I wonder how many of you have heard someone say, “You should have taken better care of yourself”, after you catch a cold. “What did I do to deserve this?” is the same question. This time it is the victim that blames him or herself.
Why is it so easy to cast blame? Does it make one feel better? Perhaps it is a way to pretend one has control of one’s destiny. While this is true in many cases, sometimes people get sick through no fault of their own. The example of catching a cold is a trivial one, but the tendency to blame the victim holds for more serious conditions, such as cancer and heart disease. In terms of mental illnesses, many believe that the victim is weak willed and that ‘mind over matter’ could solve the whole thing.
I discussed ‘refrigerator mothers’ in a previous post. This was a term used in the 1950s and 60s to describe the person responsible for creating an emotionally cold environment for a child, thus causing autism. This was not an aberrant way of thinking in the medical field back then. Edward Dolnick brings this up in his book, Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (Simon & Schuster, 1998). He describes the state of psychiatry of that period as rampant with arrogant practitioners who valued their theories of the mind over what was presented to them by the patient. There was no thought given to a biological basis of a mental illness. The doctors relied on observation and discussion. They were heavily invested in being correct about their theories and if the patient did not fit their model, she or he was wrong. Much has changed since then, including the fact that biological factors are included when defining a mental illness. This, plus the fact that some medicine actually alleviates mental suffering makes today’s mental health environment much more friendly.
Still, there are plenty of patients today who are told there is nothing wrong with them when they go to see their doctor. ‘Supratentorial’ is a word, often used condescendingly by physicians to convey to their colleagues that the patient’s problem “is all in his head”. Eventually good science catches up and the ‘supratentorial’ phenomena are given names: Fibromyalgia, Synesthesia, Lyme Disease, and so on.
Blaming the victim may be satisfying, but it is not helpful in solving problems.