Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Progressive Era #America: #Mentalhealthawareness and discrimination #Aspergers #asylum

Mental Health Discrimination

Jeb,” Gideon said, taking the doctor by the arm. Doctor Riley lifted his gaze to meet Gideon’s. “What do you plan to do about my son?”
“He’s had a seizure.”
“He’s already fragile. Will the seizure make his condition worse?”
“Only time can tell.” Gideon lowered his hand, turned his gaze to Franklin and stared. Doctor Riley stepped towards the brown-haired, green-eyed, English-descent man. “Gideon.” Gideon turned his attention to the doctor. “Perhaps it would be best to…”
“…you can stop there, Jeb. Juliette and I told you years ago why we left Upper Sandusky. I will not have the same discussion with you about Franklin I had with both our families. He’s an intelligent boy.”
“I’m not suggesting he isn’t.”
“Franklin will do well to stay where he is. I’ve given him a place at the machine shop designing more inventions. He loves his new office and is doing well overseeing the workers on the floor.”
“Gideon, when are you going to accept Franklin will never be able to run your store? He doesn’t have the social skills to do so. He needs help.”
“He has help,” Juliette answered. The men looked to her. “Franklin has all the help he needs to be successful in life. He doesn’t belong behind an institution’s wall. He’s a mechanical genius, Jeb. He loves tinkering with machines and playing mathematical games. God created our son for a purpose. If we place him within the institution he cannot live a successful and productive life. You’ve been a good friend. I pray the trust we have placed in you will not be forfeited.”

The Progressive Era in the United States occurred from 1890 -1929 and was a movement that began by the children of Civil War veterans. The Progressives wanted to change society from the strict Victorian culture to a more progressive one that would eliminate corruption and inequality. The Progressive Era saw many changes, such as women gaining the right to vote, that have defined a cultural shift in American society. This wasn't the first time Americans had tried to change the Victorian culture. The first Progressive moment, known as the First Reform Era, occurred a few years before the Civil War. It's purpose was reform the treatment of the mentally ill and prisoners. They also wanted to reform working conditions. The reformation was halted when the United States entered the Civil War. The second movement, known as the Progressive Era, began during the Reconstruction Period.

Anthropologically speaking, society is defined as "groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other.  People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations." Anyone who does not accept the norms of their given society, norms being defined as what is normal for a person to say or do in the that given society, is often viewed as an outcast.  For example,  a person with Aspergers Syndrome does not understand social cues and so when they interact with someone in public they will not act "normal". They will be seen as "being off" or an outcast. Aspergers was not discovered until the 1950's and was not widely known about until the 90's. Before the 1950's anyone who had Aspergers would more than likely find themselves institutionalized because they were deemed mentally ill. Society didn't know how to deal with people who were different than they were so they would lock them away in asylums.


The mentally ill have been in society since the beginning of time. Islamic mentally ill had been wonderfully cared for by their people far longer then European society. Europeans did not start to take care of the mentally ill until the Middle Ages when some of the mentally ill population were placed privately in small houses. These houses, and later on asylums, were places where once a person was admitted they rarely saw the light of day and were the victims of many injustices. Living conditions were deplorable and many atrocities occurred with their walls. They were a place where society could get rid of the less desirable and forget about them. 

The asylum was supposed to be a place where a mentally ill patient could live for a brief time while receiving the psychiatric help they needed the most. Once they were well they could return to society. Their release was dependent upon a network of psychological professionals who determined whether or not the patient was stable enough to return to society. It sounded like a good idea but sometimes it went terribly wrong. During the Progressive Era the population of the mentally ill in asylums drastically rose. The following chart is from John R. Sutton's 1991 article, The Political Economy of Madness: The Expansion of Asylum in Progressive America in The American Societal Review.

There are four factors that lead to the growth of asylums.

1) Although madness had been medically defined at the beginning of the 19th century it could still be used to place someone in an asylum who was poor, trouble for their family, homeless or had a physical disability.

2) The science of psychiatry was in a weak state. Asylums often times didn't have access to research and their techniques were mainly to create discipline instead of effective methods to help the patient. Instead the patient was subjected to work and discipline procedures that made it easier for the administration to do their work.

3)  The medical profession was changing. Asylum administrators continued to operate the asylum as a place of confinement while new psychiatric professionals institutionalize  the mentally ill in order to help them.

4) Voluntary organizations, such as the National Association for the Protection of the Insane and Prevention of Insanity, advocated reform while working closely with medical professions who were directly involved with asylums.

The American society during the Progressive Era movement often feared with they didn't understand. The thought of being sent to an asylum was a fate worse than death. The living conditions were deplorable and there were many instances where those committed to the asylum were abused by their guards. Not everyone who was committed to the asylum needed to be there. It was a place of horrors rather healthcare.

In the passage at the top of this blog Franklin, who would have been labeled as having Aspergers Syndrome if this was a modern story, may be  institutionalized by his family doctor even though he doesn't need to be there. Why? People fear Franklin because they don't understand him. Fear has driven a lot myths about those who suffer from mental disorders and it is these myths that have harmed those have mental disorders. One of the long held myths about those who have Aspergers Syndrome is "that anyone who has this disorder is highly prone to violence. They are a threat to our society because they do not have feelings nor empathy."

This myth is false. People with Aspergers Syndrome have feelings they just don't always show them. They may appear mean because they don't know empathy but they can learn. One thing about people with Aspergers Syndrome that might surprise you to know is that these people are some of the most caring, loving and sensitive souls you will ever meet. Society is scared of people with Aspergers Syndrome and this is what drives people to discriminate against them.

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