Hysteria, Demons, and More: Depression Throughout History
Depression due to demonic possession?
Yes, the notion’s ridiculous.
But through the centuries, people with depression have been avoided or persecuted because of reasons such as this.
Unfortunately, there's still a lingering stigma about depression today, despite a greater understanding of psychiatric ailments.
"Although it has changed over time, stigma is long-standing,” says Carl Walker, PhD, author of Depression and Globalization: The Politics of Mental Health in the 21st Century.
Here are 12 different causes of depression—according to the misinformed.
Hippocrates is credited with attributing depression—as well as other conditions like epilepsy—to an excess of “black bile.”
The theory was that there were four humors in the body—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—which influenced mood and personality.
If you had an extra dose of black bile, possibly in response to trauma, it could cause an imbalance of melancholy.
A light head
Thinking changed in Plato’s time, when it was first recognized that childhood experiences and family environment could play a role in mental illness.
However, the cause of depression was still murky, much less the appropriate treatment.
Because depressed people often said they felt light-headed, an ancient Greek “treatment” included wearing a lead helmet.
The weight of the helmet was supposed to make people fully aware of their heads, according to Walker.
Throughout the ages, sex has been used in a variety of ways to attempt to explain depression.
Many people do experience sexual side effects due to both depression and the modern medications used to treat it, says Walker, “but modern thinking is different” about blaming sex entirely.
Ancient Greek medical writer Philagrius is credited with prescribing an antidote of honey and ginger to cure depression brought on by a loss of excess sperm while asleep.
Needless to say, this didn’t go very far in explaining female depression.
Lack of sex
Other sexual explanations went in the opposite direction: Depressed patients were not getting enough action.
If you were depressed in ancient Greece, you might be prescribed a trip to the bedroom—despite the fact that low libido is a common symptom of depression.
Theologian St. Augustine proclaimed that depression was a punishment from God, bestowed upon people who had sinned.
"People didn’t have the social apparatus to make any sense of (depression)," says Walker. Instead, God’s favor or disfavor was “the root of it all."
The deepest depression was seen as an undeniable sign of demonic possession. To cure such an affliction, harsh punishments were prescribed throughout the dark and Middle Ages.
Many people with depression were simply sent away, but others were fined and imprisoned. The extremity of the punishments was “a way of creating a cure that paid the price of whatever transgression had made them fall out of God’s favor,” says Walker.
The Renaissance glamorized depression as less of an illness or punishment and more a mood or temperament of artists.
People began to consider it a precursor to creativity and artistic inspiration, an idea that exists at least in some form today, as we often associate depression with the tortured
Wealth and intelligence
Depression briefly became a status symbol during this time, when the condition was regarded as an illness exclusively of the rich.
“There was a period in European aristocracy where melancholy was considered a symptom of having high intellectual faculties, a higher understanding of the world,” says Walker, a researcher at the University of Brighton’s School of Applied Social Science in Brighton, England.
British travelers would come back from travels to Italy claiming that they had “caught” melancholy, he says. “It was quite fashionable.”
Lack of self-discipline
Age of reason
“As progressive, scientific, and secular types of thinking came in, religion and God as an explanation for all things fell out of favor,” says Walker. During the 17th and 18th centuries, “reason and rationality could solve any kinds of problems that people faced,” he adds.
No longer were people possessed by demons; instead the onus was on individuals to maintain mental health.
Torture and near-drowning became commonplace “cures” for depression, as physical discomfort was thought to distract people from self-indulgent thoughts.
Not surprisingly, many people became reclusive in order to avoid punishment, according to Walker.
Mental health asylums, which rose in popularity in this era, focused less on treating mental illness and more on punishing patients for their misfit personalities and refusal to conform to the rules of modern society.
These patients faced cruelties such as restraint, imprisonment, forced vomiting, beatings, bloodletting, and other tortures and public humiliations.
By the middle of the 1800s, depression was called other names, including the vapors, neurasthenia, and, perhaps most popular, hysteria.
The latter became a sort of catchall diagnosis to explain everything from depression to seizures to sexual dysfunction, especially for women.
Although it sounds too unprofessional to be true, doctors were rumored to have relieved women of the condition by manually stimulating orgasms.
Lack of drive
By this time, depression’s credibility had grown. But mental illness was still stigmatized as a disease that was keeping depressed people out of work.
The condition was seen to be in direct defiance of the American Dream.
Where others were benefiting from new surges in capitalism and consumerism, depressed Americans were thought of as having no initiative or work ethic.
Only half of depressed Americans get any treatment for depression, a 2010 study suggests. Often, depression's stigma continues to impede people’s paths to recovery.
Many view depression as a sign of weakness, expecting people to simply pull themselves together.
“Mental health problems are not the fault of the person so much as any physical condition,” says Walker. “But if you look at the number of people who still feel they can’t tell anyone, who are trying to hide the fact that they’re on medication, then it suggests that whatever people have got from this biomedical way of understanding depression hasn’t completely gotten rid of the stigma.”