Fear is a funny thing. When people are afraid, they need to feel a sense of control. Often, control may be perceived when blame is cast and scapegoats are named. If there is someone to blame, then there is something we can do. Fear can lead to irrational postulations of immense proportions; depending on one’s hierarchical position in the world, such postulations may be considered delusional or innovative.
The centuries-long persecution of witches was a powerful example of society and governments acting to combat social problems through the scapegoating of (mostly) innocent prey. Areas that had the greatest social and political turmoil were those that also persecuted the greatest number of witches. Most witch hunts were commanded by government authorities in response to chaos and death. Investigations frequently involved obtaining ‘testimony’ from subjective informants, including children, and confessions through torture. Execution was generally the official punishment. In fact, well before the infamous Salem witch trials, Connecticut held witchcraft as one of 12 capital crimes punishable by death.
Similarly, “mental illness” is the scapegoat dependably relied upon by politicians and fearful citizens to blame for senseless violence and chaos. According to Arthur Colman, “The basis of the scapegoat myth is this: the group is not to blame for its problems, its bad feelings, its pain, its defeats. These are the responsibility of a particular individual or subgroup – the scapegoat – who is perceived as being fundamentally different from the rest of the group and must be excluded or sacrificed in order for the group to survive and remain whole”. Unlike other scapegoats, such as Jews, Muslims or African Americans, mental illness is more akin to witchery due to its illusive, subjective, and culturally defined nature.
Scapegoating the “mentally ill” every time violence or chaos breaks out allows us to absolve society of any blame. It allows us to ignore the problems that give rise to anger, distress, and violence (i.e., poverty, rejection, discrimination, oppression, injustice, abuse, etc) and instead focus on the one thing that can never be proven or defined and yet so easily can be identified in another. It provides relief without any reflection on how our society and way of life, and the inevitability of death, may be contributing to the terror that overwhelms us.
In the same way that the “mentally ill” are defined by highly educated, elite, usually white professionals, so too were witches. Identifying, classifying, and interrogating witches was a highly sophisticated endeavor, so much so that an official publication, commissioned by the pope, was printed and reprinted over 13 times and held persuasion for over 200 years. The Malleus Maleficarum was used by judges and prosecutors — among others — in the effort to officially condemn those marginalized offenders of witchcraft. Further, once defined as such, defendants would often admit to unfathomable behaviors, such as flying on poles and causing violent storms, and behaved in deranged and frightening ways in tandem with expectations. In much the same way, the DSM acts as a manual with the façade of sophistication, that allows the elite class to identify and classify those that are different, abnormal, or deviant from the social norms.
Methods for testing the validity of accusations of witchcraft likewise had a veneer of superiority and complexity that allowed professional witch hunters to feel justified in their authority, as is also the case with psychological testing. For instance, witches might be bound and thrown in the water to see if they would sink, or would be examined for a “witches’ teat,” which was an extra nipple through which to nourish the witch’s helper animals. If one wanted to discover signs of a person being a witch, he or she was sure to find something. While fortunately we have moved past the era of phrenology, which was much more closely akin to witch tests, mental health professionals continue to evaluate for mental illness with tautological questionnaires based on politically-driven diagnostic categories examining deviations from cultural norms that subjectively can be found anywhere one may choose to look. And, as with the hysteria of centuries before, the more chaos and violence within society, the more governments and frightened citizens will continue to look for something and someone to blame.
Interestingly, many scholars have suggested that many of the people deemed witches were, in fact, traumatized citizens who were suffering the ills of rape, child abuse, poverty, gender oppression, and other psychologically damaging events. Not coincidentally, these also tend to be the most common factors predicting a mental illness diagnosis. Trauma survivors and those with developmental disruptions tend to make perfect scapegoats; they spent their childhood learning how to be just that.
Are you upset and struggling with this thing called life? Mentally ill. Are you violent? Mentally ill. Are you passive and avoid conflict? Mentally ill. Are you angry? Mentally ill. Are you energetic and happy all the time? Mentally ill. Are you numb and repressing emotions? Mentally ill. Are you anti-authoritarian? Mentally ill. What an easy solution. If every person who acts ‘crazy’ and does bad things is, by definition, crazy, then I guess the witch-hunters, er, mental health professionals are right. All the bad things that happen are because of mental illness.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646) is a prime example of hysteria reaching the Federal government, in much the same way fear of witches did 600 years ago. In the same vein as burning the witches in Salem, Murphy and others are suggesting that we essentially “round ‘em up, drug ‘em, and lock ‘em away” in an effort to ameliorate society’s fear of death and violence. Yes, there are likely many other political and financial reasons for this, but people are afraid and Murphy has provided a scapegoat and a method to give the illusion of action and control. People seem to believe that persecuting, excluding, and taking away the rights of people already in distress will somehow result in American society becoming whole and safe. Witch hunts did nothing to increase security or safety; they bred fear and hatred. Perhaps by understanding the uncanny and disturbing similarities between the hysteria of the 16th and 17th centuries and our current culture, we might be able to heed warning and save the lives of thousands of vulnerable and powerless individuals before it’s too late.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.