Was mental illness more common in history? As disturbing as modern times still are, the past was far worse and I can’t imagine how disorders, especially trauma-based ones like PTSD and C-PTSD, weren’t extremely common. The same goes for personality disorders. Was almost everyone walking around in terrible mental anguish, or was suffering somehow internalized differently? Were people just more ‘used to it’ and resilient, even in childhood?
As a Phycologist, here is my answer –
In much of the Western world, we consider depression to be sadness, pain, withdrawal, insomnia, and so on. In China, though, people show very different symptoms, like dizziness, fatigue, loss of energy. In other words, there’s very much a cultural element to the way people experience such a basic ailment.
The role of culture in mental illness can be seen even more clearly when you look at the history of mental illness. For example, I have a book published in 1970 where an instructor was lecturing about a patient who would vomit after every meal. The room is entirely full of practising doctors, and yet not one person mentions bulimia–bulimia wasn’t considered a mental disorder until 1979. At this time, the idea that thin was attractive was still pretty new–in the early half of the 20th century, women were actually shamed for being too thin.
Then, of course, there’s homosexuality. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1987. It was still considered a mental disorder in my own lifetime.
But it gets really weird the further back you go. In the 18th and 19th centuries, women were believed to suffer from a mental disorder known as “female hysteria”. The American Psychiatric Association didn’t drop this idea until the 1950s. Symptoms included anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, nervousness, insomnia, heaviness in the abdomen, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, sexual desire, fluid retention, sexually forward behaviour, and a “tendency to cause trouble for others”. For treatment, men would actually have doctors come out to their houses to massage their wives’ genitals to the point of “hysterical paroxysm”–i.e. orgasm. This actually leads to the development of the vibrator, which was originally considered a medical device. Read How can I gain common sense In 1851, a physician named Samuel A. Cartwright proposed the idea of a mental illness called Drapetomania to explain why black slaves fled slavery, which he considered to be the natural condition of black people. For the treatment of this disorder, he prescribed cutting off both their big toes and whipping them.
The further back you go, the more mental illness gets tied into religion. The very first hypnotist was actually an exorcist named Johann Joseph Gassner. He had this idea that what we know as mental illness today were actually the result of demon possession. He would visit people who had these mental illnesses and demand that if there were anything supernatural about the illness that it show itself immediately. This essentially hypnotized the person to behave as if they were possessed by a demon. Then Gassner would exorcise the demon, and thereafter the person would be healthy. He had a very successful career until he was discredited by Franz Anton Mesmer, who showed that what Gassner was doing was the same thing Mesmer was doing–something which would later be called Mesmerism, then hypnotism.
A similar method for treatment of mental illness was used by the ancient Babylonians, who considered mental illness to be cursed, which could be treated with exorcisms, thousands of years ago.
Though this is a method that still works. I recently read a story of a man who had fallen ill because he believed he had been cursed. Recognizing that there was nothing physically wrong with him, the physician told the man that he’d tracked down the witch doctor responsible for the curse and forced him to give him a potion that would cure it. The patient drank the potion, which caused him to vomit, and then the doctor slipped a lizard into the vomit. When the patient saw the lizard escaping from his own vomit, he believed that it was the curse that he had expelled from his body, and began a full recovery.
Religion itself hypnotized people into illness at times. If you look at the history of mass hysteria, you’ll see that it’s almost always linked to religious communities, such as convents. The dancing plague of 1278 is a good example. A number of people were suddenly stricken with an irresistible compulsion to dance, not far from a chapel dedicated to St. Vitus, patron saint of dancers. Some people literally danced themselves to death, while others, who were taken to the chapel itself, made a full recovery.
What I’m getting at is that it’s extremely difficult to divorce mental illness from the culture in which it occurs. Many illnesses of the past couldn’t possibly exist in modern, scientific society. Others are considered to be healthy in our modern world: women getting horny, people being attracted to their own genders, black people not wanting to live in slavery. Others manifest in different ways in different cultures. Perhaps everyone in ancient times had a mental illness that we’ll never even know about, because it manifested with completely different symptoms at that time, in that culture. Thanks for your time! Read another blog