To answer your question, I have to consult not only what I think about mental illness but what animists around the world think about it. The term “mental illness” has no correlate among animist peoples (and it’s nowadays considered an expression of dubious usefulness and validity among psychologists and philosophers).
Animists certainly share the concept of “illness” with us, and are well aware that some kinds spread from person to person, while others don’t. But pairing the idea of “mind” with the idea of “illness” is meaningless to them (as it is to many, if not most, contemporary psychologists and philosophers).
In general, animists have little interest in metaphysical controversies that lead people to wonder whether the mind is part of the body or somehow merely resides in the body or what the hell it is. They just don’t care (and neither do I). Epistemological hair-splitting leaves them cold (as it does me, as readers of my books have probably noticed).
Animists are aware that some people go crazy, refuse to behave like responsible members of the tribe—for example, hoarding food instead of sharing it or in any number of ways making life miserable for the people around them. They’re not interested in formulating theories about WHY this happens—it just does occasionally happen, and they know how to deal with it.
They first try to reason with the offender; if that doesn’t work, they withdraw from him—isolate him, deprive him of tribal support; if that doesn’t work, they simply drive the madman out of the tribe. If the madman still cannot be made to leave them alone and continues to make life in the tribe unbearable, then he will be put out of his (and their) misery, preferably by one of his own family.
They resort to this extreme because have no such thing as a prison and couldn’t tolerate having such a thing (even if they could imagine it). If you were to tell them that this person was “mentally ill,” they would say, “Well, we call him ‘crazy,’ but if you want to call him ‘mentally ill,’ that’s fine with us.”
I’m afraid I’ve never come across anything that looks like “treatment” of things we call “mental illness” among animist peoples. Shamanistic healers treat things we recognize as illnesses, but they don’t treat things like Oedipus complexes, neuroses, or obsessive/compulsive disorders. Do these things exist among animist peoples? Maybe they do, but I’ve never read anything that suggests that they do.
How do the people of our culture come to have such illnesses? What’s the best way to treat them? I daresay that thousands of answers to these questions have been offered during the centuries in which “mental illness” has been identified in our culture, but as far as I know, none have been settled on as final, undisputed answers.
updated: 11 Jul 2012