The Times they aren’t a changin’

Posted by on 15 Jan, 2013 in Dr Wendy's Blog, Mental Health | 0 comments

They knew that, back then?

Hello fellow travellers of interesting ideas and curious wonderment.

I have included in this entry an extract from the inestimable The Times newspaper from 1853, cited in a book I am currently reading:

The Times - 1853

Nothing can be more slightly defined than the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity. Make the definition too narrow, it becomes meaningless, make it too wide, and the whole human race becomes involved in the dragnet. In strictness we are all mad when we give way to prejudice, to vice, to vanity: but if all the passionate, prejudiced and vain people were locked up as lunatics, who is to keep the key to the asylum? Cited in Summerscale, (2008:342).

This post is not about the book, however in order to give you a little context, I will tell you that it is about a murder that occurred in England in 1860. Through the woven intrigue about the case as described by the author, there is discussion around murder and insanity. I was taken aback by how the extract from The Times Newspaper of 1853 mirrors recent discussions in the world of mental health about the new Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Version Five (DSM-V), due for publication in May this year.

In keeping with the theme of newspapers I have included a link here to an article that appeared in The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia) in June 2012, which highlights some of the current discussion. Much of the debate about the DSM-V has focused on what is generally considered normal human processes such as grief, impulsivity, sadness and how they could be translated into mental illnesses should individuals meet criteria established in the DSM-V.

As a mental health professional with 30 years experience I have been interested in the debates between psychiatry and anti-psychiatry over the years, and I frequently ask students in my mental health classes two questions:

Who tells us that mental illness exists?

Why do we believe them?

I then encourage a robust debate around origins of ideas, evidence, life experiences and perception. I am cautious not to discredit the existence of mental illness (30 years in the role of a mental health nurse has given me much clarity around peoples experiences and reality that mental illness is real).

My interests lie in staying open to possibilities and being careful not to narrow the focus of a persons experience to just a mental illness. I wonder however, reading the extract from The Times in 1853 and from The Age 2012, how far we have actually come in the debate concerning mental illness. The language used in contemporary discussions about mental illness may be less poetic than that of 1853, it seems however, that as a society we remain conflicted as to how we determine whether or not someone has a mental illness. I believe it is important that we keep discussions open and that we remain curious, for after all:

Make the definition too narrow, it becomes meaningless, make it too wide, and the whole human race becomes involved in the dragnet.

I very much look forward to your comments.

Many cheers,

Wendy

Ref: Summerscale, K (2008). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House. Bloomsbury: Gt. Britain

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