The Assumptive Worlds of Psychopathy VIII: Embracing Shame and Guilt—Unraveling the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
The Trials of Stigmatization and Suicide
Extreme examples of social injustice and stigma are the infamous events of the Salem Witch Trials (Reis, 1999). These events, which took place several centuries ago, led to executions in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. The first group of people, mostly women, targeted as “witches” were accused by a local doctor of “behaving strangely”. They were labeled “bewitched”. After this and several other happenings, the public started to persecute people, labeling them as “witches” if they appeared to act differently in public, or if they did not go along with Salem’s societal norms.
While the root causes of this persecution and subsequent hysteria may have been difficult economic times driven by unusual weather events, the Puritan’s rigid cultural beliefs allowed the communities’ misfortunes to spiral out of control. The Puritans held the belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Devil. Puritan’s believed that women’s souls were unprotected in “their weak and vulnerable bodies”. In fact, a well- documented event of mass hysteria of the town ensued these public humiliations, and many notable scholars have outlined some causes such as an economic downturn, environmental hardships, and religious pressures.
The unfortunate consequences for many of the persecuted people in Salem resulted in a social phenomenon, whereby people openly displayed psychological and physiological distress—an event that we term “mass hysteria” today. After studying the witch trials in Salem, sociologists and social psychologists have offered many insights to help us understand human behavior patterns that lead us to socially devalue and stigmatize our peers.
In Salem, some of the mechanisms that fueled stigmatizing were related to justification of their rigid societal norms and beliefs. These norms and beliefs boosted the self-esteem of non-stigmatized members, and probably reduced feelings of anxiety regarding the non-stigmatized groups’ own mortality. Also, aside from tough economic times in the late 1600’s, the societal beliefs that the Puritans held offered few options for entertainment, especially for the young girls. As a result, their society took on a cult of its own, as the young girls entertained themselves by telling scary stories, and then started to believe in witches and witchcraft, blaming and persecuting others for illnesses, failed crops, and bad weather, some of which had perfectly rational explanations.