Mental Health: Past and Present
The mental health system has evolved due to the need to take care of and protect a minority of vulnerable people from themselves and others, and to protect the majority from disturbance by these ‘damaged’ individuals. It is a system consisting of the carers and the cared for. In essence it defines those exhibiting normal and abnormal behaviour. Historically “normal behaviour in one country might be considered abnormal in another, and the same problem applies to historical epochs. e.g. years ago in the West, giving birth to an illegitimate child raised questions about the mother’s mental health. In some Arabic countries during the Middle Ages there was a disease known as love. The symptoms were really rather severe… loss of weight, concentration, sleep and interest in life … the treatment was marriage” Staying sane (p.102).
Interestingly radicalism and even poverty have been seen as evidence of mental instability “Only decades ago, USSR psychiatrists were sometimes involved in diagnosing political opposition as a sign of mental illness”, in this case conformity to the accepted norm suggested a healthy response to state control! However, a culture based on conforming to the mainstream is historically anachronistic. Current norms are generally based on the radical changes of the past. Bertrand Russell pointed out that “As the reasonable man changes to fit society, all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.
If “there is no single accepted definition of mental health in any one country, let alone throughout the world” Staying Sane (p.101), it is necessary to examine the nature of what we are trying to understand; when does healthy become unhealthy? This becomes even more important with the increasing social and economic impact of mental health issues.