Stop the Stigma

The Ship of Fools and Other Mental Illness Stigma

The ship of fools and other mental illness stigma - graphic of a ships wheel and anchor
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A little while ago, I posted Mental Illness Stigma Researchers May Not Speak for Us based on an article by Heather Stuart, an epidemiologist at Queen’s University. She currently holds a Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair. She’s also got some odd ideas about mental illness. Anyway, while researching for my next book, I came across another paper she wrote (this one was co-authored), and it’s pretty weird, too.

The article, From Sin to Science: Fighting the Stigmatization of Mental Illnesses, was published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2012. It was part of their “in review” series, which appear by invitation of the editor-in-chief; it doesn’t look like that series is peer-reviewed, but I could be wrong. Before we jump in, I’ll quickly mention that if statements of fact are made in an academic paper that aren’t referenced, part of the original research being conducted, or ultra-common knowledge, then they might as well be made up.

The paper says:

Banishment has been a consistent societal response to people with a mental illness. Prior to asylums, people with a mental illness were often thrown outside of the doors of the city, or placed in ships of fools with no port to disembark. Indeed, the earliest asylums were erected to protect people with a mental illness from such abuses.

So, none of that cites any references, and if one moves to the logical conclusion that they’re made up, well, that’s pretty much right. The notion of a ship of fools was based on Michel Foucault’s misinterpretation of Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools. That idea has been debunked, and while German towns in the late middle ages did expel people who were considered mad, it wasn’t as simple as tossing them out the front door and throwing them on the nonexistent ship.

Carrying on:

Even today, in most parts of the world, people with mental illnesses languish in old and decrepit mental institutions. Where segregation in a mental hospital is not possible, they may be chained to trees or other structures, or ejected from the family entirely to fend for themselves.

That’s a lot going on, but let’s being with the first sentence, which cited the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Atlas 2005. That’s great, but I can’t find any indication that the Mental Health Atlas says what it’s supposed to. In which case, perhaps, it’s along the description in her other paper of mental institutions that “disgust and horrify” the populace.

As for the second sentence, chaining to trees isn’t a good thing to be throwing out there without any references or further details. It happens, as shown in the photos in this article in The Guardian, which inspired my post a little while back about mentally ill people in chains. That seems like way too significant a piece of information for that kind of passing mention.

So, am I nitpicking? Sure, why not. If someone is going to be a high-profile anti-stigma guru talking about us crazy folk, I would like to see a little better than this.

For now, though, sign me up for the ship of fools. All aboard!

Reference: Arboleda-Flórez, J., & Stuart, H. (2012). From sin to science: fighting the stigmatization of mental illnessesThe Canadian Journal of Psychiatry57(8), 457-463.

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You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

A Brief History of Stigma: coming soon from Mental Health @ Home Books

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