Ebola and Mental Illness: Witchcraft or Something Even More Devious?

In my Abnormal Psychology class, we had to write a paper relating three topics between a video and the material in the textbook/class. This assignment’s video was about the humanitarian aid (or lack thereof) during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. This is my take on the situation.

            The crisis surrounding the outbreak and spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 was considered a precedent for the severity level of the epidemic and thus for the medical emergency response, or lack thereof. This incident, especially since it began in poor, densely-populated regions in a non-Western and typically overlooked part of the world, had not been properly prepared for, which was a truth medical teams and governments alike came to know very well. The people directly affected and watching firsthand as the disease spread, however, had their own perspectives. The problems Ebola presented for them also had similarities to how a very different sickness had been considered in the past. Throughout its history, mental illness had been mistaken for witchcraft, grossly misunderstood by both patients and doctors, and only when treatment and living conditions improved would patients get better, like with Ebola.

            Ebola came to be known as a deadly reality for the people of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The people, suddenly overwhelmed by a high death count, thought they must be cursed. They performed rituals to ward off the curses, but of course Ebola could not be prayed away, much like mental illness. Since the Middle Ages and until the 18th century, witchcraft or demonic possession were believed to be the reasons for abnormal behavior. However, there are much more empirical reasons for both sicknesses. When field hospitals were finally opened to care for Ebola patients, the poor conditions only made healthy citizens and nurses sick. Ebola, already spreading so easily in close quarters, was being helped to spread in the very places that were supposed to reduce the number of Ebola cases. Some people would suspect the hospitals were not actually helping and that instead they were slaughterhouses designed to prey on poor Africans, leading up to instances of mass panic or mass hysteria.

            The extent of the problem was misunderstood on several levels: the West Africans themselves, doctors and nurses, the national governments in West Africa, and agencies around the world. For months, this outbreak of Ebola was mistaken for cholera and malaria, and real valuable help was not deployed until many months after that. Mental health issues also have a history of being misunderstood by both those afflicted and those trying to help. Since people who presented with psychologically abnormal behaviors were once considered to be possessed by dark forces, their bodies would be harmed in some way to make them unhospitable to demons. Torture was a form of treatment, and most patients would reportedly have a temporary reprieve but not be permanently cured. There is a rather clear parallel between mental illness patients receiving inhumane treatment, like being kept in chains and tortured to expel the demons, and people exposed to Ebola. Because of some of the cultural traditions of the people of West Africa, such as touching and washing the dead without protective gear, Ebola could spread very easily. Many people would walk barefoot and step in contaminated blood and fluids on the ground. These conditions proved to be the perfect environment for the virus to thrive, and also proved that there was no proper understanding of how to prevent infection, just as there was no proper understanding of how to treat mental illness.

            While the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia tried to cover up the magnitude of the Ebola crisis, a small medical company called Metabiota was simultaneously downplaying the problem. No one expected or was prepared for the ferocity of this outbreak. As a result, the authorities who could help stop the continual, lethal spread did not deem it the catastrophe it really was, and the appropriate level of humanitarian aid came too late. Meanwhile, the citizens of these countries were dying, so they learned to take matters into their own hands. When they began changing the way they live—such as properly burying their dead and learning about preventing the spread of disease—the death count declined. Similarly, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a reform movement to improve the quality of care inside asylums. Instead of giving inhumane treatment to the mentally ill, there was a rise in moral therapy. The mental hygiene movement worked to create more individualized care with a focus on rest. There was a resoundingly positive effect on patients’ health because the way of thinking about mental illness changed. Those most directly affected by Ebola started a movement of their own to deal with the new reality of the disease, changing the way they thought and acted, which saved lives.

            The similarities between the errors in handling the Ebola outbreak and the history of psychopathology were not immediately easy to observe. In the end, mental illness and Ebola are similar not in terms of causation, but in terms of effect. The way in which the Ebola crisis was managed, as described in the video, was even more frustrating than the way in which mental illness was managed in the past, because the Ebola outbreak happened in the 21st century, not the Middle Ages. I thought it was unfortunate that the comparisons were between pre-18th century cases of mental illness and modern cases of Ebola, as both should be handled with better care by now.

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