The History of Women’s Mental Illness

Throughout history, women, as the “weaker” sex, have been considered to be more susceptible to mental illness or emotional breakdowns than men. Many feel that existing stereotypes as well as our patriarchal society have contributed to the belief that women are more fragile and somehow mentally weaker. Prior to the middle 1800’s, women who suffered from depression or mental illness were believed to have a disease in their soul-in other words a form of evil for which there was no help or solution. These women were committed to insane asylums, and often treated worse than animals, being kept in cages and kept in filth, given limited amounts of food, and often had little or no human contact. Finally, reform came and beliefs very slowly began to change regarding the mentally ill. Those who suffered from severe depression or other forms of mental illness were no longer believed to suffer simply because God ordered it, but because of a diseased brain-which could often be cured or at least treated.

Changing Perspective

Once this shift began, women who had formerly been confined to a cage in a mental asylum, treated worse than animals, started being well-fed, given shoes and clothing, and finally, removed from their chains. The mid-nineteenth century saw a rush of doctors studying mental health issues, and experimenting on mentally ill patients. Since there was little formal training available for these doctors, many randomly followed their own beliefs regarding mental illness and tested their theories-no matter how wild or weird-on mentally ill patients in asylums. One example of one of these bizarre experiments was dubbed the Rotary Chair-the patient was strapped in a suspended chair, then spun around rapidly at a high rate of speed, causing them extreme fright and obvious discomfort in an attempt to “reset” their brain. Doctors of this era believed women were more likely to develop mental illness, most especially if she attempted to improve her station by seeking education or engaging in “too many activities.”

Should a woman, during the Victorian era, have an outburst, due to repression or sheer unhappiness or discontent, she was labeled “mad.” Women who showed any type of opinion which fell outside the normal role of women at the time were believed to have hysteria, and were put on bed rest, seclusion, a diet of bland food, and were ordered to refrain from mental activities such as reading. This solitary confinement often pushed the woman who was merely aggravated to a state that truly could be considered mentally ill. In short, the “mental illness” of women during this era was essentially an empowerment of men who feared the intellectual woman. Woman were constantly forced to fit the stereotypical mold of the passive housewife, or risk be labeled hysteric or mad, and sent to an asylum.

Today’s society often sees women who suffer from depression due to a focus on the overall meaning of their lives, and their importance in the world. Although nearly twice as many women as men will be diagnosed with depression, it is generally to be considered a by-product of low social status, the legal and economic discrimination of women, and traditional role expectations. Thank goodness the treatments have come a long way through the years, and women’s depression in particular is both more widely understood and more widely accepted.

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