By Tade Thompson
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes is a phrase better known to speculative fiction fans as 'Who watches the watchmen?', popularised by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's opus Watchmen. It holds other significance in psychiatry.
Louisa Lowe wrote Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? in 1872. She married Rev George Lowe in 1842 and moved out in 1870. When she would not return the good Reverend had her detained in an asylum. She languished there for eighteen months. Her documentation is one of the reasons we know about abuses in asylums.1
Asylums ran wild with treatments such as isolation, blood-letting, turning, centrifuging, and water-dousing. None of these were evidence based, and many were cruel. Society let it happen because nobody cared about the mentally ill. It was a gender issue (approximately twice as many women were lobotomised as men); it was (and perhaps still is) a race issue (ethnic minorities are compulsorily detained more in the UK), it's a disability issue, yet still there is something about mental illness that triggers discrimination.
Maltreatment of the mentally unwell and stigma does not just affect the patients. Psychiatrists are not the most esteemed medical specialists. There appears to be a problem with parity. The disease burden is clear, but the funding is not proportional. WHO says “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.”2 Yet we, as a society, do not appear to care enough about our mentally ill. There is a lot of rhetoric, but little action.
Speculative fiction in all its guises has always been a place for ideas to thrive. Weird, wacky ideas like, hey, how about a world in which mental illness is not a punchline? Where are the narratives where mental illness is not used as a ‘random’ factor to drive your plot in any direction you want? Mental illness isn’t random. Where are your nuanced characters? I love Douglas Adams, but Marvin the paranoid android wasn't paranoid, he was depressed. Even the Black Sabbath song ‘Paranoid’ has lyrics that suggest depression rather than paranoia. I feel people should do a little more research.
I wrote a 7-part primer on mental illness for writers of speculative fiction,3 because I believe the books people read and the films people watch and the music people listen to all play a part in forming a view of those who are mentally ill. If the depictions are non-sensational and well-informed, perhaps we can foster a better understanding.
1 Lowe’s report (The bastilles of England; or, the lunacy laws at work):
2 WHO Factsheet on Depression:
3 Tade Thompson, Mental Illness Primer for Speculative Fiction Creators: