Time Traveling with Depression: Stigma’s Story, Pt 1


Stigma is a problem for many people with depression or other mental health diagnosis. Even if we intellectually know it is not a fault or weakness, we still may react to the diagnosis as if it were. Taking a quick peek at the perception of depression through history helps make it clear why the stigma of mental illness is so darn stubborn.

The Ancient World

Depression has been written about at least since the heyday of ancient Mesopotamia. Attempts to find a cure for this problem are centuries old, as are individuals’ struggles to live with the symptoms. Depression, originally called melancholia, has traveled a bumpy road to achieve the level of empathy it receives today.

The Mesopotamians (second millennium B.C.) addressed depression as a spiritual or mental illness, not a physical one. Mesopotamian physicians treated illnesses and injuries of the body. Priests were called in to tend to those with mental illness since it was thought to be of demonic origin.

The ancient view of melancholia being caused by evil spirits was widespread. Ancient Greek literature reveals they too thought of mental illness as a visitation of demons. Exorcism techniques, including restraints, starvation, and beatings, were used by the early civilizations in China, Babylonia, and Egypt.

Greeks and Romans

Fast forwarding a few centuries, Greek and Roman physicians began to consider depression a psychological and biological phenomenon. Their more enlightened treatment plans included music, massage, exercise, baths and nutritious food. Although they could not pop an antidepressant, patients drank a potion of poppy extract and donkey’s milk to reduce symptoms.

The Greek physician Hippocrates believed mental illness was caused by imbalanced body fluids called humours. He viewed depression as an excess of black bile in the spleen. Besides prescribing treatments of bathing, diet and exercise, he recommended and practiced bloodletting.

The forward thinking Roman philosopher Cicero considered melancholia a result of mental and emotional states such as fear, rage, and grief. Unfortunately, his more modern view of mental illness diminished as the before-Christ era was ending.

Europe in the Middle Ages

When the fifth century rolled around, the Roman empire had crumbled and Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. People with mental illness were usually treated with starvation, leg irons, and beatings.

Europeans during the Middle Ages generally believed mental problems were caused by devil or demon possession, and some thought it was a contagious condition. Exorcisms were performed, and some treatments were really death sentences such as burning and drowning.

Light begins to dawn for Europeans when Robert Burton published Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621. In it he discussed both psychological and social reasons for depression such as isolation, anxiety, and poverty. Many of Burton’s treatment recommendations for depression are used today.

He suggested music therapy, distraction, nutritious diet, herbal remedies, and travel (change of scenery). On a less pleasant note, he recommended purgatives and bloodletting. Burton also considered marriage a treatment for depression, but you have to wonder if it worked for everyone who tried it.

As time slowly dribbled into the Age of Enlightenment, attitudes about depression continued to morph for better and worse. Though the suspense may be unbearable, this depression saga will continue in Part 2.

Nemade, Rashmi PhD, Staats Reiss, Natalie PhD, and Dombeck, Mark PhD. 2007. Historical Understandings of Depression.http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=12995&cn=5


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