Stress, Illness and Social Change

At first, you would not think the town of Seneca Falls, New York (USA), population 7000, would have much to contribute to thinking about Psychophysiologic Disorders (PPD, stress illness).  But it does, as I learned when I spent a few hours there this week.

The tale begins in 1840 with a woman named Elizabeth Cady Stanton who attended an anti-slavery conference in London with her husband.  Unfortunately, the male attendees relegated the women to the back of the hall and forbade them from speaking.  Then they added insult to injury by placing a curtain in front of them.  The women were understandably outraged and, eight years later,  Ms Stanton, along with a woman she met behind that curtain (Lucretia Mott) and some colleagues launched the women’s rights movement by holding a convention of their own in Seneca Falls.

Most of us know that, at that time, women could not vote.  But many are not aware that, back then, after a woman married her wages went to her husband, she could not own or inherit property, sign a contract or pursue business interests in court.  She also was not permitted to divorce and lost custody of her children if her husband divorced her.  She also could not attend men’s colleges, serve on a jury or pursue most occupations.

The early efforts of Ms Stanton, Susan B Anthony, Lucretia Mott and colleagues were derided, insulted and ridiculed.  But they were relentless in their networking and eloquent in publicizing their grievances.  Consequently, women were granted the right to vote in the USA in 1920, unfortunately 18 years after Stanton’s death.

Changing the health care system so people with PPD receive care equivalent to those with diseased organs faces smaller but still significant social and political barriers to change.  We also must overcome most patients with PPD not being aware of their condition.  Instead, those patients focus on finding a diseased organ to explain their illness.

We can gain energy to overcome these challenges from the injustice of someone with stomach pain from stress often being treated dismissively or even with derogatory comments while someone with the same pain from a stomach ulcer receives much better care.  We can also learn much from the women’s rights campaign about patience, persistence, networking and bringing ideas to all who will listen.  They overcame a more difficult problem than we face and there is much encouragement in that.