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.