Last updated: August 23, 2019
Topic: Food
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Mental illness is currently a very relevant issue right now in today’s society and illnesses like Major Depressive disorder, or Persistent Depressive disorder are specifically some of the most common mental illnesses in America. Though we as a society know the prevalence of major depression currently, information on mental illnesses as a whole in the past are more cloudy and less of a definitive fact. “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most popular work of literature and this work reflects her personal experience of mental illness during the era she had lived in, and her experience is similar to the mental illness experiences others had also experienced during that time. Though men experience depression, it is more prevalent in women due to the societal conditioning of the calm manner women must take, and the act of  internalizing symptoms that women must face due to harshly enforced gender roles. Society has progressed since the era in which she lived in, but mental illness stigma and gender related restrictions are still present and because of this, women are unable to fully express themselves and be independent. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was known as a very prominent American feminist writer, and a lecturer for social reform among the sexes.  Her most famous work is “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a short fictionalized story about her own experience with Postpartum Depression. In 1887, Gilman gave birth to her daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson. Following her daughters birth, Gilman began to suffer from Postpartum depression, and sought treatment for her continuous breakdowns. She looked for help from the best known nervous specialist in the country at the time, Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell had developed the “rest cure”, which is a method of treatment for patients that involved isolation from others, enforced bed rest, and consistent feeding on a fatty, milk-based diet. Mitchell suggested it be used for her treatment and at first she responded to the “rest cure” well physically, but Mitchell then declared all was well; sending her home with “solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ ” (Hale, L. “A Closer Look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” My Postpartum Voice) for the remainder of her days. For Gilman, this was disastrous. Gilman writes regarding the effectiveness of this advice, saying “I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over” (Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” ). This method may have worked for other patients, but Gilman suffered quite a bit due to the “rest cure”. Gilam went back to living her domestic life, being restricted from the very work that she sought during her suffering and became isolated, making her internalize her symptoms, and thus making the symptoms even worse. After picking up her artistic work again, Gilman found strength within the very work she was told to stay away from, and overcame her postpartum depression and frequent nervous breakdowns. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was a product of her recovery, where Gilman was able to write a fictional work, describing her experience, but in the work, recall that the character in the story experienced hallucinations, whereas Gilman herself  “never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations”(Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”). The success of her recovery was the true motivation for this work and though “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fictional work that was somewhat embellished, she wrote it to advocate for the hope of saving others from her mistreatment of her mental illness, and the nearly paralyzing insanity that she had spiralled through due to it. During the time of Charlotte’s struggle, Mental health treatments as a whole were not  nearly as methodical and humane as they are currently in modern medicine. During the 1800s, mental treatment for illnesses was particularly heinous. Mental illnesses were not taken very seriously by practicing physicians and when symptoms were shown in an individual, they were written off, on the basis that their condition does not really exist. The actual treatment at that time was pure isolation, away from society and similar to Gilman’s experience. As time progressed throughout the 1800s though, people began to research and acknowledge the existence of it, but malpractice was still common. One important documentation of experiences within an asylum during this time period was Nellie Bly’s work, “Ten Days in a Mad-house”. NELLIE bly, or Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman was a well known American journalist at the time and she worked to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Bly essentially pretends to be “insane” and admits herself to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum as a way to get more of an insight on the treatment and practices at the asylum. Throughout the work, Bly makes note of the conditions that the patients were subjected to, according to Bly the food that the patients were given were near inedible. She said that, ” I was hungry, but the food would not down… I cannot tell you of anything which is the same dirty, black color. The bread was hard, and in places nothing more than dried dough. I found a spider in my slice, so I did not eat it. I tried the oatmeal and molasses, but it was wretched, and so I endeavored, but without much show of success, to choke down the tea.” (Bly, Nellie. “Ten Days.” Ten Days in a Mad-House) along with being able to completely eat the food the Asylum provided, Bly also made notes of the doctor’s nature when examining their patients. According to BLy, she did not really need to act out to be deemed “insane” and found it easier than she had presumed. As Bly noticed the doctor’s quick judgment of character and diagnosis on each patient  she said, “I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself. I felt sure now that no doctor could tell whether people were insane or not, so long as the case was not violent.” (Bly, Nellie. “Ten Days.” Ten Days in a Mad-House) With doctor’s having such a quick mindset and snapping decision making process that a patient is immediately “insane” without much evidence or research other than display of violence, it gives us the idea that there’s a possibility that the people in the asylum, or most of them, might not even have been insane at all. These patients may be as sane as ever, but just were convinced that there was something wrong with them. Such a mindset in this time, it’s gives more understanding in regards to Gilman;s situation on how the treatment she received made her worse. If this was a common mindset in the medical world at the time, did the doctor that treated gilman, Mitchell,  immediately make a snap judgement of her condition and recommend her isolation? or did he take time to look into her depression symptoms and just made an honest treatment mistake? Either reason, his decision to have Gilman be treated under the rest cure was a wrong one and achieved the opposite of progression, leaving Gilman to have to find her own sense of cure for herself, which was the independence she found when rejecting her treatment.