Bill Clinton said, “mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Over the decades the stigma of mental health has improved. It may never be perfect but many people, things, and events have contributed to improving the stigma.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of those people who has helped make positive changes on the views of mental illness. Her own dealing with mental health has helped shape her life and her stories which in turn, helped shape society. Through her autobiographical work, The Yellow-Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a trailblazer who brought awareness to the seldom discussed world of mental illness and who helped open the door for others to freely express their voice on mental health through books, social media, and everyday life. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a writer, poet, and an activist in the 1890s through 1900s. Born on July 3rd, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, her childhood was unusual, as she moved around a lot after her father abandoned the family. Her mother had to work and raise the two children on her own.
By moving around as a child, her education suffered tremendously. It did help that she was connected to the Beecher family, including the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (Biography.com), as she was influenced at a young age by activist. Gilman briefly attended college at Rhode Island, then met Charles Stetson in 1884. That following year she gave birth to her daughter Katherine. After the birth of her daughter, “she fell into a severe depression, suffering what today we would call a nervous breakdown,” (Dreier 56). Gilman’s battle with mental illness was tough. During this hard time, she started writing.
Throughout the years her work as a writer impacted the people around her. Some of the works she created were Women and Economics, The Home: Its Work and Influence and Does a Man Support His Wife? She also established a magazine, The Forerunner, that allowed her to express her ideas on various issues (Biography.com).
One of her works stood out from the others. During her darkest time, she wrote a short story titled The Yellow Wall-Paper. The story shows the reader, “how deeply saturated place and space can be with male authority-backed up with such forms of manipulation as “reason,” “knowing what’s best,” “and a few timely commands,” (Bergman 3). This story was a turning point in society about the struggles of mental illness. The Yellow Wall-Paper is an autobiographical story about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own struggles with mental illness.
She documented that men and doctors during the time period did not believe that she and other women in general were sick, “you see he does not believe that I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression,” (Gilman 1). She was alone in her battle. No one believed her because they believed that the doctor and her husband had more power and knew more than she possibly could. The doctor she saw placed her on a treatment called the “rest cure”, where one is not allowed to do anything physically and mentally demanding.
Since she was so bored and lonely she wrote. For her to do so was forbidden and if caught, she could get in trouble. So, she hid it from her husband.
One night she sees a figure in the ugly yellow wallpaper, “the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out,” (Gilman 9). Which is just like the narrator. She wants to get out of the house and see her daughter but is not allowed to. The figure in the wallpaper wants the same thing, which is to get out. This wallpaper brings a whole new meaning to the narrator’s life, “life is very much exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch.
..it was because of the wall-paper” (Gilman 12). Gilman connects with the wallpaper and the figure.
She uses it to gain power mentally and physically. When the story first came out, in 1892, it had mixed reviews. One opinion was from a doctor in Boston, “such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.” Another physician in Kansas said, “it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen,” (Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper). This story was one that left a strong impression on its readers and started to change the views of mental illness in the Gilman’s time period. Mental health in the 1890’s and 1900’s was not commonly talked about.
Going back in history the treatment of mental health is scary. They kept the ill in an asylum or some other type of hospital. The hospitals were not taken care of, most doctors or everyday people did not believe mental illness existed. During the 1800’s times were just starting to change but, “by the early 1900s psychiatry was still embedded in the practice of neurology, which had been introduced into medical school curricula in the 1840s,” (American Psychiatric Association). Yes, people have made improvements with mental health but they still had a long way to go to fully understand what the mentally ill are going through.
One way that doctors tried to “help” the mentally ill is by using the treatment like the rest cure. This treatment did nothing for society except make those diagnosed feel worse. Gilman felt that way. It made her bored and even more lonely because she could not do anything: During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope to a noted specialist in nervous disease, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me 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 touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.” This was in 1887. I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
(Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper) When Gilman’s story first came out she talked negatively about the rest cure and how it almost ruined her life. Not too long after the story came out she sent it to the physician who almost drove her mad. He never responded back until years later, “but the best result is this. Many years later I was told the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper,” (Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?). Gilman’s intention wasn’t to change society or make the physician change his views rather it was to save people from being driven crazy and she made it work. (Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?) Mental health in the 21st century has made great strides. One example of this is how the gross domestic product (GDP) is spending more money on mental health treatment than they ever have before. But there is still room for improvement.
(Main) People like Charlotte Perkins Gilman have used their voice to help make improvements over the last decades. In this century, many new books have come out about mental illness. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, is a book about the outlook of mental illness told through an entertaining way. Lawson believes that being crazy is normal. Her book shows mental illness in a way people can relate, “I wish someone had told me this simple but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious.
Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect,” (Lawson 239). Through authors like Gilman and Lawson, everyday people have found their voice and started to stand up for mental health. Social media is another outlet that allows people around the world connect and understand each other.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are the apps of choice of kids, teens and adult today. Through these outlets people are allowed to talk freely about mental health and they are not afraid anymore to bring it to light. Charlotte Perkins Gilman felt this way in the 1890’s-1900’s even when it was frowned upon to speak of mental health in doing so, she impacted today’s world by sharing her voice. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper, brought awareness to mental illness in a time period where it was not discussed and she helped push the door open for others to freely express their experience with mental illness through books, social media, and everyday life. Throughout the decades the stigma of mental health has made tremendous strides. It has gotten better through writers like Gilman who have had the courage to share their stories with society.
Gilman believed, “through it literature we know the past, govern the present, and influence the future,” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman Quotes). Page Break