right to lock up their wives or daughters in mental asylums.

These authoritarian, abusive, alcoholic, and insane husbands had their wives and daughters mentally imprisoned, sometimes forever. It was used as a way of punishing the daughter or wife for being too much, thinking for themselves, or to marry other women.

So, were women really insane? Or did they suffer from postpartum depression? Had they been abused or raped, were members of the working poor?

Were they well educated and privileged, who could no longer cope with their narrow social role? Or whether they had been suppressed for too long and had worked too hard for too long, fatigued beyond belief.

Nevertheless, these women were not treated as humans having a normal reaction to human circumstances. They were enslaved and not given the proper medical help that they needed.

Many women with disabling medical illnesses, such as food allergies, Lyme disease, or endocrinological disorders, were being mentally diagnosed and sedated rather than tested or treated for medical conditions.

They ended up being put in shackles, straight jackets, balls, and chains. Sent to the slaughterhouse, the place of punishment, to leave hope behind in the darkness. Beaten, deprived of the sun, of eating, of sleep, and from the outside world. Some were murdered, and some took their own lives. Any chance for sanity was shattered under these pressures. A Hell. A living death.

Women have had to suppress everything. Some have insisted that although they heard voices, wanted to die, tried to kill themselves, were highly anxious, and could not function, they were not and never had been "mentally ill."

This has led women into hidden addictions, alcoholism, suicide attempts, and self-mutilation.

Many women have struggled with eating disorders and attempted to have the perfect body, seeking the approval of men and minimizing their chances of being hospitalized.

As time has gone on, women have been deemed crazy or a slut when they have reported being sexually harassed or raped.

Even if women who are well educated and accomplished, they still dealt with sexism and unequal pay. Women have always been one man away from welfare or homelessness.

Being a single woman, a single poor woman cannot afford any type of mental break. They have had to keep going no matter what.

When the workload, stress, heartbreak, and disasters pile up, and she cracks - just like any human would under the same circumstances - she is sent to a psychiatrist to be diagnosed, medicated, and shipped off to a mental asylum. She can't afford private therapy anyway.

This had become my reality too.

At least now in the 21st century mental health world we don't practice lobotomies, put people in comas, or let people bleed out. We have gotten a little brighter when it comes to safer treatments for mental health. However, the stigma remains, and social expectations rage around women and mental illness in this society.

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