‘Blacks Are Immune From Mental Illness’


In this piece for Psychiatric News, King Davis, Ph.D. senior research fellow in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, writes on how tracing the history of how the mental health of African Americans was characterized during slavery sheds light on why disparities in psychiatric care still exist.


The proportionate number of slaves who become deranged is less than that of free coloured persons, and less than that of whites. From many of the causes affecting the other classes of our inhabitants, they are somewhat exempt: for example, they are removed from much of the mental excitement to which the free population of the Union is necessarily exposed in the daily routine of life. Again, they have not the anxious cares and anxieties relative to property, which tend to depress some of our free citizens. —John Galt, Report of the Eastern Asylum (1848), Williamsburg, Va.

In 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia will acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the first mental institution for blacks in America and the theoretical and political roots that marked its segregationist origins. In this article, I will discuss changes in causal theories, legislation, and public opinion in Virginia that linked blackness, mental illness (lunacy), dependency, and dangerousness as the predictive aftermath of slavery. It was this combination of sentiments, fear, and experiences that contributed to long-term differences in mental health care (excess admission rates, severe diagnoses, treatment, delayed help seeking). In addition, this article describes current efforts to retain, restore, and increase access to the 800,000 historical documents that describe the historiography of this unique institution and the thousands of people who were admitted.

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  1. By saying that slaves didn’t experience “mental illness” while free Black people did Galt was giving another example of cognitive dissonance. Slavery had to be protected in every way possible even though it was all chicanery. You had to hide the truth and the reality from yourself at all costs and therefore you had to practice cognitive dissonance.

    Thomas Jefferson, one of our revered Founding Fathers and the creator of the Declaration of Independence, also practiced cognitive dissonance big time. He wrote that slaves didn’t need as much sleep and rest as white people did. He stated this as fact. I think it’s plain why he would say something like this since slaves were driven to work from daylight to dark, usually seven days a week. And he had plenty of slaves to work his wonderful planation of Monticello. And some of those slaves were his very own children, children that he fathered by one of his women slaves. I think her last name was Hennings. I don’t think he freed his children until his death. Things that make you go hmmmmm………….!

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  2. You had a similar situation in Great Britain prior to the 17th century. Poor people didn’t start getting locked up en masse for lunacy until they started locking up the aristocracy and people with property. Bedlam (the institution established specifically for the confinement of pauper lunatics) itself was a pretty small affair until after the proliferation of private madhouses when it greatly expanded.

    Mental stability doesn’t matter so much in the context of doing hard manual labor. When the rich start flipping out though, watch out. Now you’ve got, as happened, an opportunity to capitalize on it big time.

    You don’t have “mental illness” in the animal kingdom either, at least, not until animals become pets. An animal that doesn’t know it’s place in the world is prey, or a casualty of the struggle for survival.

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