It wasn’t until about forty years ago that the theory of chemical imbalances being the cause of mental illness was widely accepted, according to “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” by Marcia Angell. Until then, people living with mental illness lived with a cloud of stigma and misunderstanding that, while present today, is steadily lightening as our views on the issue evolve and become clearer.
In the 1800’s, depression was not considered a mood disorder as it is today. Instead, those who had depression were known to be in a state of “melancholy” or “intense grief,” and received little to no treatment. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, is commonly believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, depression, and possibly schizophrenia. However, with few methods of treatment, she was sent to an asylum and was only allowed to be released under the circumstance of her damaged reputation.
As society delved into the 1900’s, a desire for treatment emerged, but misunderstandings still prevailed. Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman graphically depicted the strife of being a woman with a mental illness in her controversial short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. The story is a fictional first-person account of a woman whose husband sent her to a remote vacation home to rest as she presumably suffers from postpartum depression. The narrator knows that to get better, she must express her creativity and develop her passions. However, her caretakers insist that any form of mental stimulation is detrimental to her health; instead, she must be confined and refrain from any activity. As a result of her mental repression, her health rapidly deteriorates to the point of disfunction. Gilman followed her story up with an article, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,'” in which she recounted her own experience with mental illness and the intellectually suffocating “treatments” she received that ended up driving her “so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that [she] could see over.”
The 1900’s pressed on and brought about the First and Second World Wars, from which millions of soldiers returned home seeming unlike their normal selves. Ernest Hemingway, who served in both world wars, shed light on this unnamed issue in his collection of short stories, In Our Time. Each story is objective but unsettling, and is preceded by a vignette of a morbid war scene. This format is commonly interpreted as a reflection of the traumatic flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The PTSD-affected characters in In Our Time received no more treatment than being told to move on, but in 1980 PTSD was officially recognized as a disorder and the search for treatment began.
Today, our views on mental illness are much clearer than they ever were before. Depression is not dismissed as simple “melancholy” as it was in the 1800’s. Mental stimulation is encouraged rather than repressed in contrast to the turn of the century. Soldiers with PTSD receive therapy instead of being labeled as “weak” as they were in the mid-1900’s. However, people living with mental illness across all periods of time endured valid, genuine struggles. Whether mental illness was recognized at the time or not, their feelings were not diminished, their trials were no less real, their desire for help was no less urgent. And no matter how limited the research, people found a way to fight back and overcome their hardships.
In 2016, people with mental illness still deal with stigma and misunderstanding. But hopefully, we can reflect on our history and realize that our views have only evolved for the better. Our understanding can only grow clearer from here; until then, we have confidence that all the Mary Todd Lincolns, Charlotte Perkins Gilmans, and Ernest Hemingways of the past are cheering us on toward recovery.