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Postcolonialism, mental illness, and prison in Australia

Introduction: Shaping Relationships by Space and Symbol

This essay explores how colonial legacies continue to affect people with severe mental illness in Australia, sometimes positively but mostly adversely. The exploration begins over two centuries ago when colonial white settlers brought with them an intention to own land. Along with this intention they brought their knowledge of how to manage large spaces by the use of European mapping, naming of places, British law, architecture and institutions.

This paper follows the trail of how settlers shaped Australian landscapes with their laws that in turn helped to determine a hierarchy of colonial social relationships. Sherene Razack in her work on space, race and the law, argues that land, when it is set aside for specific purposes by statutes or government acts, is a statement about race and culture. Law plays a direct role in producing space by stipulating land use and purpose.1 For people with a mental illness in Australia an abiding fact is governments’ regulation of their personhood stretching back to colonial times. Laws were statements about their sanity. Asylums were statements about their place. In the State of Victoria, for example, before Federation in 1901, until now, there have been over 60 Lunacy Acts, Lunacy Statutes, Mental Hygiene Acts, and Mental Health Acts beginning with the Colony of New South Wales Lunacy Act of 1928. A new Victorian Mental Health Act will come into existence in 2013. Added to this number are the many Commonwealth Acts since 1901 such as the Disability Services Act 1992.

The paper argues that, since early colonial times, governments’ difficulties around distinguishing and accommodating the treatment and support needs of people with a mental illness from the legal convictions and subsequent incarceration in jails of criminals continues. The paper also considers how symbols and myths about mental illness were intertwined with decisions about land use and status. Importantly, settlers also brought with them primal and archetypal symbols of mental illness from early Greek and Hebrew mythology. Myths help us make sense of our world and are our way ‘of finding meaning and significance’ and interpreting things that seem senseless. They are, therefore, not outdated ancient stories but remain as interpretative apparatus.2

Paul Ricoeur, in his The Symbolism of Evil, sketches a theory of how ancient symbols and myths continue their role in modern society by investigating one symbol, that of evil. He tracks how this symbol changed in language over time with focus on alternate primary symbols of sin, defilement and guilt. Symbols are not descriptive but interpretative. The emotions evoked by the symbol evil and its variations in language remain in our unconscious, and thus possess the ability to transcend linear time.3

A primary symbol relating to mental illness and how it resonates in our modern society can be observed by reading the Greek mythical story of ‘Cassandra’, the daughter of Priam, king of Troy. Cassandra’s great beauty prompted Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. When Cassandra refused to return his love, Apollo inflicted retribution by damning her and her descendants so that their prophecies would never be believed. His maledictions resulted in Cassandra’s true prophecies being dismissed as messages from a madwoman and led to the fall of Troy and the destruction of an empire.

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