Misconceptions, Myths, and Stereotypes
Throughout history, persons with mental retardation, autism, and mental-health experiences have been devalued and misunderstood. It is a shameful, incomprehensible history of poor judgment, at best, and ignorance at its most appalling. If you are a very sensitive person, you may wish to skip this section and read on.
In medieval Europe, those grappling with their mental health were considered harmless as long as they didn't hurt themselves or others. However, uncontrollable outbursts and violent, out-of-character behavior were seen as signs of demonic possession. This was possibly the root of the myth that these individuals were dangerous and to be feared. In extreme instances, exorcism was initiated in order to oust the unclean spirits. Some religious orders established care for those deemed “mentally sick,” just as others in need were cared for. However, the poor were often committed to asylums for the insane or “defective,” where they were treated with brutality and locked away like criminals. (In fact, until recent years, such unfortunate persons were even called inmates.) They were usually physically, mentally, and sexually abused, forgotten and allowed to waste away.
In seventeenth-century England, those with mental-health experiences were tortured and kept chained in dungeons with criminals, delinquents, and the handicapped. In one London hospital, patients were sometimes publicly flogged for the amusement of visitors; an inconceivable and grossly inhumane “entertainment.” This hospital was later known as Bedlam, a word now synonymous with “chaos.”
From the late 1700s through the 1800s, there were few champions of those with mental-health experiences. In taking charge of one French insane asylum, physician Philippe Pinel discarded the notion that patients were on par with criminals by banishing restraints like shackles and chains; instead, he allowed patients freedom to exercise on the grounds and bask in the sunshine. Dorothea Dix was a mental-health reform pioneer who also sought to squelch myths and stereotypes. Starting in the 1840s, she lobbied tirelessly for four decades to create thirty-two mental-health state hospitals as an antidote to the hideous abuses she observed. Dix even appealed to the pope by drawing his attention to the cruel treatment of those with mental-health issues.
“It's All Your Fault”
By the beginning of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis was the primary form of treatment for those in custodial care. Psychoanalysis, or the “talking cure,” was a movement spearheaded by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The goal, through clinical guidance, was for patients to talk themselves into wellness. While talking about one's experiences openly and honestly is still condoned as a healthy opportunity, it is but one treatment option. If someone truly experiences a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes symptoms like those of bipolar disorder, a holistic approach is recommended. Bipolar disorder is no one's fault and is often beyond the control of the person who experiences it; another myth is that—if wellness is truly desired—the person can “will” control over it. Those unable to exert sufficient control may be further labeled as weak, lazy, selfish, or attention-seeking.
It is perhaps a case of guilt by association that people with bipolar and other mental-health issues are stigmatized as being of low social class and intelligence. This attitude likely stems from a time when such individuals were relegated to communal settings with alcoholics, criminals, and those with mental retardation. The modern media has done little to improve the common perception of people with mental-health issues. Inconsistencies of mental health can impact anyone, just as physical illnesses can. While genetic predisposition is a consideration, bipolar disorder is an equal-opportunity offender. It is not selective among human brains, and it cares not for socioeconomic status or intelligence.