"Idiots and Distracted Persons:" Shifting Views on Mental Health in Eighteenth Century Colonial America

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Montana State University Billings


With research deriving from many historians, and the help of Dr. Arendt, this project explores the eighteenth-century colonial period’s shifting views of mental health. These views during this time period were not solely based on religious standpoints, but medical aspects as well, as there was a new growth of knowledge into the strange minds of human beings. This would eventually lead Americans to view mental illness as a result of actions made by the individual. There were several influences which led to the shifting views on mental health, and each influence was connected and opened the path for another influence. These major shifts encompass changes from religious, political, and medical influences which tracked along one another in the eighteenth century. A major influence on shifting perceptions of mental illness was Native American traditions and beliefs, and minor influences that contributed to major intellectual shifts on mental illness include Cotton Mather, the father to modern medicine Benjamin Rush, and the role of natural law in American Colonies. Although medical explanations and treatments have drastically changed over three centuries, stigma towards those affected by mental illness has not changed since the eighteenth century. Colonial America opened the gates for medicine to be an answer to problems with the human mind, but stigma and treatment of these people were never changed—maybe these people will always be viewed as “idiots and distracted persons.”




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