John Oliver on America’s mentally ill


Plus a qualification. . .

The very concept of mental illness remains a fraught subject for discourse, both for those to whom the term is applied and for those making the application.

Historically, stigmatizing labels have often been used to punish, banish, and even kill and used to incite mob violence. Just as a weed is a plant out of place, to quote my favorite college prof, so many of today’s mentally ill may be people who would fit comfortably into now-vanished societal niches where they wouldn’t be considered other than normal. And in the inverse conditions, men and women who once were considered sexual deviants and now joining the societal mainstream and are courted by advertisers.

Consider a mental illness diagnosis reported by the New York Times:

In 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, a Louisiana surgeon and psychologist, filed a report in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal on diseases prevalent among the South’s black population. Among the various maladies Dr. Cartwright described was “drapetomania” or “the disease causing slaves to run away.”

Though a serious mental illness, drapetomania, wrote Dr. Cartwright, was happily quite treatable: “The cause, in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.”

Coined from Greek roots for runaway slave and madness, drapetomonia wasn’t the good doctor’s only neologism. Atlanta social worker and mental health historian Vanessa Jackson quotes from another of his“scientific” diagnoses:

Dr. Cartwright also diagnosed Dysaethesia Aethiopica, or “hebetude of the mind and obtuse sensibility of the body-a disease peculiar to Negroes called by overseers-Rascality. “ Dysethesia Aethiopica differed from other species of mental disease since physical signs and lesions accompanied it. The ever-resourceful Dr. Cartwright determined that whipping could also cure this disorder. Of course, one wonders if the whipping were not the cause of the “lesions” that confirmed the diagnosis. Not surprisingly, Dr. Cartwright was a leading thinker in the pro-slavery movement. Dr. Cartwright, in his article “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, “ chided his anti-slavery colleagues by noting “The northern physicians and people have noticed the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring. They ignorantly attribute the symptoms to the debasing influence of slavery on the mind without considering that those who have never been in slavery, or their fathers before them, are the most afflicted, and the latest from the slave-holding south the least. The disease is the natural offspring of Negro liberty-the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks. “

And what did the good doctor use as evidence for the validity of his diagnoses?

To ascertain the true method of governing negroes, so as to cure and prevent the disease under consideration, we must go back to the Pentateuch, and learn the true meaning of the untranslated term that represents the negro race. In the name there given to that race, is locked up the true art of governing negroes in such a manner that they cannot run away. The correct translation of that term declares the Creator’s will in regard to the negro; it declares him to be the submissive knee-bender.

But there, almost certainly, some who are genuinely afflicted beyond the realm of mere external circumstances, those whose thoughts and emotions march to different drummers.

With that by way of preface, the latest from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mental Health

Program note:

John Oliver explains how our national system of treating mental health works, or more often than not, how it doesn’t.

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2 responses to “John Oliver on America’s mentally ill

  1. Pingback: John Oliver on America’s mentally ill | spiritandanimal.wordpress.com

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