Friday 20 January 2012

A Tale From 1796

Mary and Charles Lamb

Following my post on Edward Oxford (see here) Hafal's Gail Silver, who is presently moving on from the criminal justice team to join our Time to Change anti-stigma initiative, reminds me that there is another startling historical example of a more civilised attitude to mental illness compared to today...

Mary Lamb, who with her brother Charles published many works but is best known today for their Tales from Shakespeare which is still in print (a snip at £1.99), famously killed her mother while severely disturbed. The legal system in 1796 was not sophisticated about mental illness but it was anything but brutal or thoughtless in this case. Common sense won the day as it was swiftly concluded that Mary should not be punished because she was clearly seriously ill but it was determined reasonably enough that a proportionate degree of security needed to be put in place while she remained a risk. After she had spent three years in a small "madhouse" (not a place of punishment) Charles, who incidentally experienced serious mental illness himself, persuaded the authorities to place her in his care and he successfully supported her thereafter.

There is another point with a modern resonance in this story. Charles certainly paid a price as his sister's carer, sacrificing the potential for his own family life in order to look after her. Now you might hope that modern society would have done a better job for him but some carers today would doubt that as many still have to give up the most basic ambitions for life which the rest of us would see as a right.

Nobody is saying that things were generally better for people coping with mental illness in past times but these stories do give the lie to the idea that society in all respects becomes more caring or compassionate as time goes on. There is definitely an ugliness in our modern legal system which says that somebody must be made to suffer when tragedy strikes even when nobody, if the matter is looked at rationally, can fairly be held responsible.

And, let's be quite clear, this modern approach does not make anybody safer. On the contrary people with a mental illness are made more wary of seeking help if they believe they will be treated unfairly - and that increases risk.