Although she does not name the illness for which she was diagnosed, it was ‘hysteria’, an affliction doctors ascribed especially to young, independent and assertive women. It was often regarded as short-hand for sexual voraciousness. Rather obviously, then, hysteria involved the entire body, not just the ‘mental’ bit.
Nor was she admitted to a ‘mental hospital’. She was admitted to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. No room for ambiguity there. The asylum in those days was an unhappy marriage of a prison and a hospital. The insane were on the inside and the sane were on the outside.
Notwithstanding the title of David Rosenhan’s ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’ (1973), he and his fellow pseudo-patients walked into the categorizing arms of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (1968) of the American Psychiatric Association. No binary divisions here, but 182 ‘disorders’. (There are a lot more now). One pseudo-patient was categorized as manic-depressive and the rest as schizophrenic. All bona fide ‘mental’ illnesses.
They were admitted and detained in what were variously described as psychiatric or mental hospitals.
So what had happened between the 1880s and the 1970s for the ‘mental’ to break free of its bodily moorings?
Some preliminary points.
The counterpart of ‘mental’ is physical, which, in this case, means bodily or somatic. There are ‘real’ illnesses and there are intangible ‘mental’ illnesses.
And within the ‘mind’ of the mentally ill there is an imbalance between cognition and emotion—as in ‘he killed himself because the balance of his mind was disturbed’. People are mad or mentally ill because their behaviour is uncontrolled by reason or judgment. Treatment focuses on how best to recalibrate this disturbed balance, using psychotherapy and/or psychopharmacology.
But as anyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness knows, it effects every fibre of your being, including most of your organs and limbs. It’s not just the bit above your shoulders that’s a problem.
And as anyone socially connected with a mentally-ill person knows only too well, all who come into contact with this person get to be affected too. For example, a depressed person is a black hole of negative energy, draining the life out their nearest and dearest. Not since the days of Newton has there been such an example of action-at-a-distance.
Mental illness is simultaneously mental, somatic and social. Running between these levels is the emotional. Perhaps we should be speaking of emotional rather than mental health?
In fact, the causation may run in both directions.
Consider the possibility that the mentally-ill embody social ills, in the same way that canaries down mines detected gas by dying. Perhaps mental illness is a rational response to mad social situations. If that were so, we’re doing the equivalent of resuscitating canaries and sending them back down the mine.
Like the fool in Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps the ‘mad’ are the only ones who get to speak the truth.