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Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

Odd Man In

Residents of small Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, were not sure what to make of “odd” Joseph Gorham, who lived–and wandered–among them in the first half of the 1700s. He would walk unannounced into their homes, “Searching and Rumiging for Victuals in a Ravenous manner without Leave,” gorge himself on what he could find, sometimes to the point of throwing up, and often spend the night by their fireplaces or in their barns. Gorham had no wife, did no work, and neither bought nor sold, being unable to bargain on his own behalf. At the same time, he had a “Very Extraordinary Genius” in playing checkers, visually estimating the weights of goods, and recalling calendar information in exact detail. Also remarkable from our vantage point, his oddness was tolerated for decades.

Barnstable, 1690 building (K.C. Zirkel)

Barnstable, 1690 building (K.C. Zirkel)

University of Connecticut historian Cornelia H. Dayton tells Gorham’s story in the fall, 2015 issue of the Journal of Social History, a story only made visible by a court case over Gorham’s will when he died at 73 and a story with several implications for how we understand mental illness, community, gender, and class.

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Racism as Mental Illness?

Seg

(source)

In the current issue of Contexts, James M. Thomas, a sociologist at the University of Mississippi, discusses efforts to address racism as a psychological illness. He begins by noting that celebrities, such as TV personalities Michael Richards and Paula Deen, exposed making racist remarks have responded by seeking “treatment,” as if they suffered from a mental health condition like alcoholism or PTSD. Thomas goes on to describe unsuccessful pushes over many years, for example by the well-known psychologist Kenneth Clark, to make racism an official diagnosis in the psychiatric profession.

It seems odd, from an historical or a cross-cultural perspective, to diagnose someone with racist – or, more generally, xenophobic – views as exhibiting a psychological abnormality. By that standard, most people in most places are mentally “ill.”

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asylum

Asylum inmates, 1941 (Source)

We often see people on the streets who appear seriously mentally ill – arguing with the voices in their heads, yelling at all who pass by, unable to keep themselves clean. Especially with “deinstitutionalization,” the closing down of psychiatric hospitals about 50 years ago, the psychologically damaged seem everywhere. Their presence suggests that rates of acute mental illness have soared in recent generations. Have they? Being able to track actual rates of mental illness is quite difficult, but the bits of evidence we have suggest that serious psychological illness — let’s bracket neuroses for another time — were probably greater in earlier centuries than in recent decades.[1]

Start with an anecdote: Abraham Lincoln was famously a melancholy soul and not only because of the war. Even as a young man, Lincoln frightened his friends with spells of depression and intimations of suicide. Distress was all around him. Lincoln’s father had episodes of the “blues”; the violent madness of a 19-year-old neighbor impelled Lincoln to write a poem about the “howling, crazy man”; and the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln attempted suicide. Lincoln’s story illustrates historian Page Smith’s thesis that “anxiety and despair, as much as confidence and optimism, have characterized our history from the beginning.”

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