History of the troubled mind

I recently read a book on witchcraft – looking at historical witch-hunters. One of the things that struck me is that there was a time when what we now call depression, could be interpreted as magical attack – the consequence of a curse, or being afflicted by malign spirits sent to harass you. The same book also referred to melancholia, the condition of unbalanced humours. Back in the days when a person had a mix of choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic that made up the balance of their personality and physicality, a person with too much melancholic influence, would be mournful. Depression explained!

Once upon a time, if you heard voices you were either divinely inspired or afflicted by demons. Now you have schizophrenia. Go back a few hundred years, and the uncontrollable voicing of obscenities would indicate you’d been attacked by a witch. These days, you’ll have Touretts syndrome. To be a lunatic, was to be under the strange influence of the moon. Today you might be diagnosed as having a psychotic episode.

The language of mental health has changed. It sounds scientific. You get syndromes, not curses. We talk of brain chemistry rather than lunar influences and humours. Sometimes medicating to rebalance the brain chemistry solves everything. Sometimes it doesn’t. Yes, the language has changed a lot, and how we relate to mental health has changed alongside the language. The very ailments that are labelled as ‘mental health’ issues would, in other times, have been understood as moral ailments, or afflictions of the soul, instead. Modern medicine does not like to think in terms of morality and soul. It prefers ‘healthy lifestyle’ as a term.

The same core issues remain. The labels have changed, along with the logic of the labelling. How we relate to treatment has changed, but not, really speaking, the way in which we tend to stigmatise the sufferer. Perhaps the biggest change is that, as a crazy visionary, you are much less likely to become a saint or prophet these days, that door is closed for now. You just get to be ill.

Perhaps there was a good thing about ascribing poor mental health to curses, and other magical influences. The afflicted person in this context was an unfortunate victim, but might not be responsible. They could have been cursed because of envy. In a world view that saw witchcraft as tending towards evil (and the mediaeval mindset most certainly did include this perspective) the victim of wicked enchantment is not to be blamed. On the downside, some poor scapegoat may be blamed instead, and the consequences when that happened could be dire, and probably of very little use to the person suffering from what we would understand as mental illness.

We’re not much better at curing malaises of the mind and spirit than were our medieval forebears. We are better at medicating people into compliance, but in terms of fixing afflictions, not a great deal has really changed. Tranquilising people is not the same as curing them. We have new words for some very old problems, but I’m not convinced we have any more functional understanding of it than our ancestors did. Yes, it may be more technically accurate to talk about a neurotransmitter in the brain, than a demon, but as I can’t see the chemicals in my brain, that’s as abstract to me as the little chap with horns and a pitchfork. Wonky brain chemistry or demon infested, there’s still not a heck of a lot I can do some days to put myself right.

It makes me wonder if we are in fact still as wide of the mark on mental health issues as our predecessors probably were with afflictions of unbalanced humours and malevolent witchcraft.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

11 responses to “History of the troubled mind

  • Iulia Flame

    “We’re not much better at curing malaises of the mind and spirit than were our medieval forebears.”

    Truer than true. I am a living example. I have found healing in quite unexpected places.

  • syrbal-labrys

    The worst thing about the change of language is that we ascribe the same power to our new descriptives as people of old ascribed to those pesky ‘demons’. But now, when a patient does not respond to medication as expected — or refuses medication because the side effects make life unbearable — the medical “professional” gets mad at the patient and uses another current term: non-compliant.

    And that is where the next bonfire comes from, at times, the “non-compliant patient” is responsible for naughty non-compliance and therefore to blame for whatever may follow.

    • Nimue Brown

      Because of course we should welcome being drugged into a zombie-like condition. Some medics seem to be a lot better than others with this sort of issue, and it’s entirely pot luck as to what you get, and whether they even believe that your ailment exists.

      • syrbal-labrys

        And here, in America? I blame insurance companies, pills are cheaper than the ‘talking cure”….so they will pay for drugs, but not for psychiatrists.

        Drugged to conformity, yes….

      • Nimue Brown

        Most research is done by drug companies, and they promote to doctors, here in the UK certainly, and probably other places too. It is all about the money, not the helping people.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    mental health much like physical health requires that te patient take the active part, not the pasive role. This may including fghting to get different treatment or medication with less side effects.

    I fought my way through a variety of medications until I got the results that I was satisfied with. As a bioploar person, it is nice not the have the emotions raging out of control, but I would never have gotten the if I had been passive and just let the doctor make the decision. I was the only one that could nknow whe I actually felt better.

    I found the same need to fight on occasion witht he tea of doctor when pancreatic was trying to kill me for a year of hospitals.

    • Nimue Brown

      That’s a very good point and I suspect any approach you are able to engage with is going to be far more effective than something forced onto you that does not make sense to you.

  • Argenta

    I read a simple sentence somewhere (could it have been here, Nimue?) how depression is not a new thing — it used to be called alcoholim. Not in the sense that these are the same, but that people have been suffering from it for a long time, and tried to treat it in various ways, including inebriation.

    This idea was immensely helpful. It helped me transition from seeing depression as an illness (which was better than seeing it as “nothing, you’re being too sensitive”) to something normal, something people have encountered regularly. Not the best of positions to be in, definitely but also not something to hide or drug away — a part of life.

    Being depressed, for me, is not being touchy, or ill anymore — it is being human. And we need humane ways to deal with it.

    • Nimue Brown

      You are so right, re-thinking the ‘problem’ would do so much towards making it more manageable, if we were allowed to have slower days, days of needing to be quiet and withdrawn, it would be easier to deal with. Modern life is much to blame.

  • lornasmithers

    For me the problem stems from normative ways of thinking and society’s desire to control and label others who have a perception of reality that lies outside its norms. I’d agree that anxiety and depression, even psychoses etc. are part of what it is to be human and need to understood as facets of our integral nature, not aberrations.

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