So today I’m taking a little bit of a detour from Character Snapshots in order to talk about Athering’s approach to mental illness. I’ll be using examples from the books (Bellica and The Jade Star of Athering), so spoilers ahead.
Why? Well, it’s #BellLetsTalk day, and I like contributing to it on the blog. As it is also a Wednesday, I figured this would be a chance to talk about how Athering approaches mental illness.
In a word? Badly.
Let me elaborate.
People in Athering acknowledge some mental illnesses, but not others. It’s considered acceptable if you have issues after a trauma. Soldiers’ PTSD, for example. If you suffer from this, you can go to the healers in the clinics or hospitalis or the priestesses at the Temple to talk. There are also religious rituals that offer some solace.
But that’s about where it ends. Mental illness as a result of direct trauma is understandable, but mental illness that just appears and is like “Hey, what’s up, we’re friends now” is…not.
If your community decides you’re “mad”, as they call it, they will commit you to the care of the priestesses — no matter what you have to say about it. You lose your autonomy.
In Bellica, Dion tells Yarrow the story of how his sister’s spouse died. He was killed by a Flesh Screamer and the men who were with him said that Queen Zameera came and killed the Flesh Screamer before it could kill the rest of them. Queen Zameera at this point in the story is dead, so Dion naturally suspects foul play — not to mention Flesh Screamers being more myth than fact. However, when the priestesses confirm the men are telling the truth, Dion comes to the conclusion that the men must be mad and all of them are committed to the Temple.
These men had just suffered a trauma, yes, and likely were suffering from something, but they weren’t mad in the way Atherians often conceive of madness: Galen was killed by a Flesh Screamer and a woman who looked remarkably like Queen Zameera did save them — her twin, Princess Thadea. As Dion had no way of knowing that at the time and couldn’t fathom an answer wherein the men hadn’t gone mad, he had the priestesses commit them.
Now, to be fair to Dion, he does truly believe he was doing the men a kindness — and perhaps he was. Perhaps after seeing their friend ripped to shreds by a Flesh Screamer a peaceful life on Temple grounds was the best answer for them. But that’s not the point. The point is, these men didn’t get to choose their own fate. They lost their autonomy, and they were in such shock when it happened that it didn’t occur to them to fight it. Not to mention, this is just part and parcel of Athering’s culture. You’re mad; you get committed to the Temple — so if someone is committing you to the Temple, then you must be mad.
Now, that said, there are plenty of people in Athering who have mental illness, have not suffered a trauma that could explain it, and who live their lives without ever coming in danger of being committed to the Temple. They are even able to talk to healers or priestesses for counsel, betimes.
But most of the big stuff stays hidden, often with a big heaping dose of guilt.
Take Ghia. She has suffered innumerable traumas by the time the end of The Jade Star of Athering rolls around. She is suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and probably some things she hasn’t even told me about yet. And even though she lived most of her life as a healer and understands PTSD, she still blames herself for being “too weak” to handle things. You wouldn’t know it to speak with her, but she struggles daily with feeling guilty for having mental illness — and most of her traumas are considered “legitimate,” culturally speaking.
Hopefully, these attitudes towards mental illness in Athering will change as time goes on. (The culture that I’m speaking of is late Third Age Athering. There are other eras in Athering that might have different ideas about mental illness. I’m not sure, because the people in those times haven’t told me yet.) In the meantime, however, Athering is not a friendly place to those who suffer from mental illness.
I hope this look into Athering’s culture was elucidating, if not terribly uplifting. See you next week with another post on either the inner workings of Atherian culture or the inner workings of a character’s mind (still waiting to hear back from possible interviewees).