This essay will deal with two issues. First, it will give a brief history of how mental illness has been treated, from the Middle Ages until now. Second, it will look at how certain diagnoses of mental illness (e.g., hysteria and depression) have been used to control women, that is, may have been names for a certain type of social relationship rather than for a mental illness as such.
The history of the treatment of mental illness is in large part the history of humanityÆs theories about the causes of mental illness. Mental illness has always been, and is still, viewed by the general populace as something different from physical illness. A physically ill person is still the same person, and is treated as such. A mentally ill person has often been considered to be a different person, and sometimes not a person, that is, not human.
In the ancient world, the commonly accepted explanation for mental illness and for many other illnesses was that the person had been possessed by an evil spirit. It was also often believed that such a person was at least partly responsible for such a possession, by having done something that allowed it to happen. This belief in possession persisted into modern times, into at least the eighteenth century. It was in good part responsible for the witch craze that spread like a plague across Europe during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods, during which it was especially womenùleast hundreds of thousands of themùwho were the targets for accusations of witchcraft and subsequent executions.
In most societies, including medieval Europe, the mentally ill were either taken care of by their families or left to wander and fend for themselves, much as the homeless are in our cities now. Similarly, if the mentally ill committed a crime, they were punished like any other criminal (just as with the homeless now), often by public beatings and torture. It was not until the eighteenth century ...