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Posts Tagged ‘psychiatry’

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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