And who is sane?
These are questions you don’t hear much anymore, at least outside of judicial proceedings. Even there, the phrase “guilty but mentally ill” is gaining currency. “Not guilty by reason of insanity” made people think a criminal was getting away with something. And indeed, the “insanity defense” has been misused.
We’re much more comfortable talking about health and illness, concepts we all understand, than about seemingly fixed states like sanity and insanity. They sound so final. At least illness can be treated; health can improve.
Before the deluge of psychiatric labels and the DSM, how to tell if a person was sane or insane was a vital question. The insane were put away – in an asylum if they were poor or kept discreetly out of sight at home if they were wealthy.
But were all the people in asylums insane? And what kind of treatment did they receive? Investigative journalist Nellie Bly determined to find out. Her 1887 exposé Ten Days in a Madhouse was a muckraking revelation.
Bly feigned amnesia and delusional fears, was reported to the police by her landlady, and declared incurably insane.
While she was at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, she experienced cold, hunger, brutality, and no diagnosis or treatment. Several of the other inmates were, like Bly, sane by any modern standard, but poor, friendless and alone. The newspaper she worked for arranged to have Bly released, but the other women remained to be beaten, choked, starved, humiliated, not treated and driven insane if they weren’t already.
Bly’s ordeal and testimony did prompt a grand jury to recommend an increase in funding of $850,000 – quite a large sum in those days – for the Department of Charities and Corrections, which oversaw asylums. (It is ironic to note that the word “asylum” originally meant a place of protection, safety, or shelter.) But it mainly went for better physical conditions – warmer clothes, edible food, more and better-trained nurses – rather than actual diagnosis and treatment of the women’s “insanity.”
The question of who is sane and how you can tell was revisited in 1973 by psychologist David Rosenhan. A professor at Stanford University, he devised a simple experiment. He sent eight volunteers, including both women and men, to psychiatric hospitals. Each person complained of hearing a voice saying three words – and no other symptoms.
All – all – were admitted and diagnosed, most of them as schizophrenic. Afterward, the “pseudopatients” reported to their doctors and nurses that they no longer heard the voices and were sane. They remained in the psychiatric wards for an average of 19 days, beating Nellie Bly’s experience by nine days. They were required to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.
Rosenhan’s report, “On being sane in insane places,” created quite a stir. Indignant hospital administrators claimed that their staff were actually quite adept at identifying fakes and challenged Rosenhan to repeat the experiment.
This time hospital personnel were on their guard. They identified over 40 people as being “pseudopatients” who were faking mental illness. Rosenhan, however, had sent no volunteer pseudopatients this time. It was a dismal showing for the psychiatric community.
Times have changed, of course. Few people are confined in locked wards for life. Diagnosis is, if not yet a science, less of a guessing game, backed up by the DSM and assorted checklists of symptoms. And insurance companies hold the keys to psychiatric units as much as medical personnel do.
Still, the fundamental questions remain. Are neurotics sane and psychotics insane? I have bipolar 2. Am I mentally ill? I would have to say I am, since my condition will require treatment, barring any dramatic scientific advances, for the rest of my life. And my illness does affect my ability to function “normally.” Yet I think that few would consider me insane (unless I were suddenly to start shooting people in a public place, of course).
Speaking freely about mental illness and mental health is, presumably, supposed to make such disorders more understandable, less fearsome, less stigmatized. I suspect, however, that there are those who would rather we remained out of sight – if not locked away in asylums, then restrained in the virtual straitjackets of strong psychotropic medication.
And while group homes and other sorts of assisted living situations are now more available (though not nearly as accessible as the need for them would require), the general public prefers that such facilities, along with halfway houses for addicts and parolees, be constructed “NIMBY” – Not In My Back Yard.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Maybe the conversations surrounding such issues are reducing the stigma of mental illness, or insanity, or whatever you choose to call it, but I’m dubious about the level of success. There’s still a long way to go.