I want to be free. Am I mentally ill?

Jan 26, 2011 by

I want to be free. Am I mentally ill?

We live in a world where people tend to quickly define the behavior of others. They often swiftly label the behavior of those who think, act or participate in the world differently from them as wrong, aberrant or inappropriate. Of still more concern to me, is when my field, psychology, is misused for this purpose. This has happened repeatedly around the globe in the last century, with devastating consequences.

To illustrate this point I offer you a frighteningly true case.

Freedom is something taken for granted by most of us in the world.
Therefore, the desire to live with the right to make choices about our life and its course hardly seems to us like the ravings of lunacy. Yet, the wish for freedom, the attempt to attain it and choice to pursue it has, at different points in history, been labeled by various cultures as symptoms of mental illness.

For example, here in the history of the United States, the diagnosis of “Drapetomania” was the mental disorder provided as the explanation to slave owners for why their pre-Civil War African and African-American slaves tried to escape their forced subjugation and bondage.

The label was conceived, or more appropriately concocted, from the Latin “draptes” meaning “runaway slave” and “mania” meaning “mad or “crazy”. In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright identified the symptoms of “drapetomania” as the slave being “sulky and dissatisfied without cause”. He in turn proposed a remedy for this malady, it was “whipping them out of it”. This could also be used “as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct.”
With this diagnosis, the authorities of the time gave slave owners an assurance and a rationalization that it was not the intolerable conditions of slavery causing slaves to crave their freedom, it was a mental disorder easily cured by “whipping the devil out of them”.

Today we look at this and recognize the cruelty inherent in both this diagnosis and its remedy. Perhaps we ask ourselves “How could such a horrendous concept have received any measure of legitimacy?” Well, Dr. Samuel Cartwright was not some fly-by-night-ambulance-wagon-chaser. On the contrary, he had studied at a prestigious medical school and he had apprenticed under Dr. Benjamin Rush. This same Dr. Benjamin Rush was the very same Dr. Benjamin Rush whose name you will find as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. However, more importantly to our story told here, Dr. Rush was very advanced for his time in the treatment of mental illness and in the early establishment of humane conditions in the housing and care of those who suffered from mental illness. Moreover, today, Dr. Rush is considered the “Father of American Psychiatry”, having written and published the first textbook on the subject in the United States in 1812, “Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind”.

So, you see, this history of expert education and distinguished mentoring through his association with Dr. Rush lent Dr. Cartwright and his theory of “Drapetomania” an unwarranted credibility, and a diagnosis was born.

Fast forward to today, almost 30 million children and adults across the planet are denied freedom. Today, in places around the globe you have heard of, and maybe some you have not heard of, people are seeking freedom from slavery, bondage and forced labor. Is this desire for liberty a mental illness? Is this quest for freedom a mental disorder?

To the slave owners and masters of today, I guess you could say, it may as well be 1851….

Photo Credit: G.M.B. Akash


  1. Thank you, DJJ!! I wonderful compliment indeed!!! oxo!

  2. I agree. I agree. I agree. Thank you for your wise addition, my friend.

  3. Excellent read, don’t miss this one.

  4. Donna Morask

    Excellent Points. Oppression and repressive attitudes, followed by acts of subjugation, always lead to a loss of freedom, liberty, and independence. If you are in this category, whether they call you slave, woman or differently abled, there must be action and a fight; a fight for the right to be fully human and operating under your own determination. Women were once treated for “hysteria” by psychiatrists of the day for wanting to break out of predefined roles. Persons labeled as disabled needed an entire legislative act passed (Americans with disabilities act) just 2 decades ago, to obtain full human status. Slavery and bondage through human trafficking, forced labor, and indenture still exist. In this new millennium we must raise our voices and inform, educate and advocate, so that all human beings, in the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King; can say …”free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last!” Donna