The Assumptive Worlds of Psychopathy VIII: Embracing Shame and Guilt—Unraveling the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

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.


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About the Author

Lewis And MunzerChristy Lewis holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and has counseled for a combined 17 years in several clinical and medical settings and has offered career/life coaching for an additional 10 years. Christy is also Board Certified in Biofeedback and Neurofeedback through BCIA, the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance organization. Prior to working in private practice settings, Christy worked in Psychiatric and Rehabilitation hospital settings. Additionally, she worked in career transition/outplacement settings helping clients with their career transition needs. Christy Lewis currently works and is the director at her own private practice setting, The Biofeedback, Education, & Training Center, PLLC, where she combines counseling with a variety of training modalities to individuals of all ages who need help with issues ranging from severe emotional turmoil to people who are working on taking their personal growth to a higher level. Specifically, she has extensive experience working with kids, teens, & adults who have anxiety, depression, ADHD, frustration/anger issues, behavioral issues, and pain management. Kendell Munzer was born in Peekskill NY in 1973. In 1997 she earned her Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice from Curry College. In 2002 she earned her M.A in Counseling from Mercy College. She is currently pursuing her Doctoral Degree in Psychology at The Professional School of Psychology. Kendell works as a part time substitute teacher for the Charleston County School District. The majority of this work is spent working with behaviorally challenged students. She also works part time growing a local Kitchen and Bath business she and her husband have recently opened. Kendell has an extensive background as a Behavioral Specialist and has conducted many staff trainings and seminars. Presently she resides in Mt. Pleasant SC with her husband and two children. When Kendell isn’t at work she enjoys, photography, travelling, skiing, and spending quality time with her family.

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